WGBH Media Library and Archives

When you think of the major historical events of the 20th century, chances are you remember them as they were broadcast over television and radio. . . sounds and moving images that have become a part of our collective consciousness. But what if those sights and sounds were no longer available? Such will be the reality if we do not preserve the moving images and sound recordings of our nation’s broadcast history.

WGBH is Boston’s public radio and television outlet. WGBH Media Library and Archives manages the programs and production media that document the public television station’s storied half century of broadcast history. The greatest challenge faced by WGBH Media Library and Archives today is guaranteeing that its documented collection remains accessible for research, reference, and re-use tomorrow—and well into the future.

WGBH Media Library and Archives faces the same daunting challenge shared by all moving image and sound archives: audio and video media are fragile, susceptible to chemical and physical decay, and have a short life expectancy. These factors, coupled with the obsolescence of playback equipment, require that such materials be routinely migrated to new formats. While film has a longer life expectancy, it too is prone to corrosion if not cared for properly. In addition to being a weighty task, the preservation of moving image and sound materials is costly.

Most organizations that generate moving image and sound archives, including WGBH, have minimal budgets for such efforts, making grant funding absolutely crucial. A successful WGBH preservation initiative was the Ten O’Clock News project, made possible in 2001 with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This award allowed WGBH to identify, preserve, and catalog 523 videotapes from its local nightly news and public affairs program, The Ten O’Clock News (1974 to 1991). The tapes focused on continuing stories about Boston’s African-American community and included coverage of the city’s public school busing crisis of the 1970s. All tapes were on obsolete 3/4 in. videotape and were showing signs of decay. The IMLS grant not only provided for the preservation and re-formatting of these tapes but also helped WGBH Archives create and launch a Web-accessible finding aid embedded with streaming video clips.

While the Ten O’Clock News IMLS grant is a true success story, WGBH Media Library and Archives is still working hard to preserve its rich radio and television archives, dating back to 1951. Among other treasures on tape and film are performances by Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a 1960s program of Pete Seeger singing the songs of Leadbelly, a 1958 interview with Edward R. Murrow about the future of television, and a talk with Robert MacNamara about the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as hundreds of readings by leading poets of the day, an extended interview on dance with the legendary Agnes DeMille, and a series of Aldous Huxley lectures. These few examples barely touch the surface of the tremendous preservation capacity of, and challenges faced by, WGBH Media Library and Archives. Only through external preservation funding can this invaluable piece of public broadcasting history remain accessible for future generations to learn from and enjoy. (Courtesy: Mary Ide, WGBH)