Where Have All the Yearbooks Gone?

What does it mean for a campus when a yearbook stops publishing?

By Ann Whitcher-Gentzke

(Photo by Douglas Levere BA '89)

WHEN THE EDITORS OF UB’s last general yearbook titled it “Metamorphosis,” no doubt they were referring to seniors’ inner growth and their countless experiences since arriving as freshmen. But viewed today—as traditional yearbooks continue to give way to online social networking—the 2001 title is strikingly prophetic.

UB’s general yearbook was first called the Iris; beginning in 1934, it was called the Buffalonian. Throughout the years, imaginative yearbook editors often gave their publications individual subtitles, like “Metamorphosis,” “On the Rise” and “The Road Never Ends.” When the Buffalonian ceased publication in 2001, the reason was low student interest and demand, a phenomenon that has dramatically slowed college yearbook production nationwide.

While constituent yearbooks remain for UB’s medical, dental and pharmacy schools, the loss of the Buffalonian may come as a rueful, even painful surprise to graduates who didn’t realize it had vanished. For others, though, the demise of the yearbook can be seen as a natural progression to popular—and powerful—social networking sites like Facebook.

Even with today’s breathtaking digital competition, an old-fashioned yearbook can preserve the ephemeral moment for as long as libraries exist, or one’s personal archive escapes the dustbin. In 1948, UB chancellor Samuel P. Capen spoke to the permanency of the Buffalonian, as well as its ability to record the vivid impressions of campus life. “It is … a permanent record,” Capen wrote. “It enables the students who buy it and keep it to feel again in later years the full impact of scenes and personalities and events which meant much to them during their undergraduate days.”

Of course, Capen couldn’t have foreseen the explosion of digital technology that now penetrates all aspects of college and alumni life. Still, the loss of the Buffalonian poses thorny issues of preserving history vs. the practical needs of a digital culture.

“What is the institution’s responsibility to keep some kind of record of the people who attended it?” wonders archivist emerita Shonnie Finnegan, who for many years oversaw the university’s archival collection that includes yearbooks dating to 1898. Projecting how electronic records might be preserved for the long haul of history is now the subject of much debate and discussion among professional archivists, she says.

“No one has really found a way that Facebook and online publications can be captured and preserved,” says Finnegan. “Even if you have these on CD, it’s equipment dependent. In the future, you may never be able to access it if you don’t update it. But I think it’s a problem that will be solved, because there’s a need to have the information. We’re just in a transitional space right now.”

While traditional yearbooks are on the wane nationwide, an informal survey of his colleagues conducted by Graham G. Stewart, UB associate vice president for alumni relations, reveals that some universities, such as Ole Miss and West Point, continue to enjoy strong yearbook programs, perhaps because former high school yearbook editors are attracted to these campuses. At other schools, though, yearbooks are being scrapped—or actually folded years ago—because of low sales contrasted with the strong appeal of digital formats to young people, in particular.

Yearbook Design: A century of yearbooks also reveals an evolution of graphic design trends that includes art deco and a Mondrian-inspired design. Others have a less specific motif, or are merely curious—like the circus theme in the 1948 yearbook.

“It’s something that people haven’t paid attention to or thought much about for the future,” says Stewart. “It has real implications for the chronicling of our history and also our ability to connect with future generations of alumni. Yearbooks elicit memories to the point that you can often almost feel and smell the air when you see those photos. Without a yearbook, though, how do we create the same effect on people who leave the institution?”

Stewart says the move to online yearbooks was bound to happen because of technology. In fact, he says, the yearbook’s demise was foreshadowed by decreased student interest in the myriad activities that used to accompany yearbook production. “Few students were getting their senior portraits taken, financing the book has been a challenge nationwide and students typically made up the staffs of the yearbook,” Stewart says. “Moreover, it’s hard to sell—people tend to think that getting their yearbooks is a right of passage. Then there is the laborintensiveness of the ad-sales process in yearbook publishing, plus the higher cost of paper.”

Certainly, the value of a yearbook is not always evident at a big school like UB, even before dazzling digital communication grabbed hold of the popular psyche.

