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WGBH-TV to create Boston TV news archive

PBS member station WGBH, in Boston, has begun an ambitious multistation project to digitize the city’s television news archives from 1959 to 2000. It will be called the “Boston TV News Digital Library” and will represent the first online repository of Boston television news available to the general public.

The station will build a video catalog of Boston history — as captured in daily newscasts — that will be available over the Internet. It will include events such as Fidel Castro’s visit to Boston in 1959, Martin Luther King Jr.’s marches in Roxbury in 1965 and Barack Obama’s protests outside Harvard University in 1990.

The project will span all of the television stations serving the Boston area. WGBH alone has 750,000 recorded stories, in formats ranging from film to large format (1in and 2in) videotapes. The media is kept in a room at a constant 62-degree temperature.

Because films and videotapes deteriorate over time, WGBH officials have begun frenetically digitizing the material. Those involved said the effort is bringing together otherwise fierce rivals. The digitization process is painstaking, and the archive will feature only a fraction of the material in the vault.

When the project is finished, there will be about 40 hours of Boston TV news, or about 600 reports, on some of the biggest events in the city. The participating stations include WGBH-TV (Channel 2), WHDH-TV (Channel 7), WCVB-TV (Channel 5) and Cambridge Community Television. The project is being funded with $900,000 in grants from nonprofit groups and federal agencies such as the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“The focus on Boston history is always about the Pilgrims and the Revolution and Paul Revere,” Karen Cariani, director of WGBH Media Library and Archives, told TheBoston Globe. “Boston TV News brings four major collections together into one location, an invaluable resource for generations to come.”

The newspaper reported that it was surprising how fresh the material looks.

The collections did not come directly from the stations, which had donated the old films and tapes to nonprofit groups that stored them. Cariani is working with Northeast Historic Film, which owns WCVB’s film footage from 1970 to 1979, and the Boston Public Library, which houses WHDH’s news film collection from 1960 through the mid-1970s. Cambridge Community Television is providing its news archives from 1988-1999.

Cariani said WGBH began the effort with the collections that came to it through partnerships, but would like to have WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and WFXT-TV (Channel 25) share their vintage recordings.

“When we proposed the project, the only historical collections known were the WHDH, WCVB and WGBH materials,” she said. “We thought it made sense to start with those and then expand to include the other stations as interest in the project grew, and if/when we have the funds available.”

The news film from WCVB’s collection alone would extend 4 million feet if stretched out, and represents 2000 recorded hours, David Weiss, executive director of Northeast Historic Film, a nonprofit image archive group in Maine, told the newspaper.

“The value of a collection like this is going to be the minutia that builds up day by day, that allows you to see the corner store that burned down in 1974,” Weiss said. “This is more than just famous people and the biggest events.”

WGBH has already posted some clips from the school busing crisis and civil rights movement on its website .