The Internet Archive has begun digitizing the first of 40,000 tapes included in the personal television archive of Marion Stokes, who recorded them in her home.

The first part of the collection, a show called Input that Stokes's co-produced between 1968 and 1971 for a local CBS Network affiliate, is now available online. On it, panelists such as Mark Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut's son and modern memoir author, discuss issues such as “The Nature of A Religious Life in a Secular Age.”

In order to digitize each tape, it needs to be played by a cassette reader.

John E. Fryer, the first psychiatrist to confront the American Psychiatric Association about its classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, appears in the Input episode, “Puppet or Person?”

In addition to digitizing the tapes, the Internet Archive plans to create meta-data that make the collection searchable.

Much of Stokes' collection is recorded on Betamax, and the equipment to play it is quickly becoming extinct.

William C. Davidon, the man who helped expose the FBI’s spying on anti-war groups during the Vietnam War, appears in an Input episode called “Born Free?”

One box of many that holds Stokes's tapes.

The Internet Archive Wants To Digitize 40,000 VHS And Betamax Tapes

The Internet Archive has begun the long, grueling process of uploading to the Internet 40,000 tapes of television that a woman named Marion Stokes recorded in her home.

When Trevor von Stein first heard the story of a woman named Marion Stokes who spent decades recording television news, tape-by-tape, in her home, something resonated with him. "I just sort of tingled," he says. "I understood this woman a little bit." von Stein also had something akin to a hoarding impulse, though most of what he kept—a large music library, his photos—was digital. And he believed in Stokes’s mission. "From one kindred spirit to another," he says, "I thought we had to do it justice."

Soon after he learned about Stokes, von Stein became a volunteer at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that plans to digitize and make public the 40,000 tapes Stokes left behind when she passed away in 2012.

von Stein has spent the last six weeks immersed in the first of those recordings: About 60 episodes of Input, a television show that Stokes (then Marion Metelits) co-produced between 1968 and 1971 for a local CBS Network affiliate. Those episodes are now on the Internet Archive website for anyone to download.

Input looks nothing like the quick-cutting, drama-laden television of today. Each episode simply features a panel of people sitting in a half-circle formation. At the beginning of the show, there’s no introduction, just an abrupt entry into a conversation that has already begun. Topics tend to be grand in scope, things like "The Anatomy of Violence," "Where Is This Thing Called Love?" and "Black Reparations." Panelists’ titles include everything from "Black Panther Party" to "Mother & Divorcee."

Sometimes Input, which includes many long soliloquies and few edits, can be hard to follow. When von Stein showed the tapes to his dad, his father reasonably complained the people on the program were just talking heads.

Nevertheless, in this one small local show that was preserved through an amazing series of events—beginning with Marion Stokes's insistence on preservation and ending with her collection of tapes finding its way to the Internet Archive—a number of historically significant characters are featured.

William C. Davidon, John E. Fryer, and Mark Vonnegut

William C. Davidon, the man who helped expose the FBI’s spying on anti-war groups during the Vietnam War, appears in an episode called "Born Free?" John E. Fryer, the first psychiatrist to confront the American Psychiatric Association about its classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, appears in the episode "Puppet or Person?" Kurt Vonnegut’s son, Mark, appears in "The Nature of a Religious Life in a Secular Age." And from every thriving movement of the '60s—whether it be civil rights, anti-war activism, women’s liberation, or something else—Input seems to have invited a prominent guest. This is one reason that von Stein finds the tapes fascinating. He’s made audio copies he can play in iTunes. "I am driving and listening to them," he says. "I am taking a walk up Twin Peaks listening to them."

It’s not immediately obvious, however, exactly why it is useful to have this 45-year-old snapshot of intellectual discourse available online. Like many archivists, von Stein argues that’s not the point of preserving historical media. "I don’t know if it’s the Archive's or my job to figure out what good this will be for history in all of specificity," he says. "I have no idea what could come of this research material. I just want to see it happen."

Getting to that point isn't easy. Making Input publicly available is only a very small first step toward completing the massive task the Internet Archive took on when it accepted Stokes’s collection. Across the bay from the organization's headquarters, in its Richmond, California, archive, there are still about 40,000 tapes to sort through (originally Stokes’s family thought there were 140,000, but they had over-estimated). 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.

Meanwhile, many of the tapes, including Input episodes, are recorded on Betamax tapes, and the machines that can play them are nearing extinction. "There are a limited set of those available in the universe," explains Roger Macdonald, the director of the Internet Archive’s Television arm. "So we’ve started trolling eBay and the like, keeping an eye out for them, starting to purchase them and looking for people who can repair them."

Macdonald estimates that digitizing the collection will cost more than $500,000, and most of that money still needs to be raised. For now, the Archive is relying mostly on volunteers like von Stein, who look at the pile of decades-old tapes and see not just talking heads, but an invaluable portal into the past.

[Images Courtesy of Trevor von Stein]

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10 Comments

  • Michael Gardner

    Wonderful project ... one problem is that not all beta VCRs will play those early tapes if they were recorded in beta 1 speed. A Sony beta should be fine, but many other brands didn't include backward compatability and they can't play the faster beta 1 speed. I have a few Philly-based shows that I converted off betas and I should donate them and make the project run a couple of hours faster.

  • John Silva

    Sign me up for this. I've been doing this for YEARS. It's practically why I save CED's, Laserdiscs, VHS, Beta, and everything in between and transfer them.

  • I hope they are using a SAMMAsolo to migrate the content. They'll need to make sure the signal has a high quality comb filter, frame synch and more. Front Porch Digital's SAMMA line of migration computers would do the trick.

  • Has anyone looked into if Betacam SP decks can play Betamax tapes? There are a ton of professional Betacam SP VTRs on ebay that you can pick up for (relatively) cheap.

  • Jeremy Neish

    No they can't. Or at least I've never seen one that can. They operate at dramatically different tape speeds. I have at least 3 semi-funciontal Betamax decks though.

  • Christian Paulsen

    It's interesting seeing how quickly cutting edge technology becomes antiquated and how easy it is for old media to disappear.

    I can relate to this story, though on a much smaller scale. I recently transferred an audio journal I kept (about 13 cassette tapes) from 10 years ago. Listening to what was going on and what I thought was important definitely feels like looking through a window into the past.

  • I sure hope they aren't going to just use standard consumer-grade equipment to play these back! High end VHS (and I assume BetaMax) playback devices can get a MUCH higher quality signal, even from degraded tapes.

  • Bob DuChane

    Actually there isn't much difference in playback quality between a "good" consumer deck and a pro deck. The biggest differences were in construction. The pro units are more durable. In the beta world its even closer as Sony used a few chassis across the consumer and pro lines. I have been repairing vcr's for more than 25 years and you would be surprised at some of the similarities. Most of the Sony last gen chassis are built like tanks. I have about a dozen and they still run like champs. Albeit after some rework from the start.