“Although I did enjoy working on the yearbook—meeting a lot of great people and gaining leadership experience—the college yearbook never seemed as meaningful to students as a high school yearbook,” says Staci Carter of Buffalo, editor-in-chief of the 1995 Buffalonian, now a store manager for Starbucks and a UB graduate student. “In such a large school, a relatively small percentage of students had their portraits taken and purchased the yearbook. Further, it was difficult to capture what is memorable and important to each student, with such a large group of people who had very diverse interests and areas of involvement.”

Jonathan Li, MA ’06 & BA ’04, of Washington Towns, NJ—now associate site producer for CNBC.com—was editor of the 2001 Buffalonian. Arriving at UB as a freshman, Li sought out the Undergraduate Student Association, asking if it had a yearbook committee he could join. “The next thing I knew, I was involved in producing the last yearbook the university would ever publish.”

When the Buffalonian made its final journey to the printer in 2001, it was a casualty of too few student orders vs. a total cost of about $30,000, or about $350 per book in actual production costs.

The headshot: The headshot has remained a yearbook mainstay from the end of the 19th century onward, giving the reader an often amusing trip down memory lane with changing hairstyles, attire and portrait photography trends.

Though understanding of today’s yearbook economies, Li says today’s Facebook offers only a limited solution for memory-making. “Granted, Facebook might be considered the ‘electronic’ version of a yearbook,” Li says, “but it just doesn’t have the symbolism of what a yearbook is meant to be. One can open up a yearbook and look back at the times they spent with their best friends, dancing at the junior semi-formal, studying at the library, etc. But on Facebook, the feelings of the past aren’t there.”

Offering a different view is UB Alumni Association president Marc Adler, MA ’83, MBA ’82 & BA ’79. Adler, the father of two college-age sons, enthuses about the easy utility and ubiquitous quality of social networking sites. “Facebook and other online community sites, like MySpace, offer much more opportunity to students than a yearbook ever could,” says Adler, who is partner with Flynn and Friends, a Buffalo marketing and communications agency. “Updates are almost instantaneous, you can make things private or public and you can communicate with a large number of friends at the same time. Especially with today’s impatient society, Facebook is the almost perfect solution.”

While Stewart says he’ll miss the bound annual, “future generations may be well-served with an electronic yearbook—very similar in format but archived electronically and searchable. And what a wonderful research tool it would be for alumni associations to have online access to the many yearbooks from other universities.” Some universities are beginning to do this. At Ole Miss, for example, the department of journalism is working on digitally archiving past issues of the yearbook and will eventually make them available online.

Today’s visitors to the UB yearbook collection are mainly concerned with genealogical research, says William Offhaus, MLS ’03, University Archives Special Collections assistant. “But almost as many questions come from people who are looking for photographs from particular years or periods of time,” Offhaus explains. “Other uses include the history of schools and departments, UB traditions and annual events, athletic teams and student organizations.”

Of course, yearbooks can be invaluable in quickly summoning the past. Anyone who has ever attended a class reunion knows about the often uneasy process of matching youthful yearbook photos with the person in front of you. Richard Hall, DDS ’67, BS ’64 & BA ’61, editor-in-chief of the 1961 Buffalonian, recalls unexpectedly meeting a UB classmate sitting in his dental chair at his practice in Pompano Beach, FL. “I didn’t recognize him. I asked him how did he come to see me? ‘Well, I sat next to you some 30 years ago at UB,’ he replied.” Hall says he went back to look at this patient’s picture in his UB yearbook, “so I could get an idea. Let’s face it, we all change!”

Today, Gayle (Watnick) Sporn, BFA ’74, layout editor of the 1973 Buffalonian and now an elementary art teacher in the French-American School in Larchmont, NY, finds herself occasionally looking at her college yearbook with its small-scale format and literary focus. While it’s not a daily activity, Sporn does like to page through her yearbook “to recap my past and also because I’m in the art field. Even with all the technology available, I do like to open my yearbook and see my past. It sparks a tender moment in my heart.”

