Philadelphia librarian and social justice advocate Marion Marguerite Stokes spent 35 years of her life recording nearly every minute of every program on every local and national news network on VHS and Beta Max cassette tapes.
Now, her commitment to tracking television news may result in a searchable collection of more than 800,000 uninterrupted hours of historical news footage.
Stokes' son, Michael Metelits says the creation of the enormous collection was a life-dominating and often arduous task for his mother, who died of lung disease in December, 2012. But despite criticism from observers, Stokes maintained that the time she spent operating as many as 8 recorders at a time, swapping out one 6-hour tape after another, would not be in vain.
"I don't think anybody escaped helping her with this process. As you'd imagine a process like this, it just dominates family life and it just kind of structures pretty much everything else that goes on," Metelits said. "But she was really a kind of uncompromising person; she knew what she wanted and this was very important to her."
In an effort to honor his mother's life's work, Metelits has teamed up with non-profit digital archive company The Internet Archive with hopes of converting Stokes' 140,000 video cassette tape collection into a digital, searchable archive that would be made available to the public via the internet.
Director of television archive at the Internet archive Roger Macdonald said Stokes' archive could be a very useful addition to the company's ever-growing digital news collection.
"If we’re able to successfully digitize this, it will open up a big window on local and national news, that’s unprecedented," Macdonald said. "At the Internet Archive we’re working to record and open up U.S. television news for research purposes and we’ve been recording since late 2000; but the addition of this collection would extend our archive back three decades."
Metelits recovered his mother's video cassette collection after she died. Shortly thereafter, he reached out to the Internet Archive and the process of preserving the tapes began.
Many of the tapes were stored in Stokes' old home in Boston, where she'd lived for nearly 8 years or in one of three storage areas in Warminster, Pa. So, the first step for Metelits was to get all of the tapes in one place, to have them organized and packaged to ship.
It took Metelits and a team of family and family friends a full year to gather all of the video tapes into one storage unit and organize them by recording date. Finally, last Friday, the collection was shipped from a Philadelphia storage unit to the Internet Archive offices in San Francisco, Calif. The cost of shipping was roughly $16,000, but it’s a cost Metelits says was well worth the effort.
"It's been hard work but we're just delighted that there's an institution like the Internet Archive that's able to accept them and that's actually going to do something with them that my mother would actually approve of," he said.
According to Metelits, his mother's urge to record the news began with her observation of news coverage surrounding the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 and the emergence of CNN as a 24-hour news channel. Stokes was interested in documenting the way various networks' coverage of news stories would change over time. When people questioned her dedication to the peculiar hobby, Metelits says Stokes eventually stopped fighting to explain her motives and settled in to saying, "I’m archiving. Leave it at that."
Metelits described Stokes as a kind but firm woman who cared deeply for social causes and enjoyed collecting all sorts of things. In the 1960s, Stokes participated in several civil rights marches, including the march to integrate Girard College in 1965, and produced what was then considered a groundbreaking discussion show called Input, which aired on a then WCAU station channel.
In addition to her massive collection of video cassette recordings, Metelits says his mother possessed a collection of innumerable boxes of newspapers, some 192 Macintosh computers (in their original boxes), and a collection of toys and dollhouses that he's currently working to find private collectors for.
Macdonald says digitizing the video collection will be nearly as expensive and time consuming as Stokes' original process, so it may be years before the collection is actually made available to the public in digital form. For now, the organization is focusing on fundraising and awareness.
"We've had estimates of needing 10-15 decks running simultaneously, and one to two people manning those and entering the meta-data of dates and times but we’re really not sure how many people or how many years it will take," Macdonald said. “The Stokes family contributed the transport fees and they will make an initial contribution from the Stokes estate to get us started on the digitization process. And we’ll look to let others know about this remarkable collection and our attempt to make it available for research and hopefully they'll be willing to contribute."
Metelits said he believes his mother would be proud of the digitization project.
"She faced a bit of opposition, not just from her family members who thought it was strange, but from lots of other people about how worthwhile this project was, whether it would ever amount to anything, whether anyone would ever find it useful," he said. "So, I think she’d feel a great deal of vindication at the interest that’s been shown in this archive.”