From 1977 to 2012, Marion Stokes recorded television news. In those 35 years, she filled 40,000 tapes with decades of stories big and small, local and national. After her death three years ago, her family decided to donate the strange and culturally significant collection to the Internet Archive, but what then? How would people view all of Stokes’s recordings?

Fast Company, who first wrote about the tapes in 2013, has followed up today with a piece about the tedious process of digitizing tens of thousands of VHS and Betamax (Betamax!) tapes. The work is far from easy, and relies on volunteers with a passion for old news.

In order to preserve the tapes, each one needs to be played back on a cassette reader. That takes time. And in addition to preserving the actual footage, humans must input meta-data that can help people explore the footage. Simply cataloging 537 VHS tapes on a spreadsheet for a sample inventory took an Internet Archive employee about 16 hours.

And it’s not just time consuming - it’s expensive. Roger Macdonald, a director at the Internet Archive, “estimates that digitizing the collection will cost more than $500,000.”

Most of that money still needs to be raised. For now, the Archive is relying mostly on volunteers, who look at the pile of decades-old tapes and see not just talking heads, but an invaluable portal into the past.

You can view the first round of completed digitizations now.

On a related note, please contact me if you’d like to help digitize my father’s [significantly smaller] collection of PBS documentaries, major ‘80s and ‘90s series finales (M*A*S*H was even recorded on SP!), and movies of the week.


Contact the author at bobby@jezebel.com.

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