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Longtime Archivists Outline What They've Learned From Watching Decades Of News


For 50 years, an archive in Nashville has meticulously recorded the national evening news.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: From ABC, this is "World News Tonight" with Peter Jennings...

CHANG: It now has so much footage of TV broadcasts that it would take nearly 6 1/2 years to watch them all back to back. So Emily Siner from member station WPLN talked to some longtime archivists about what they have learned from decades of watching the news.

SKIP PFEIFFER: Is this going up or down?


EMILY SINER, BYLINE: In a basement on Vanderbilt University's campus, Skip Pfeiffer leads me past rows of metal shelves lined with video cases.

PFEIFFER: You're one of the few people from the outside world who've been down here.

SINER: His colleague, Russ Mason, pulls down a case with an old reel-to-reel tape inside.

RUSS MASON: A recording of Jimmy Carter's inauguration on January 20, 1977.

SINER: News clip-sized bits of history are stored throughout this archive...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: If you want to meet Julia Hill, you have to go up - way up.

SINER: ...Like an environmental activist in the '90s who lived in a tree or the ban on smoking ads in the '70s.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It marks, as we like to say, the end of an era. It's been a long era.

SINER: This archive was founded in 1968 by a Vanderbilt alum who was shocked to find out that TV stations of the time did not hold onto their broadcasts. It's since become a treasure trove for researchers who sometimes visit for weeks at a time to comb through tape. Others can pay a fee to get a copy mailed to them. One man, Robert Sheldon, came to the archive in search of a clip of his father who is featured in a Charles Kuralt "On The Road" segment.


CHARLES KURALT: For 25 years, Don Sheldon has been flying in a single-engine airplane with skis where the wheels ought to be up among the peaks of the Alaska Range.

SINER: Preserving these decades of broadcasts can be a monumental task. Pfeiffer and Mason both started at the archive in the '70s, and they've seen generations of recording technology - reel-to-reel tape, video cassette...

PFEIFFER: And then we had to convert all of that to disc. The discs became obsolete once we had the cloud. But everything remains as a backup to backups to backups.

SINER: Is there something after the cloud?

MASON: Sure there is but (laughter) we're going - Skip and I will be retired by the time...

PFEIFFER: I was going to say dead.

SINER: In some ways, this archive is becoming less essential. It's easier than ever to store video, and similar projects have popped up in the past decade. For example, the site the Internet Archive uses facial recognition technology to quantify who's on the news. Vanderbilt is starting to collaborate with them to figure out how to stay relevant, but it does have a unique strength in its comprehensiveness and accessibility. Every individual news clip from the past 50 years is indexed in one place, and it's all searchable online. And this, Pfeiffer says, allows us to learn something about ourselves.

PFEIFFER: If you came here in 1968, '78, '88 and '98, you could find stories on violence in the Middle East and, you know, Kilauea volcano is erupting now.


LESTER HOLT: Kilauea, one of Hawaii's most active volcanoes, has been erupting since May.

PFEIFFER: You can find footage of that in the '70s.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Kilauea volcano on the island of Hawaii erupted yesterday.

SINER: So his takeaway...

PFEIFFER: You know, the reporters come and go. The presidents come and go. But, you know, the American people stay basically the same.

SINER: And if anything changes, the Vanderbilt archive will have it captured on tape. For NPR News, I'm Emily Siner in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GO! TEAMS' "EVERYONE'S A V.I.P. TO SOMEONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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