Clips of history, a click away

Digital library project will place 40 hours of Hub TV newscasts from 1959-2000 at your fingertips

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By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / July 9, 2011

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Poring through the tapes and films stored in the archives vault at WGBH is like taking a tour of Boston history as it was captured on TV news broadcasts: Fidel Castro visits Boston in 1959; Martin Luther King Jr. marches in Roxbury in 1965; Barack Obama protests outside Harvard University in 1990.

This sealed room, kept at a constant, chilly 62 degrees, houses 750,000 recorded items from WGBH alone, from vintage film canisters to bulky videotapes from the Boston media outlet’s former “Ten O’Clock News’’ program.

Films and tapes deteriorate over time, so WGBH officials have begun ambitiously digitizing not only former newscasts from their Channel 2, but historical news footage from other local TV stations.

The result will be the Boston TV News Digital Library, the first online repository of Boston television news from 1959 to 2000. The idea is to build a video catalog of Boston histo ry, as captured in daily newscasts, that will be available over the Internet.

The big 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. Still, there will be 40 hours of Boston TV news, or about 600 reports, on some of the biggest events in the city, as captured by WGBH-TV (Channel 2), WHDH-TV (Channel 7), WCVB-TV (Channel 5), and Cambridge Community Television. The TV news library 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 in Boston history is always about the Pilgrims and the Revolution and Paul Revere,’’ said Karen Cariani, director of WGBH Media Library and Archives “Boston TV News brings four major collections together into one location, an invaluable resource for generations to come.’

It is surprising how fresh the material looks. A pristine film of then-mayor Kevin White reading a statement about school busing in 1974 - “It is a challenge created by no one individual, directed against no particular neighborhood,’’ he said - is followed by grainy footage of protesters at City Hall Plaza. But for the hairstyles and clothing, either could have been filmed yesterday.

Some of the clips look dated despite their excellent condition, largely because they are in black and white. Not many residents had color TV sets when Jimmy Durante and Rocky Marciano visited the city in 1960; “Jimmy, these people love ya,’’ the fighter says in the clip. A story from the previous year shows Castro in Boston, the Cuban leader waving tentatively from the middle of a scrum of reporters.

Bob Cousy, waving to fans in 1963, the year he retired from the Celtics, is captured in a grainy black-and-white film. But the ceremony marking the retirement of Bruins star Bobby Orr’s number 4 in 1979 is in crisp color, with a 30-year-old Orr in a suit and tie, looking overwhelmed.

Standing inside WGBH’s archive vault, Cariani was dwarfed by towering rows of shelves packed with film canisters and videotapes, everything from Julia Child’s longtime cooking series to episodes of the PBS news magazine show “Frontline.’’

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.

“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.’’

WBZ has not been contacted to participate in the archive project, but “we would be interested in exploring the opportunity,’’ said Ro Dooley Webster, WBZ spokeswoman.

A spokeswoman for WFXT said the station had not been contacted by WGBH.

There have been other online TV news repositories. Three years ago, the University of Georgia built a digital TV news archive featuring news stories centered on the civil rights movement, and Vanderbilt University has been assembling a news archive of national network newscasts dating back to 1968.

The Boston TV news archive is different in that it is solely focused on the country’s seventh-largest TV market, and uses footage from multiple news outlets. Staffers from the participating organizations have been cataloging their materials to provide them to WGBH, where workers digitize the footage. Since WGBH has the largest collection, staffers and interns began with tapes from the station’s “Ten O’Clock News,’’ which aired from 1976-1991.

They have a lot to work with. The news film from WCVB’s collection, for example, would extend 4 million feet if stretched out, and represents 2,000 recorded hours, said David Weiss, executive director of Northeast Historic Film, a nonprofit image archive group in Maine.

“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,’’ said Weiss. “This is more than just the more famous people and biggest events.’’

The archived news footage also provides a window into the Boston TV newscasts of yesteryear, when news programs were must-see TV and ratings were driven by star anchors such as WCVB’s Natalie Jacobson, the first female anchor of an evening newscast in Boston in 1976, and her then-husband and coanchor Chet Curtis.

One clip shows Jacobson and Curtis at the anchor desk, sitting side by side, as they delivered the news of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster, which killed New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe.

“They were all killed,’’ Jacobson said at the opening of the newscast. “The seven space shuttle astronauts gone in an explosion witnessed by millions on national television.’’

Jacobson remembers that day vividly, and is glad these records will be made public. “For young people who are studying the history of New England and everything that goes with it, this is a great gift,’’ said Jacobson, who added that it also important to see how differently news was reported in years past. “It shows you what was important then compared to what is important now. There was a great emphasis on information versus an emphasis on entertainment.’’

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

Steven Cohen, a lecturer who teaches an education class at Tufts University, started incorporating the available video clips in his classes when students studied desegregation in Boston in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Having these archives digitized and having the students look at them online is literally eye-opening,’’ said Cohen. “It really does make the history accessible.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at