The Race to Save America's Public-Media History

A new archive is trying to digitize thousands of hours of tape from TV and radio stations across the country—before those tapes disintegrate.

Reels from the WGBH archive (WGBH)

There is a difference between knowing a fact of history and feeling its weight.

For instance, I know that there was once a girl who lived in Amsterdam named Anne Frank. And I know that she died in March of 1945 in a concentration camp called Bergen-Belsen.

But when I watch this 20-second clip of her neighbor's wedding in July of 1941, and see little Anne appear at an upstairs window, I feel the fact of her presence on this Earth, and her senseless eradication from it, acutely.

For myself, I have found many vectors via which a historical fact can gain on that power, to rise up from the past and just knock the breath out of you. Every now and then a play can do the trick; other times, a book or film, historical fiction or fact. Sometimes, all it takes is an image.

One surefire way to feel the emotional tug of history, for me at least, is to take in an event as it unfolded, via whatever media people at the time got their news. It's one of the reasons I love the annual streaming of the broadcast of the Apollo 11 landing, which unfolds at the same time of night on the same day of the year that the original would have. Suddenly, you can feel the tension and drama of the moment, despite already knowing the outcome.

It's for this reason that I'm so excited about a new effort to digitize the archives of America's public radio and television stations. When its public-facing website launches in 2015, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) will hold digital files of 40,000 hours of footage and audio tape that contain the second half of the American 20th century as it unfolded. Among those 40,000 hours will be interviews recorded as African-Americans struggled to register to vote during the Freedom Summer; there will be the live speeches and press conferences of Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan; there will be entire episodes of public-media favorites like Mister Roger's Neighborhood and Julia Child's The French Chef.

There will be moments like this one, as Edward R. Murrow took to the air to premiere WNDT, which later became WNET (known more commonly as Channel 13), the first public television station broadcasting to the New York metropolitan area. As he welcomes viewers, Murrow (smoking!) emphasizes the pride and purpose of public broadcasting, values that still hold true today: "Upon these airwaves you will see no commercials," he says. "The only thing this channel will sell is the lure of learning."

Today, pieces of history like that are stored on audiotape and film at stations and other institutions around the country. But those materials are fragile.

"The scary thing about it is that they are on physical formats that are deteriorating," Karen Cariani, director of WGBH's library and archives told me. "Video tape and audiotape is not a stable format. After 40 or 50 years, they are disintegrating. And the informationpictures, sounds on that physical mediumis disappearing. Unlike a piece of paper or a photograph that might last 100 years, media formats are extremely fragile."

By digitizing these archives, Cariani hopes to keep them intact and available to students of history for years and years down the road. The digital preservation files the archive creates will be held at the Library of Congress. "They have told us that their mandate is to preserve that material for the life of the republic plus 500 years," Cariani says. "I don't know how they start that clock or how they do that, but that's what they told us and we decided that was long enough." (Of course, digital preservation has its own challenges, but Cariani prefers not to dwell on that: "I start feeling nauseous when I start thinking about how you actually assure digital preservation," she adds.)

The initial goal of 40,000 hours of digitized content will be pulled from 100 different stations across the country. That figure—40,000 hours—may seem daunting, but it's a tiny, tiny fraction of what's out there. To digitize more, the archive will need a new source of funding after its current $1 million, two-year grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting runs out.

Over the next three weeks, The Atlantic will take you on a tour of this collection of American history, captured as it unfolded, at radio and TV stations across the country. Every day, we'll be publishing one clip of digitized public media from the AAPB. There will be the voices of those we know well, and those we have not yet met. There will be crises and triumphs, music and humor. And, we hope, there will be those bits of the past that will help you to do more than know a fact of history; they'll help you to feel it.

Editor's note: I will be updating this page with links to the series as it goes online. Here is what is up so far:

1. Listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra Stop a Performance to Announce JFK's Assassination

2. Thurgood Marshall: The Constitution Had to Be 'Corrected'

3. Patty Griffin, Before Anyone Had Heard of Her

4. Julia Child 'Edits' Videotape

5. Eleanor Roosevelt Talks to John F. Kennedy About the Status of Women in Society

6. Not Exactly Jimmy Fallon

7. Newly Digitized Footage Reveals an RFK Speech One Week Before His Assassination

8. Beyond 'the Dream': The Lesser Known Moments of the March on Washington

9. Video: Ronald Reagan's Press Conference After 'Bloody Thursday'

10. A Glimpse Into 1970s Gay Activism

11. The Courir de Mardi Gras