In a storage unit somewhere in Philadelphia, 140,000 VHS tapes sit packed into four shipping containers. Most are hand-labeled with a date between 1977 and 2012, and if you pop one into a VCR you might see scenes from the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Reagan Administration, or Hurricane Katrina.
It's 35 years of history through the lens of TV news, captured on a dwindling format.
It's also the life work of Marion Stokes, who built an archive of network, local, and cable news, in her home, one tape at a time, recording every major (and trivial) news event until the day she died in 2012 at the age of 83 of lung disease.
Stokes was a former librarian who for two years co-produced a local television show with her then-future husband, John Stokes Jr. She also was engaged in civil rights issues, helping organize buses to the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, among other efforts. She began casually recording television in 1977. She taped lots of things, but she thought news was especially important, and when cable transformed it into a 24-hour affair, she began recording MSNBC, Fox, CNN, CNBC, and CSPAN around the clock by running as many as eight television recorders at a time.
She'd feed a six-hour tape into the recorders late at night. She'd wake up early the next day to change them (or conscript family members to do the same if she wasn't home). She'd cut short meals at restaurants to rush home before tapes ended. And when she got too old to keep up, she trained a younger helper named Frank to run the various recording equipment.
But the majority of her days were structured around paying attention to and saving whatever was on the news. "Pretty much everything else took a back seat," says her son, Michael Metelits. "It provided a certain rhythm to her life, and a certain amount of deep, deep conviction that this stuff was going to be useful. That somehow, someone would find a way to index it, archive it, store it—that it would be useful."
Stokes bought VHS tapes by the dozen. As she recorded, she made stacks so high they would fall over. The project took over several of the apartments she owned. "It was just a logistical nightmare—that’s really the only way to put it," Metelits says. When people asked her why her home was filled packed with televisions, recorders, and tapes, she’d tell them, "I’m archiving, that’s all."
To acquaintances, Stokes’s extremely time-consuming and expensive passion for archiving could seem eccentric.
Roger Macdonald thinks it's heroic. He's the librarian who runs the television portion of the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a free Internet library. Since 2000, his team has been recording national television news to a digital format in hopes of one day making it all part of a searchable archive (broadcasts from the last four years are already available). His system is much simpler than Stokes’ elaborate video cassette juggling act—it’s just a very small rack of computers with discs spinning and cables going in and out—but the visions behind both projects are aligned. "Television has been our most pervasive and persuasive medium," Macdonald says, "but we’ve never really had much of a pause and rewind button on our experience of it to reflect back on television news, to compare and contrast and mine it for knowledge."
When Macdonald heard about Stokes’s massive archive, he emailed her son for more information. He got an answer but it only made him more curious. So he called. "Everything I learned would ratchet my eyes ever wider. How many tapes are we talking about? How did that work? How did the family live like that? It’s just an amazing, amazing story." The Internet Archive had received large collections of 100 or 200 tapes from individuals before, but nothing quite like this.
John Lynch, the director of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive had a similar reaction. "Normally when we get someone who calls in about a collection, we try to send them somewhere else really quick, because the nature of our collection is that we record things ourselves," he says. But there was a special significance in what Stokes had accomplished.
Early broadcast news isn’t easy to find, Lynch says, because while networks often did a good job of archiving the footage they used to make the show, they were less meticulous about saving the show itself—a pattern he attributes to "a sense of modesty on their part." More recent news reports are more likely to be available from stations themselves, but stations typically charge an access fee.
The Vanderbilt Television News Archive is one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive collections of television in the world. It has its own news recordings going back to 1968, and researchers can borrow them on DVD for a small fee to cover the costs of operation. Having been sued by a network during its early days, however, the organization is careful about the way it shares its content ("We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we want to be careful to not mess it up," Lynch explains). It does not post all the footage online for anyone to access instantly.
The Internet Archive does want to make a television news archive available for instant search online. But it can’t simply borrow content from some place like Vanderbilt. It relies on donations for content recorded before 2000. So Macdonald agreed to accept, digitize and index Stokes’s archive.
"Some local news will be lost forever," he says, "but who knows, because there may be other Marion Stokeses out there who had that similar passion."
The Internet Archive wasn’t sure it would be able to digitize some of the older tapes, and Metelits sent them some samples to test. Arrangements have since been made to ship the rest of the tapes to the Internet Archive’s temperature-controlled storage center in Richmond, California. Shipping will cost Stokes's estate about $12,000. When the tapes arrive, they’ll sit until someone puts them into video players, one at a time, and begins to digitize them for the archive, a process almost as arduous as recording them in the first place.
"It will take a long time," Macdonald says, "Like the little engine that can, we’ll just keep plugging away at it."
There weren’t any provisions for the tape collection in Stokes’s will, but anyone who knew her knew she wanted them to be used as an archive. She had been born at the beginning of the Great Depression, and like many people of her generation, saved a lot of things. Scattered throughout the family's various properties, she had stored a half-century of newspapers and 192 Macintosh computers. But the tapes were special. "I think my mother considered this her legacy," Metelits says.
The value of home-recorded newscasts isn’t immediately obvious, but when the collection becomes public, there will likely be many unanticipated ways to use it. Lynch remembers one year, back when students at Vanderbilt still had to physically visit its archive in order to use it, he looked through the list of those who had done so. "Every single school inside the university had used us," he says, "Which meant the fine-arts school had found a reason why they wanted to look at old TV news. What happens is that when you make a rich collection available, there are the things you thought of, the reasons why you thought it was valuable, and those may be very much right—but what happens is that it turns out it has a life beyond that."
On a trip to San Francisco in September of this year, when he visited the archive, Metelits saw the first digitization of his mother’s work. There, on a screen, was Ted Koppel talking about the Iranian Hostage Crisis on Nightline. Metelits started to tear up. And he did again when he recounted the story. "The idea that my mother’s project could be useful to someone was really kind of an emotional moment," he says.
He recalled how Stokes had a habit of watching two televisions at once, and her son says she could pay attention to both at the same time. Plus, there were often several more televisions running without volume in bedrooms and hallways as they recorded other channels. It was a chaotic environment for most everyone but Stokes.
The day she passed away, December 14, was also the first day in a long time that no one changed the tapes. The house was quiet and absent the usual flickering screens casting frantic shadows. "Over time, I came to respect her project, but it wasn’t my project," Metelits says. "It did feel weird, but it felt oddly kind of... the apartments were kind of peaceful in a way they hadn’t been in a long time."
Had the TVs been on that day, they would have all carried news of the same event: the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.
"I got to the house and this horrific news was going on," Metelits says. "Kids being killed. Teachers being killed while shielding children, that sort of thing." He takes a pause. After about a minute he breaks the silence. "I remember being very grateful that that wasn’t the last news she saw."
Update: The Internet Archive received four shipping containers of Stokes' tapes in December. After conducting a sample inventory, it realized that the family's initial estimate of the number of tapes was incorrect. The collection is about 40,000 tapes large. "I think it’s daunting when confronted with many storage containers, 20- or 30-feet deep, to figure it out," Macdonald says about why the mistake was made.