Origins, the CNS documentary service, completes 45 years


Covers of some editions of Origins (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Covers of some editions of Origins (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

By David Gibson

Origins, the CNS documentary service, recently wrapped up the last edition of its 45th volume, so we thought we’d share a bit of its history, compiled by David Gibson, the founding editor of Origins.

 A basic hope for Origins from the outset was that it could get important texts to subscribers quickly at a time when, typically, it took months to get a new document of major importance like an encyclical into people’s hands.

In this, I think it is safe to say that Origins exceeded expectations and surprised many. Today it must sound astonishing to many to hear how long it took just a few decades ago to gain access to these kinds of materials.

It really is difficult in talking about the history of Origins to recall how different things were in the early 1970s. One thing for certain, however, was that there was a huge interest in those years after the Second Vatican Council in pastoral ministries of all kinds, with speeches being given and pastoral letters being published continually on parish and diocesan ministries, and ways to make them more effective.

This was a boon to Origins. We never lacked for materials to publish that we were certain our subscribers would want to see because they wanted to put them to good use. I think, too, that in the early history of Origins many really welcomed the opportunity to see full texts of current speeches, pastoral letters and policy texts for themselves and to be able to view what today we might call the “sound bites” in their fuller context.

Origins started in what in hindsight looks like a completely different era of publishing. Its pages were typed on, yes, typewriters. Within a year or so we began to input texts for Origins onto a “computerized” typewriter of some kind. Naturally, we needed typists for this, and we editors did a lot of typing ourselves. But we usually were aided by a student or two from Catholic University who wanted part-time work.

In those days, too, we employed a graphics technician to do the corrections; if there was a typo, a corrected line was pasted in. It was all amazingly hard work, and we worked amazingly long hours at that time.

Covers of some editions of Origins, along with binders for entire volumes (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Covers of some editions of Origins, along with binders for entire volumes (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

In Origins’ first year, double-sided individual pages had to be stapled together. It was a huge development when, seeing that Origins was drawing some interest and gaining subscribers, the decision was made to take it to a more professional printer and Origins finally began to look like a real publication.

What Origins was in the beginning and what it became were really two different things altogether from the printing and promotion standpoints. In retrospect it is a minor miracle that Origins survived. Nothing was in place at CNS for handling what would become a quite influential publication in the U.S.

But right from the beginning Origins had a somewhat novel editorial approach for its time. Its premise was that readers would receive texts coming from different sources or representing different positions on the same news or pastoral-ministry issue and simply be made aware of what different people were saying about these things.

It was novel, too, to include the margin-note sections in the days before hyperlinks. In the margin-note sections, texts from past Origins editions on a topic discussed in the current week’s edition were listed. In this way the publication had from the beginning a sort of built-in reference system that always kept readers aware of all that was being said on given matters.

Each weekly edition was envisioned from the beginning as part of a larger conversation taking place in the church and in the general society. Origins always attempted to show how discussions of particular issues were ongoing and could be approached from various perspectives (from religious-educational, or social-justice, or pastoral-ministry or liturgical perspectives, for example).

Former special projects editor David E. Gibson and Origins associate editor Mary Esslinger confer in Washington circa 1971. (CNS photo/courtesy Mary Esslinger)

Former special projects editor David Gibson and Origins associate editor Mary Esslinger confer in Washington circa 1971. (CNS photo/courtesy Mary Esslinger)

The greatest joy for me is that all the texts that ever appeared in Origins now are available at and can be readily searched by subscribers on any given topic.

In this, as the retired editor of Origins who continues to serve the Catholic press as a freelance writer, I’ll bet I am Origins online’s greatest user. Whatever topic I am asked to write about, I go first to the Origins online archive, quickly searching out pertinent materials and collecting a background file of quotes and texts that help to stimulate my thinking. And guess what, this really works!

In the old days we used to say that Origins made it possible for subscribers always to have the most essential current materials at their very fingertips. And today, as a writer, it seems I always, and quite literally, have Origins at my own fingertips.

This entry was posted in CNS. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Origins, the CNS documentary service, completes 45 years

  1. Jeff Hensley says:

    Great to read the background on the founding and early history of Origins, David. It’s a great legacy, among many of your decades of service to CNS and all of us!

Comments are closed.