Across the country, in Seattle, Sporn’s former colleague, 1973 Buffalonian editor Linda Teri, BA '74, has similar feelings about the value of a yearbook. Now professor of psychosocial and community health at the University of Washington, Teri had worked on the student newspaper and always enjoyed writing. “So after working on the yearbook staff, I was thrilled to take on the editorship—I remember the excitement, camaraderie and energy. I think the lessons learned are important: how to work with a very diverse group of people with a shared goal but with different skills and levels of commitment—how to work under pressure—how to plan short and long range, and more.”

Yearbook Photography: Whether in a collage or as a full page, yearbook photography conveyed a slice of campus life. Also apparent in these photos is what constituted socially acceptable college conduct for the era.

Many of the yearbook introductions, from the earliest volumes to 2001, speak of the arduous task of getting students to pose for photographs, building esprit de corps, mollifying editorial egos and dealing with printer deadlines. “Getting the yearbook produced seemed to be a perennial problem,” says Finnegan, adding that enterprising editors were, not surprisingly, the most successful in creating a memorable book.

Indeed, the entrepreneurial spirit was much in evidence in the mid-1980s when a group of students—Steve Allen, BA ’86, Tony Edmonds, BS ’87 & BA ’87, and Barry Minerof, BA ’86—produced a yearbook covering two years in the aftermath of financial problems that had occurred the preceding year. With no yearbook experience and a looming deadline, the staff frantically sought out others’ help. They overcame production hurdles and coalesced into an effective editorial team.

Today, Allen lives in Japan where he is an attorney for Osaka International Law Offices. “The previous year’s book had fallen into a financial fiasco,” he explains. Active in student government while in high school, Allen sought similar involvement after transferring to UB. But already in his senior year, Allen had little time for extracurricular activities and had to move fast. “I got some people together who wanted to make a yearbook, and we made one. We included the previous year and it paid for itself.”

David Pasinkoff, BS ’82, editor of the 1982 Buffalonian, also recalls the publishing atmosphere as heavily entrepreneurial. “I had to deal with total apathy from others—it was hard to get volunteers, hard to get students to get their pictures taken.” After beginning as Buffalonian photographer during his junior year, Pasinkoff took over the main job when the editor quit midway through. Now vice president of marketing strategy and development for Citi in New York City, Pasinkoff remained with the yearbook through his senior year.

“I suppose it was inevitable that print yearbooks would eventually go away in the digital age, though I do think it’s a little sad, too,” says Sharon Jarvis, BS ’94, of Ashland, MA, editor of the 1993 Buffalonian. Formerly with Harvard University, she now works in the IT industry as it relates to academic areas. “I had great times working on the yearbook and I would want others to have those experiences, too.

“In my career—though IT related—I have been involved with publications and have taken directly from my yearbook-related skills,” Jarvis adds. “Paper will never go away. I also think the permanency of a publication is lost with electronic media. Web servers go down, files get lost, etc., and if someone doesn’t want to maintain or host things, all those memories could be lost. The gain, if it can be maintained, is that the memories are much more personal.”

For his part, Allen unreservedly accepts the fading of traditional yearbooks. “Everything changes, and nothing changes. Who is to say whether it is better or worse? I am an 'early adopter,' and I like digitized-everything, so I prefer the new way.”

Perhaps the method of preservation isn’t so important as the will to recollect and record—however that may occur. “Memories are strange, elusive things,” reads the introduction to the 1944 Buffalonian. “They linger on and with fragile ties entwine the past to us. Then they slowly fade and wither and are gone forever. A note of sadness creeps in as we sense the loss of something old and loved.”

Pasinkoff, the 1982 editor, offers an unforgettable detail about UB memories preserved during a chance encounter. “Back in 2001, I crossed paths with someone I didn’t know who I found out was a UB alum from 1981. I had one extra copy of the yearbook left, gave it to him and he was blown away by the gesture.

“Only a yearbook could have that impact.”

Ann Whitcher-Gentzke is editor of UB Today.

To view a yearbook, visit the University Archives during its operating hours. Some yearbooks are available for purchase where extra copies exist.

View our exclusive online coverage of yearbooks and online social networking.

Related Reading: The Facebook Generation, The Yearbook Index, Repeat the Question