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By Alan Gevinson, Ph.D., Project Director for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting at the Library of Congress

Digital technology not only offers a means for creating a universally acceptable archive but also allows the materials to be repurposed in a thousand different ways for educational and journalistic purposes.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting1

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting, a collaboration between WGBH Educational Foundation and the Library of Congress, was instituted in 2013 to coordinate a national effort to identify, preserve, and make accessible as much as possible the historical record of publicly funded broadcasting in the U.S. While the need for a public broadcasting archival initiative was recognized nearly fifty years ago, efforts and funding to methodically implement a nationally coordinated program did not begin in earnest until the advent of the digital age in the 21st century.

20th Century – A Proposed “Library and Archives of Noncommercial Educational Television or Radio Programs”

The earliest conception of an archive of public media can be traced back to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and mandated it “to establish and maintain a library and archives of noncommercial educational television or radio programs and related materials.”2 A decade later, however, an internal Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) report concluded that after 24 years of noncommercial television, “there is no program archive or aural-visual history of public television in the United States…. There is no full-time staff member at any national public broadcasting organization who devotes his time exclusively to archive planning -- let alone implementation.”3 The report held out hope that with the recent passage of the American Television and Radio Archives (ATRA) legislation as part of the Copyright Act of 1976, the Library of Congress would develop a comprehensive plan “to preserve the nation’s radio and television history, both commercial and non-commercial.”4 ATRA called on the Library to establish such an archive in order “to preserve a permanent record of the television and radio programs which are the heritage of the people of the United States and to provide access to such programs to historians and scholars without encouraging or causing copyright infringement.”5

After ATRA’s passage, PBS donated preprint elements for some 10,000 programs to the Library.6 PBS also established its own Public Television Library and Broadcast Archive in 1979, but the archive ceased operations in 1983 in response to a lowered budget forecast.7 Ten years later, PBS and the Library of Congress entered into an agreement consistent with ATRA for the transfer of the “best copy” of “all PBS programs that have been or will be broadcast ... for which PBS has not held distribution rights for at least 12 months, as well as related cataloging materials in hard and machine copy form.”8 Similarly, in 1976 the Library entered into the first of a series of agreements with National Public Radio (NPR) to acquire, preserve, and provide researcher access to NPR arts, cultural, and performance program tapes dating from 1971, the year that NPR began operations, to 1991. NPR news and public affairs program tapes dating from 1971 to 1988 were stored at the National Archives.9

Two additional public broadcasting archival initiatives of importance coincided with these efforts. In 1979, the first public broadcasting station archive was founded at WGBH, which “established a formal records management and archives program staffed by fulltime professional archivists,” a program that remained unique among public broadcasting stations in its professionalism for many years.10

Second, the National Public Broadcasting Archives (NPBA) at the University of Maryland was established in June 1990, with a concentration in its early years on preserving documents pertaining to public broadcasting entities, including the textual records of CPB, PBS, and NPR. Beginning in 1993, NPBA began to acquire moving image and audio materials as well as paper documents from selected institutions, including WETA, PBS, Maryland Public Television, and the Agency for Instructional Technology.11 NPBA’s curator, however, qualified the scope of the organization’s archival efforts that its name might seem to imply, stating, “While it is impossible to serve as a national central repository for all public television and radio stations, it is within NPBA’s mission to advise and assist stations in establishing archives or work out archival service agreements between stations and local universities or historical societies.”12

Aware that a “cohesive, nationwide effort to safeguard and preserve American television and video” was needed due to “the impermanence of videotape with all its formats, the massive volume of generated material, and the decentralized and fragmentary nature of production processes in the United States compared to those of other countries,” the Library of Congress in 1994 called for “a national study on the state of American television and video materials” and the “development of a national television and video preservation plan,” promising to seek congressional authorization and funding under the framework of ATRA to undertake these initiatives.13 The resultant study, Television and Video Preservation 1997, included a section on public television that began

Despite historically small audiences, public television has been responsible for the production, broadcast, and dissemination of some of the most important programs which in [the] aggregate form the richest audiovisual source of cultural history in the United States. In an age where the multiplicity of cable television program outlets has shifted the paradigm to noncommercial/public television, it is still not easy to overstate the immense cultural value of this unique audiovisual legacy, whose loss would symbolize one of the great conflagrations of our age, tantamount to the burning of Alexandria’s library in the age of antiquity.

In contrast to this elevated prose, the study revealed that practically, “neither PBS nor the Library is in a position to accept or prepare all the materials for transfer” according to the terms of their 1993 agreement. “PBS needs assistance to inventory and prepare the balance of materials for transfer,” the study pointed out, and the Library “requires additional storage space and processing staff to handle them.”14 Similarly, a representative from a leading public broadcasting station spoke for many in the archival and public broadcasting community when he lamented that “having created a unique video record of American arts, ideas, history, nature and sciences, public television is far too financially vulnerable to salvage what it has created.”15

Despite these apprehensions, the study maintained an optimistic attitude. PBS, it noted, stored the master materials that had not been transferred to the Library in a climate controlled facility. Descriptive information about individual programs was not publicly accessible, however, and “no single centralized inventory or descriptive database system” existed.16

In addition to surveying nationally produced and distributed public broadcasting preservation efforts, the study addressed the state of local programming preservation practices as well. “There are many affiliate productions that were never broadcast on PBS,” the study stated, recommending that the system’s 345 affiliates should “identify their own indigenous programs and make them a priority for preservation.” The NPBA curator noted that “a lot of moving image material out there is collected in historical societies and stations ... under environment conditions that are less than optimal.”17 Even WGBH, public broadcasting’s most professional station archive, lacked proper facilities to store color film – which made up 85% of its film collection – for the long term.18

The study offered a plan for the future that prioritized coordination to help stations and archives make informed preservation decisions, more funding for preservation, and increased professionalism:

Probably the greatest need to shore up the preservation activities of public broadcasting is simply coordination, which can be brought about by the sharing of information.…

The creation and sharing of comprehensive inventory databases seem essential for achieving any real success in coordinating the efforts of affiliates….

Since the Library of Congress has assumed responsibility for storing, processing, re-formatting and servicing all past, present, and future PBS transmissions, the Library will ultimately require additional funding which should come from CPB….

Affiliates that are part of state or municipal entities should seek local or regional funding for preservation activities ….

Affiliates should take a close look at the WGBH Media Archives and Preservation Center as a model for some of the larger producers of programming material.19

At the end of the 20th century, scattered initiatives by professional archivists to preserve public broadcasting materials produced for national broadcast were underway. Hundreds of stations across the nation stored millions of public broadcasting assets under less than optimal conditions. An important study had produced recommendations for the future. Shifts in broadcasting technology soon would offer an opportunity for implementing an exciting new approach to meet the many challenges of preserving public broadcasting materials.

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