Accessing Historic Public Media: The Perspective of a Researcher

The following is a guest post by Jessica Brandt, PhD candidate at Drew University.

At the beginning of April, I had the pleasure of being one of the first researchers to visit the American Archive of Public Broadcasting at the Library of Congress. I am a doctoral student researching non-commercial radio during the Cold War, and I had happened across the AAPB blog while on a quest for records relating to the 1981 production of Star Wars as a radio play for NPR. Shortly after submitting the “Contact Us” form, I received a reply from Sadie Roosa with a few possible assets for me to look into.

Jessica Brandt, PhD candidate at Drew University. One of the first researchers to access the digitized AAPB collection, Brandt visited the Library of Congress to listen to digitized recordings as part of her dissertation research.
Jessica Brandt, PhD candidate at Drew University. One of the first researchers to access the recently digitized AAPB collection, Brandt visited the Library of Congress to listen to digitized recordings as part of her dissertation research.

At the time, the digitized media wasn’t available to stream through the website yet, so I had to arrange a site visit. With the help of Casey Davis at WGBH and Alan Gevinson at the Library of Congress, I was able to set up a visit in no time. Once there, I found the interface easy to navigate and the quality of the audio was excellent. I was also able to poke around more of the archive, including assets that had not yet been digitized, and I left with more leads to pursue.

Every step along the way, I found the people involved with the AAPB to be responsive and helpful, eager to make my research experience successful.  And that brings me to a broader observation about the world of public media — in exploring the story behind this alternate Star Wars, I’ve had occasion to contact public radio stations across the country, and without exception, every one has responded as fully as possible. In each case, if they couldn’t offer any archives or records, they made suggestions of other places to look, and offered to make introductions where necessary. Very few fields have such a way of feeling so tight-knit and collegial.

I’m sure this is preaching to the choir, but I can’t overstate the value of digitizing these public media assets. Organizations like the Paley Center have done a great job with commercial television, in particular, but so much of the product of public radio and television stations languishes in the limited storage facilities of those stations, scattered around the country. That’s if it has been preserved at all. The nature of funding makes it unlikely that any but the largest stations in major markets will have any staff dedicated to managing their archives locally. So the service that the AAPB has to offer is opening a new world for people like me, who spend our time studying the public airwaves of the past. Take a look (or a listen) for yourselves —  untold treasures await!

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