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C-SPAN Video Archive Goes Online
Posted On March 25, 2010
This news has made some people salivate and others snooze: 23 years of C-SPAN programming is now online. The C-SPAN Video Library ( is the latest addition to the C-SPAN ( family of cable, radio, and web resources. From the 1987 Robert Bork nomination hearings to the 2010 healthcare reform votes, more than 160,000 hours of C-SPAN's public affairs footage is free to search and view. Unfortunately, the curious can't go too far beyond viewing and linking to videos. C-SPAN sells the programs online and requires a license payment for commercial reuse of its programming. The only C-SPAN content considered to be in the public domain is its coverage of U.S. congressional floor proceedings.

Reuse restrictions aside, the Video Library is a rich source of material for educators, historians, journalists, researchers, and political news junkies everywhere. Searchers get indexed access to all content from all C-SPAN cablecasts dating from 1987 to the present. Why 1987? This is the year Purdue University began archiving the material; C-SPAN assumed archiving responsibility the following year. Tapes dating from C-SPAN's launch in 1979 through 1986 were not saved. However, C-SPAN does expect to add approximately 10,000 hours of miscellaneous pre-1987 programming soon.

The collection continues to grow as C-SPAN captures and archives new content 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, from its C-SPAN (House of Representatives floor proceedings), C-SPAN2 (Senate floor proceedings), and C-SPAN3 (public affairs programming) networks. Along with its coverage of official congressional proceedings, C-SPAN carries press briefings, speeches, and events such as party conventions and public policy forums. Given the range of events C-SPAN covers, the videos are not all stuffy policy programming. Look for comedian Stephen Colbert's remarks at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner or Jay Leno's 1991 appearance at the National Press Club, for example. C-SPAN also produces its own government-focused programs, including Book TV and Washington Journal.

C-SPAN has built an engaging interface for these treasures. The homepage immediately invites you to browse the most recent programs, the most watched (currently Oliver North's 1987 testimony before the Iran-Contra committee), or the most shared (North, again). The dedicated Browse page lets you browse by program name, event date, broad topic, or program type (news conference or viewer call-in, for example). Each video has a program description including a summary of the content, video length, event location, dates and times the program aired, and links to related videos. C-SPAN welcomes you to share video links via email, Facebook, and Twitter. The Share button under congressional and federal event videos has options to embed the video on your webpage or to make and copy a clip from the video.

With the Video Library's advanced search, you can limit searches to any of 10 fields, including program summary, a person's name or title, an organization name, event location, and transcript text. The transcript text is the uncorrected closed captioning C-SPAN crawls along the bottom of the screen. Within each program description, C-SPAN displays a timeline of transcript snippets to help you jump into the video midstream, but the full transcript is not displayed. From the program description, you can search within a transcript to find specific remarks, but these too are snippets linked to the video and not to the full transcript text. Transcripts are reliably available for searching in current years. There are no transcripts dating before 2003, and coverage is spotty from roughly 2003 to 2005.

C-SPAN has not provided any search help as of yet, so a few warnings are in order. The word search automatically looks for variations on your search terms; corn will find corners, Cornyn, and Cornhuskers. Use double quotes around a single word or phrase to limit results to exact matches. Another caution: In most cases, C-SPAN uses the full name of an entity and does not supplement the indexing with acronyms or alternative names. For example, many videos refer to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but none can be found by searching on AIPAC. (The Video Library team hopes to add supplemental names, or nicknames, for both people and organizations in the near future.) The program descriptions, with summaries and other metadata updated daily, are a great boon to searchers. With the lack of more sophisticated search power on corrected transcripts, however, browse becomes an ally.

The centerpiece of C-SPAN programming has always been the live airing of congressional floor proceedings. With C-SPAN, Americans have discovered the truth: Aside from the recent drama, watching the House and especially the Senate is sometimes like watching the grass grow. The Video Library has it all, from the fiery floor speeches to the tedious quorum calls. What is always exciting is that C-SPAN's live and unedited recordings stand as a check to the official Congressional Record. Although the Congressional Record is intended to be a verbatim report of proceedings, many speeches are not actually delivered on the floor but are revised or inserted into the Record by congressional request. The Video Library shines a light on this practice with its Congressional Chronicle feature. When the Congressional Record is published, usually the morning after the day's proceedings, the Congressional Chronicle maps the connection between the printed Record and the video for members of Congress who appeared on the floor to deliver or insert their remarks.

C-SPAN Video Library content can be viewed by anyone at no cost. Terms for reuse of footage beyond the public domain floor coverage are a bit more complicated. The Licensing and Permissions section ( explains "a license is generally not required to use C-SPAN's video coverage of federal government events online for non-commercial purposes so long as C-SPAN is attributed as the source of the video." C-SPAN's current policies went into effect after bloggers and others publicized the fact that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi posted federal government event footage from C-SPAN to the internet. The network responded with a March 7, 2007, announcement of a "liberalized copyright policy for current, future, and past coverage of any official events sponsored by Congress and any federal agency-about half of all programming offered on the C-SPAN television networks-which will allow non-commercial copying, sharing, and posting of C-SPAN video on the Internet, with attribution." The Licensing and Permissions section now provides an easy-to-follow menu of options for different types of content, users, and types of use.

C-SPAN is a private, nonprofit cable television network funded by C-SPAN affiliates as a public service. It is owned by the National Cable Satellite Corp., formed for the purpose of managing C-SPAN. The Video Library production and indexing is done at C-SPAN's West Lafayette, Ind., facility.

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting writes, trains, and consults on the topic of U.S. government information resources and policy.

Email Peggy Garvin
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