Video archives — a sinner knows the value of what she tossed
Dear Reader: I am pretty obsessed with television archives. And if you read on, you'll see that I have good reason to be.
I am by nature a keeper of things — clothes, newspaper and magazine clips, letters, photographs, tote bags and even foodstuffs (such as a 1983 package of pistachio pudding mix I came across recently). It is hard for me to discard anything that might be useful in the future or has the tiniest shred of sentimental value (the pudding mix belonged to my late mother).
However, in spite of my obsession for keeping many things, I authorized the destruction over a weekend more than 20 years ago of perhaps two-thirds of Connecticut Public Television's (CPTV) most valuable assets. At my instruction, some 200 one-inch videotapes were erased. CPTV and its viewers lost forever the minority kids series Lookin' Better; features about hundreds of Connecticut cultural icons on Nancy Savin — The Arts; performances by practically all the state's popular musical groups of the 1980s on In Performance; and political and news features on Connecticut Nightly, to name but a few.
Over those three days of destruction in the mid-1980s, I was doing my job (v.p. for programming at CPTV), reacting prudently to a budget freeze. Half the fiscal year remained and we had no funds to buy new videotape for our full production schedule. A less important consideration was that CPTV had run out of videotape library space.
Although the general manager praised me for this act of good "asset management," my entire staff was in a roiling rage. Though I tried to recycle even cheap videocassette copies of the producers' programs, some were able to flee the station with copies. At the time, I considered these rescues to be tantamount to thievery. To this day, these people refer to "Black Friday," when the debacle began, and they have never forgiven me. Over the last three years, I have learned painfully not to forgive myself. When CPTV begins to rebuild its archive, I may soon do penance by begging former colleagues for tapes they rescued from me.
The revelation that caused this turnaround for me came during one of David Liroff's future-of-digital talks at a PBS meeting four years ago. He said the major physical assets of the station were not its plant and equipment, which lose value at a hellish rate. Perhaps the only thing of real and lasting value, David said, was the intellectual property — old programs and the materials used to create them. That presentation quite simply changed my life. Among other things, I dropped my work on a second master's degree in the sociology of religion and began work in museum studies and archiving.
The first task for stations saving their intellectual property is to rescue what they have created in the past. The second is to create a system to preserve some of what they create in the future. In both cases, we must make the material searchable and accessible. The tasks require quite different processes and levels of commitment.
I have the luxury of focusing on the future of the past. As project manager for the Local Television Project of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS), my job is to get people at local television stations, both commercial and public, to care about this, too.
With funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), we are surveying commercial and public television stations and local cable producers to create a database of stations with archives. In addition, we are researching and writing case studies and materials on best practices, and we will hold a symposium or summit on television archiving in spring 2003, we hope in association with a major television organization.
Here's why we are doing this. Local television programming, while considered by archivists to contain the essential records of 20th century American life, is also recognized as endangered, often discarded or allowed to disintegrate over time. Archivists realize that most of the major historical events of the past century occurred locally before gaining wider attention. Purely local events such as parades and natural disasters, in addition, are the thread from which a local and larger culture is woven.
After nine months on the job, I can tell that it's difficult to get at the actual information about what a station does or does not hold as archival material. If we do get the attention of someone who knows anything at all about the old stuff, we find that almost all stations have some old film and tape on the shelf, mostly stored under deplorable conditions. Almost every station relies on the memory of an old-timer to find material for news backgrounders or nostalgia specials.
Many stations already have already erased or dumped much of the material produced locally over the past 50 years. If they have anything left, they find it almost overwhelmingly difficult to imagine allocating resources to find, catalog and preserve it.
I have yet to talk to anyone who has managed to keep at least some of the old stuff that doesn't have a desire to do something with it. Some are making laudable attempts. WGBH in Boston, is the best in the business, bar none. Although Arkansas ETV lost its early stuff, it has done a great job over the past 15 years or so saving, selling and reusing locally produced materials, including extensive Bill Clinton material. WNET has a relatively new archive, created when the station moved to its new quarters. Maryland PTV, Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver and others deal with their archival material in different ways.
I've visited one group-owned, big-city commercial station where two retired men in their 70s work almost clandestinely two days a week in the station's basement cataloging news film dating back to the late 1940s. They aim to get through the 1960s in the next two or three years.
At the other end of the scale, in Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Historical Society has a showcase and heavily funded project underway to preserve and make accessible the early materials of KSTP. The project is funded by Hubbard Broadcasting, the station's owner. I'll be examining other projects underway in Miami, Maine, Oregon and elsewhere.
Simply put, the AMIA project has as its goal for television stations to save their old stuff. We think that we can help stations save the material on their own, as WGBH does, or more likely do so in association with a local historical society or museum or educational institution, as in the case of KSTP in Minneapolis.
Sharon Blair is a freelance writer and project manager of
the Local Television Project for the Association of Moving Image Archivists.
She retired from Connecticut Public Television in 2000.
Web page posted June 28, 2004
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