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Marion Stokes' Gift to the Future: 33 Years of TV News
Posted On October 1, 2019
The Internet Archive has done monumental work with more than 625 libraries and other organizations to create what is the world’s “digital library of internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.” In the past 2 decades, it has amassed more than 45 petabytes—which is about 45 million gigabytes—of server space that includes 330 billion webpages, 20 million books and texts, 4 million videos, 4.5 million audio recordings, and 3 million images. This is analogous to the impressive Library of Alexandria, the capital of knowledge of the ancient world. Given the amount of information produced every second today, the Internet Archive dwarfs even this.

In the past, libraries had to rely on the Vanderbilt Television News Archive for broadcast news, which began more than 50 years ago with the goal to “create, preserve and provide access to the news broadcasts from the U.S. national television networks.” These archival materials continue to be used by academics across the disciplines as a research base. However, due to copyright restrictions and news media concerns, access and use are constricted. The Vanderbilt archive “loads USB drives with the material requested from the collection and ships the items to your address. In compliance with the terms of the copyright law, all material is considered a loan and must be returned to the Archive. … A service fee is charged to cover the cost of producing these custom-loaded USB drives.”

Information professionals have long been aware of the changing and vital role of news information. However, one librarian prophetically saw not only the value, but also the ephemeral nature of information and knowledge in our era—and decided to do something about it.

Meet Marion Stokes

In her lifetime, Marion Stokes’ curatorial work was unknown. However, she was a woman of substance and intelligence. As her obituary notes, she “was the Philadelphia Chair for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in the early 1960s, active in the fight to integrate Girard College for Boys, jointly organized 5 buses from Philadelphia to the March on Washington, was on the founding Board of the National Organization for Women [NOW] and co-produced a Sunday morning television show in Philadelphia called Input from 1967-69 with her late husband, John.”

Due to early investments in Apple and other ventures, she spent her last decades as “an investor and philanthropist.” With the rise of 24/7 news stations, Stokes started her historic effort to record everything that they produced, beginning in 1979 and continuing until her death in 2012. That’s 33 years of continuous coverage that resulted in more than 71,716 VHS and Betamax tapes. Her son, Michael Metelits, credits the advent of the 24/7 news cycle and ABC’s Iran hostage crisis coverage as “triggers” for what some have called hoarding. But information professionals know better.

Bringing Stokes to the Big Screen

A documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this past spring. It provides some depth to Stokes, describing her as a “radical Communist activist, who became a fabulously wealthy recluse archivist.”

One reviewer notes, “Marion Stokes couldn’t have had better timing. While her project overtook her life and wasn’t fully understood while she was doing it, she was savvy, fully realizing the importance of a then-new technology and getting her foot in the door right as 24-hour news coverage became a giant force of American culture. Stokes remains something of an enigma, but watching Recorder, one thing becomes clear: We can learn a lot from the ability to rewind.”

A Variety review stresses the fact that “[f]or 30 years, she kept 3 to 8 VCRs going round the clock, 24 hours a day, taping multiple channels. She retained every tape, cataloguing and storing it, creating a running diary of television news coverage, from network to CNN to the cable channels that followed. Those tapes became her purpose and her lifeblood, maybe her identity.”

A Hollywood Reporter review notes the loyalty of her staff: “‘I think it was for the benefit of mankind,’ her secretary says about Stokes’ obsessive recording. It was good he felt that way, since he was in charge of pursuing videocassettes, a task that became increasingly difficult as the technology became obsolete.”

The documentary is currently being shown at other film festivals, and we can hope it hits at least some art house theaters in the coming months. The film was not available to view for this NewsBreak. However, it seems to be well-worth seeing. Librarians have been called many things, and obsessive isn’t such a bad label when the results are as stunning as this. I’m sure Noah faced criticism in building his ark.

Making History Matter

Imagine the value of these recorded programs to future generations—the Iran hostage crisis, presidential elections, famines, wars, and the everyday lives of people across the country and the world. So many years of critical world history made freely available—and searchable—over the internet.

News organizations have a very limited vision for archiving their content. In the year before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to students on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. I was asked to find a copy of the recording for a class (or even the transcript). One local television station reported that it did film the entire presentation and referred me to the state’s historical society, to which the tapes had been donated. The first problem was that the donation was received and accepted, but the historical society had no funds to properly curate the collection, so it sat in boxes in storage. The second problem was more serious: The tapes came in two separate parts—one set was the audio and the other was the video—with no easy way to connect them. So I wasn’t able to provide the recording.

Metelits initially contacted the Internet Archive in 2013, a year after Stokes died. Roger Macdonald, director of the Internet Archive’s television archive, notes that this is the largest collection the organization has ever received. His goal for the material is a searchable archive of U.S. national news coverage for the world. Today, the Internet Archive offers broadcast news content dating to 2009. Thanks to Marion Stokes, this coverage will grow in significant volume and depth.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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