Are College Yearbooks an Endangered Species?

Somehow, yearbooks have always been more than the sum of their parts. More than mere highlights of the year's events, those permanently smiling portraits always held—for me, anyway—the iconic poignancy of a frozen dream. But now yearbooks are receding from the cultural mainstream—at least at the college level. Like newspapers, these annual publications are under siege from the Web. Social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace allow users to share instantly the photos that once would not have been published for months, and enable college friends to stay in touch years after dorm life is done.

Rich Stoebe, the director of communications at Minneapolis-based publisher Jostens, says a recent survey by his firm found that more than 1,000 colleges and universities are still publishing annual yearbooks. That means, though, that a similar number of the nation's four-year institutions are not. Even universities that have kept their yearbooks are experiencing declining sales and funding cuts. Hard-bound volumes can cost up to $100, a sum that newly budget-conscious students may be unwilling to cough up.

Some schools are publishing yearbooks on CDs rather than paper. But it's hard to duplicate the thrill of the old-fashioned print version. "There is nothing better than turning the pages of a yearbook to see who signed it and the comments they left," says Joseph Carlis, who sells old yearbooks online. Facebook may provide an adequate substitute if all you want is to be reminded of who was in your class, he says, but it's not going to spark memories of those key moments in any given year. "A yearbook is something you can put up on a shelf for years," muses David Williams, a student adviser at Purdue University, which stopped publishing its Debris yearbook in 2008. "And when you take it down, it's like opening a time capsule." Popping a disk into your hard drive just doesn't have the same allure.