National Public Broadcasting Archives

History-makers tour new archives

By Steve Behrens

The old-timers wandered curiously among the shelves, munching cookies and poking into file boxes, looking casually for their footprints in the history of public broadcasting.

It was the concluding field trip of this month’s Public Broadcasting Reunion [related article] — a bus ride from Washington to nearby University of Maryland at College Park, where the new National Public Broadcasting Archives is open for business.

Donald R. McNeil, the founding director, and Thomas Connors, his designated successor, showed off a facility that already has:

  • 2,500 shelf feet of corporate records from CPB, PBS, NPR and other organizations;
  • 360 shelf feet of personal papers and dozens of oral histories of the field;
  • 5,600 audio tapes from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, WAMU-FM and WETA-FM; and
  • 3,000 videotapes from PBS, WETA-TV, Maryland PTV and other sources, among other things.

Five hundred file boxes from Children’s Television Workshop are on the way, and 800 more reels from NPR.

Standing in the high-ceilinged, half-empty room in the basement of the university’s Hornbake Library, Connors invited the visitors to talk with the archives about old correspondence, reports and other items that might make the day of some future historian.

Many irreplaceble files and programs were snatched from the jaws of a dumpster by history-conscious station staffers. Indeed, McNeil said the idea for the archives arose when longtime PTV lobbyist Chuck Marquis mentioned wearily that he’d just dumped 119 old file folders.

That conversation, circa 1988, drew McNeil back to the world of archives where he’d worked soon after receiving his history degree in Madison. He managed the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s archives before going on to high university posts in Wisconsin, Maine and California and heading the University of Mid-America distance-learning network in the ’80s.

What we really want . . .

The new archives project broadened after McNeil proposed it to the University of Maryland, said H. Joanne Harrar, the university’s director of libraries. She consulted Maryland faculty, who expressed interest in the papers but really wanted access to the audio and video.

McNeil set to work soliciting donations of cash for the first four years of operation — nearly $800,000, including $200,000 from CPB, $135,000 from the Ford Foundation and $100,000 from PBS — as well as the donations of files and programs that make up the archives. The facility was dedicated in 1990 and opened to users (with appointments) this year, and will become a university project, directed by Connors on Jan. 1.

With this archives up and running, the university is talking with other media-related repositories about locating on campus. The struggling Broadcast Pioneers Library, long housed at the National Association of Broadcasters, has approved a proposed move to the campus. The university is talking with PBS about obtaining part of its videotape library. And the National Archives is expected to move a big chunk of its collection, including its audiovisual division, to the campus.

The audio, video and film deposits of the public broadcasting archives are housed upstairs from the paper storage and supervised by Allan Rough, head of the library’s nonprint media services. Rough plans to eventually preserve audio and video in duplicate analog and digital forms “to hedge our bets.”

The value of archives was demonstrated during the Washington reunion, when retired public broadcasting leader William Harley asked for a recording of a significant radio series to play during his remarks.

Though archivists couldn’t find The Jeffersonian Heritage where it was expected to be, they had the contacts to quickly track it down at NPR, which had kept it in its library.

This emergency search behind him, Connors stood among his visitors, leafing through the fully indexed, boxed papers of one of their elder colleagues. “Making order out of chaos,” he remarked, “is very satisfying work.”

As of 2012, NPBA is part of the University of Maryland Library’s Special Collections.
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