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WGBH helps digitize history

Digitized footage includes a 1991 Barack Obama speech.

It's easy to find the first season of "New Girl" on the Web, but what about something more substantial from television's archives? Maybe a vintage interview with Thurgood Marshall? Perhaps rarely seen footage of John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail?

Even Netflix isn't going to be much help there.

But WGBH and the Library of Congress are collaborating on an ambitious project to build the first comprehensive digital archive of content from the nation's public broadcasters and will eventually make it available to the public over the Internet.

WGBH and the Library of Congress will jointly establish a permanent home for the archives with the help of a $1 million grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that was announced Thursday.


The collection will include key moments in American history, such as coverage of the 1963 March on Washington, one of Olympian Jesse Owens's last interviews, and early reports on the US space program. The archives will also memorialize events captured by local public broadcasters in their communities, such as the WGBH radio broadcast in 1963 from Boston Symphony Hall, when BSO conductor Erich Leinsdorf told the audience that JFK had been assassinated.

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting will include 2.5 million pieces of content from more than 100 national and local broadcasts — some 40,000 hours of which will be digitized over the next two years. Much of the content will be entire shows, such as "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and Julia Childs's "The French Chef," but the archive will also feature raw footage, unedited interviews, speeches, and live music.

For instance, WGBH is making available footage it shot of a rally in Cambridge in 1991 where Barack Obama spoke while he was a student at Harvard Law School. The Obama footage was not included in the original broadcast on the station's "Ten O'Clock News" show.


"It's our cultural history. It's the history of our country. It's the history of our local communities. It's the history of national content," said Karen Cariani, director of WGBH Media Library and Archives.

Julia Child footage will be digitized.

WGBH already has its own online digital archive, and the Library of Congress maintains the country's biggest collection of historical public broadcasting content. But the American Archive project began in 2007 to create a coordinated nationwide effort to collect, store, and make publicly available content from public stations.

The effort is also about preserving radio broadcasts, television shows, and key interviews that date back to the 1950s that may otherwise be lost to age and decaying film stocks. Much of the content for the archive has been culled from the basements, corners, and closets of large and small stations alike, and so far about one-third of the material has been digitized.

"It's in danger. It's at risk," said Alan Gevinson, the Library of Congress curator of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. "We've got to make sure we preserve this kind of material before it deteriorates."

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has so far contributed about $9.5 million over the past six years toward the project. Most of that money has gone to local stations so they can inventory, categorize, and digitize content.

Footage of Mayor Kevin White at a 1968 James Brown show will also be included.

With the latest $1 million grant, the Library of Congress and WGBH will build a database to house those digital files and create an online platform for the public to access them. WGBH will head up efforts to create and maintain the website for the archive. It was one of the first public broadcasting stations to create a digital archive and searchable website, Open Vault, for its own content.


It could take several years for the archive to be fully available to the public. One of the next steps will include working out various rights issues so that once the content is digitized it can be rebroadcast on the Web.

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell@