Preserving the Past

Library of American Broadcasting catalogs TV and audio artifacts


Although great technological strides have been made in preserving the vast library of videotape generated by TV stations over the past 50 years, much more needs to be done to preserve this material for future generations.

So says Chuck Howell, curator of the Library of American Broadcasting at the Hornbake Library building at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

At a recent meeting hosted by SMPTE, Howell and James Snyder, technical advisor to the library, discussed the collection and the importance of preserving tthe video past.

“We have a tape here dated Sept. 15, 1958 and labeled ‘Arthur Godfrey-Top Dollar.’ This is the oldest videotape in the collection and it’s probably one of the oldest video recordings still extant, as the first videotape machine was delivered only a little over two years earlier,” Howell said, referring to the 30-pound “quad” tape contained in a plain brown cardboard box.

The recording is but a small part of the library’s vast collection of audio, film and video materials.

Library recordings span over eight decades. The oldest item is a “test pressing” of a 1925 transatlantic radio broadcast and one of the latest arrivals is a run of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” NBC and PBS are well-represented. The Library even has a collection of tapes from the Advanced Television Testing Center documenting work in setting U.S. digital television standards.

However, the most complete grouping of items came from the estate of the late radio-television personality, Arthur Godfrey. In addition to videotape and kinescope television recordings, there are plenty of audio recordings. These aren’t only on quarter-inch tape; 16-inch “electrical transcriptions” and thousands of wire recordings bearing Godfrey’s nasal tones and plugs for Chesterfields and Lipton Tea make up a big part of the collection. In addition, there are scores of boxes containing scripts with Godfrey’s handwritten markings and notes.

“A recent example of what we do around here was supplying photographs and other materials used in creating the mock CBS studios for the filming of ‘Good Night and Good Luck,’” Howell said. “We also supplied material for the PBS documentary ‘Empire of the Air.’ We have such a wealth of material—it ranges from scrapbooks and trophies donated by the family of WOR’s John Gambling to BBC glass-based transcriptions of one of Glenn Miller’s last performances.”


When pressed for an exact quantity of items owned by the library, Howell did not have a hard answer. He did note that a recent relocation of materials involved more than one and a half miles of shelving.

The biggest problems associated with such collections are physical preservation of the items and the recovery of information from them. Howell said that great advancements had been made in achieving the proper climate control necessary to prevent deterioration of the library’s materials, but noted that more remained to be done in areas such as cold storage and re-humidification.

Recovering recorded information is especially daunting. For a long time, broadcasters have been faced with the videotape “format-of-the-month” challenge. Two-inch or quad video recordings were the mainstay of the industry for about two decades. This changed in the 1970s with the advent of 3/4-inch, one-inch and 1/2-inch format variants. Then came digital. Acquiring and maintaining devices to play back all of these formats is a nightmarish proposition.

The library has managed to acquire four quad VTRs—early RCAs and an Ampex VR-2000 and AVR-2. There are no spare parts or service manuals for them and Snyder appealed to anyone with such items to donate them to help restore one or more VTRs to operating condition. The library is looking for additional VTRs and other broadcast gear, especially if it’s operational.

“If we have room for such equipment, we’ll take it,” Snyder said. “We’re trying to preserve a lot of broadcasting history in addition to the recordings.”

Now in the planning stage is construction of an operational recreation of a 1975 vintage master control room. This would include VTRs, film islands, a switcher, monitors and all necessary ancillary equipment.

“Most libraries are just storage for recordings. They have no equipment for playback. We want to be different,” Snyder said. “The point isn’t just preservation. The point is to be able to use the material.”

Plans are being made to transfer as much of the collection to “modern” digital media as soon as practical, with the “most endangered” recordings having priority.

“Tape, while it lasts a long time, does not last forever. We want to save this content on digital videotape or digital data tape,” Snyder said. He added that in transferring material, data compression needed to be avoided as much as possible, citing loss of quality issues associated with multiple compressions and transcodings.

Snyder said the library has three main goals:

  • To preserve, through copying, as much of the historic record as possible.
  • To maintain a stock of legacy machinery for playback of legacy formats.
  • To provide services to all comers at a more affordable price than commercial dub houses will permit.

A current project being studied by the group is the design and construction of a modern version of a wire recorder.

“It may be necessary at some time to build a new quad machine too,” Snyder said.

An immediate goal is to put one or more of the existing quads into service. Donations of equipment or funds are needed and welcomed, as the organization is not-for-profit and is supported by grants and donations.

As Snyder put it, “It’s sort of like working for public broadcasting.”

(If TV Technology readers have equipment, parts or manuals that would be of use to the archival project, they are encouraged to contact the library at 301-314-0401 or to e-mail Howell at Especially helpful would be the donation of a two-inch helical scan VTR, as well as small air compressors and vacuum systems for the quad machines now owned. Collections of recordings, papers and other broadcast-related artifacts are welcomed too.)

James E. O'Neal

James E. O’Neal has more than 50 years of experience in the broadcast arena, serving for nearly 37 years as a television broadcast engineer and, following his retirement from that field in 2005, moving into journalism as technology editor for TV Technology for almost the next decade. He continues to provide content for this publication, as well as sister publication Radio World, and others.  He authored the chapter on HF shortwave radio for the 11th Edition of the NAB Engineering Handbook, and serves as editor-in-chief of the IEEE’s Broadcast Technology publication, and as associate editor of the SMPTE Motion Imaging Journal. He is a SMPTE Life Fellow, and a Life Member of the IEEE and the SBE.