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Some movies and TV are gone forever

Image from "Snap Out of It," an educational film from 1951 about maintaining emotional balance as a teenager.
Image from "Snap Out of It," an educational film from 1951 about maintaining emotional balance as a teenager.

In our newly digital world, it seems like we’re swimming in data. We’re swamped with new e-mails, YouTube clips, blog posts, and e-books, while libraries and archives are busily scanning historical documents.

But historians are concerned with a major gap: What happened after humans began producing tons of audio and video culture, and before we figured out that we should preserve it? Much of this key record of the last 150 years is stuck in obsolete or decaying physical formats. Thousands of hours of radio, television, and film were simply never preserved at all. In 2013, some major holes in our self-documentation came to light.

This month, the Library of Congress' National Film Preservation Board published a study that quantified a long-held suspicion of film researchers: Seventy percent of American silent films made between 1912 and 1930 are gone forever. Historian David Pierce found that survival varied by studio: MGM archived many films and donated others to collectors, while Paramount put no effort into preservation.

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Then there was the story, equal parts heartwarming and chilling, that emerged after the death of librarian Marion Stokes, who obsessively recorded local, network, and cable TV news on VHS tapes from 1977 to 2012. Her descendants have given those tapes to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library, which will put them online. The Library of Congress reports that local news archives are especially scanty, with most stations keeping tapes only a week and few repositories collecting them; it's upsetting to realize just how rare Stokes' collection will be.

The Library of Congress hopes to carry out assessment surveys on other 20th-century audiovisual media (educational films, animated shorts, newsreels). Meanwhile, historians warn that today's digital documents—video games, software, websites—could join their earlier counterparts in obsolescence. If we want our great-grandkids to know what 2013 was like, we've got our work cut out for us.

Rebecca Onion