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Correction to This Article
-- A photo caption with a Jan. 27 Metro article about the demise of college yearbooks misstated the last name of a student pictured working on one of the yearbooks that continue to publish, the Talon at American University. She is Diana Bowen, not Bower.

Yearbooks ending at University of Virginia, other colleges

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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Last spring was the first time since World War II that University of Virginia students did not publish their yearbook, "Corks and Curls."

No one seemed to notice.

This school year, despite hopes that the yearbook could be resurrected, no staff has formed, and the yearbook office is dark. The Cavalier Daily, the student newspaper, reported this week that "Corks and Curls" had died one year shy of its 120th edition for lack of funding and student interest.

College yearbooks have been slowly disappearing as campuses expand and diversify and students' lives move online, away from paper records of their college memories. The thick volumes can cost as much as $100 each at a time when some students have difficulty paying for textbooks.

"This is a sad thing for many people, but I think it's also a sign of the times," said Aaron Laushway, an associate dean of students who pulls out old yearbooks to explain U-Va history and traditions. "The idea of having a physical binder of reminders of an academic year is waning."

In the past two years, several universities have closed their yearbooks. Towson University near Baltimore sold about two dozen yearbooks to its more than 20,000 students last year and is considering not printing one this year.

Yearbook publisher Jostens estimates that about 1,000 colleges, mostly small campuses and liberal arts schools, still produce a yearbook.

"Today, you have larger campuses with satellite campuses . . . and student populations that cover such a diverse group, from high school graduates to working adults to online students," said Richard Stoebe, the company's spokesman. "Successful yearbooks are inclusive. That's obviously tougher to do in college."

A slow demise

College yearbooks have been in slow decline since campus life changed in the 1960s and '70s, Stoebe said. Recently, several large schools, including Purdue University and Mississippi State University, have folded their yearbooks.

Schools that have yearbooks have tried attracting the Facebook generation with year-in-review DVDs or online features or have switched to digital yearbooks to save money. Some universities have begun to fund the creation of the yearbook or added the price to student fees. Others campuses have transferred responsibility for the project to alumni associations.

The student government at St. Mary's College of Maryland decided to pay small salaries for the yearbook editor and staff members this year so the struggling publication could stabilize and determine its direction, said Clinton Neill, coordinator of student activities.

"Technology is changing," he said. "Other schools are looking at other ways of documenting their years. Maybe we can look at some of those ways for documenting our years."

Yearbook staffers and campus historians gush about the importance of yearbooks, how they capture an academic year and preserve it for future generations. Even the titles of the books evoke student life from long ago: Georgetown University's yearbook is called "Ye Domesday Booke." Johns Hopkins University calls its yearbook "Hullabaloo."

"With yearbooks, you look at them the first day you get them, then you put them away and don't look at them for years," said Ashley Kemper, 22, editor of American University's yearbook, "The Talon," which sells about 400 copies a year to the campus's 6,000 undergraduates. "We try to give things context. Fifty years from now, people can open their yearbook and remember what it was like."

A long tradition

U-Va.'s "Corks and Curls" was first published in 1888 by a group of fraternity members, making it one of the oldest college yearbooks in the country. Its name captured the two types of students on campus: "Corks," who were unprepared for class and corked up when called on, and "curls," who when patted on the head by admiring teachers "curleth his tail for delight thereat."

The old volumes trace the history of the prestigious school, as the artwork transitions from pen-and-ink sketches to black-and-white photos to color layouts.

"It was a tradition; it had a lot of history," said Lorenzo Mah, 27, a 2005 graduate who worked on the yearbook for four years. "I don't think there are a lot of yearbooks that have been around for more than 100 years."

Early editions contained "statistics" of the average student's height, weight, hair color, religion, bedtime and expenses, showing that he was white, male and wealthy. Those early copies also contained caricatures of blacks and racist language. The first African American student graduated from the university in 1962, and the next year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke on campus, but neither event is documented in the yearbook, according to a history of the yearbook written by Whitney Spivey, who graduated in 2005.

When women began to enroll in 1970, the all-male yearbook staff joked: "There are ads for women's lingerie in the Cavalier Daily, and there are 42 rejected urinals in the men's dormitories, and there are lipsticks and powder puffs and false eyelashes and bride's magazines in Newcomb Hall, and there are painted fingernails waving in the faces of professors." In 1975, the first female yearbook editor was elected.

Little hope seen

But by about 2003, the U-Va. yearbook began to run into financial problems. One year, the book was finished late and the organization went into debt mailing the heavy 500-plus-page volumes to students who had graduated, Mah said. By that point, there wasn't enough money in the budget to pay for staff pizza parties.

The last yearbook was published after the 2007-08 school year. The next year, another staff got together and excitedly began to plan the school's 120th edition but realized there was not enough money or student interest to continue, said Michelle Burch, an economics major who was co-editor in chief that year. The yearbook has been suspended since.

"Can 'Corks & Curls' be revived? I don't know," Burch wrote in an e-mail. "It would take a completely different approach to bring it back to life in this digital world."

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