Late last year, the unbelievable story of Marion Stokes made minor waves online in certain circles, chiefly among those interested in the history of television and moving image archiving. Stokes, who passed away in 2012 at the age of 83, spent 35 years recording local and national television news on VHS tapes. Tens of thousands of them.
From 1977 to 2012, Stokes organized her life around videotaping TV news. According to a November 13th article published at the Fast Company, at times Stokes had eight VCRs recording simultaneously. An early estimate suggested she had accumulated 140,000 VHS tapes; that number was later revised down to an only slightly less incredible mixture of 40,000 Betamax and VHS tapes.
The Internet Archive agreed to accept the Stokes collection and digitize it with the hope of making it available online. I tweeted a link to an article about Stokes but didn’t post about it here at the Television Obscurities blog and promptly forgot about it until a few days ago when I read an update about the collection at The A.V. Club and then found a more in-depth update at Fast Company.
Although the bulk of the Stokes collection has yet to be cataloged, let alone digitized, the Internet Archive has digitized and uploaded roughly 60 episodes of a local Philadelphia talk show called Input, which was co-produced by Stokes and aired on WCAU-TV from 1968 to 1971. The copies of these episodes kept by Stokes are likely they only copies in existence.
As remarkable as recording 35 years worth of TV news is, not everything Stokes taped is going to be unique. For example, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive has been recording the nightly news broadcasts by ABC, CBS and NBC since August 1968, so even if the networks didn’t keep those programs themselves, they were already being preserved elsewhere.
That’s not to say the Stokes collection doesn’t contain a significant amount of material that wasn’t kept by the networks, local TV stations or cable channels. I’m guessing the Internet Archive hopes to just digitize everything, unique or not, and add it to its TV News portal. It is going to take a lot of time and money to get that done.