Vanderbilt Television News Archive goes "digital" on its 35th anniversary

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ñ The Vanderbilt Television News Archive, the world’s most comprehensive collection of television network news programs, marks its 35th anniversary next week by going digital.

Since Aug. 5, 1968, archivists at Vanderbilt University have preserved on videotape and indexed nearly 40,000 hours of network news just as they aired on television sets throughout the nation. Complete videotapes of television news programs were not saved on a regular basis until the Vanderbilt collection was begun. Over the years, the collection has been used to study everything from the Vietnam War to a comedienne trying to imitate President Carter saying "mighty fine." Footage from the archive has also been used in such television programs as Sixty Minutes, Nightline and Nova.

Abstracts of individual programs, first made available to researchers in print, have been compiled electronically and made available over the Internet since 1994. Using the abstracts to locate items of interest, researchers can borrow copies for a fee by ordering over the Internet. Now the archive has taken another giant step into the Digital Age with the purchase of new digital recording equipment, made possible through a private donor. The non-tape recording will allow for quicker handling of client requests and reduced labor costs. Requests will continue to be filled on videocassette, but the archive is now positioned to take advantage of the many benefits of digital recording.

"In the future, there is the possibility of loaning DVDs or even streaming content directly to an end user so he or she doesn’t have to order a tape," said Marshall Breeding, library technology officer. "In the present, it allows for faster response time for loaning tapes."

All of the records that already exist on tape will now have to be transferred to digital format. "Our challenge now is that we have almost 40,000 hours of material on individual videocassettes that human hands will have to touch ñ one by one ñ to put them in digital format," Breeding said.

The change was prompted by the realization that "the three-quarter-inch Umatic videotape we had been using for more than two decades to record news programs was rapidly becoming obsolete," said archive director John Lynch. But deciding on a format while the technology continued its rapid evolvement was problematic. A National Science Foundation grant of $93,000 enabled archive staff to research thoroughly and test the various options for setting up a digital recording operation before deciding on the MPEG-2 video standard. Breeding noted that in the same way that the recording on videocassettes has become dated, there is probably no digital format that will last forever either. But he said he hopes that as the technology changes from one digital format to the next generation, the transfer process can become largely automated.

The primary collection contains the evening news programs of ABC, CBS and NBC dating back to Aug. 5, 1968. In addition, the archive has copies of some of CNN’s news programs daily from January 1989 to the present. The collection includes comprehensive coverage of ABC’s Nightline since September 1988 and selected programs dating back to its inception during the Iran hostage crisis. The archive’s first specials were the 1968 Republican and Democratic national conventions. More recent special programs taped by the archive include the extensive news coverage of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the war in Iraq.

"We actually believed that when George W. Bush became president, we would have fewer events to tape than during the Clinton administration," Lynch said. "That turned out to be incorrect. Bush’s speeches tend to be shorter than Clinton’s, but they are happening more often."

The archive was created by Nashville insurance executive and Vanderbilt alumnus Paul C. Simpson. It is a non-profit organization that depends on grants and contributions.

Public tours of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, which is located in the Baker Building, will be available on Aug. 5. In addition, there will be a special presentation that morning about the archive’s major milestones. Since space is limited, those interested in attending are asked to call 322-2927.

Media contact: Ann Marie Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

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