Cataloging the Earliest Public Television Content: An NET Project Update

In January 2015, we announced that WGBH and the Library of Congress, on behalf of the AAPB, were awarded a grant by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to catalog the National Educational Television (NET) programs. We’re so excited to be working on this project to further the mission of the AAPB, to preserve and make accessible significant historic content created by public media and to coordinate a national effort to save it before it is lost to posterity.

NET was public television’s first national programming network, the precursor to PBS, and NET titles are among public media’s earliest and most at-risk content. The NET Collection includes 8,000–10,000 programs produced by more than 30 stations across the country from 1952-1972, a period marked by societal and cultural shifts of great importance. Public television itself changed significantly during this time. From its early dedication to childhood and adult education, NET by 1963 transitioned to serving adult audiences with documentaries exploring citizenship issues of urgency and cultural programming dedicated to the arts, humanities and sciences.

NET programs often covered internationally relevant topics and events, including new scientific research, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the treatment of prisoners in America, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the environment, various new approaches to human psychology, senior citizens, poverty, space exploration, and critical analysis of modern art.

In our previous digitization project, the earliest video formats that we digitized were 3/4-inch. The majority of the NET collection is on 16mm film, 2″ and 1″ videotape, and copies exist at multiple locations including the Library of Congress, Indiana University, WNET, WGBH and other stations that produced for NET. Before we can prioritize these materials for digitization and preservation, we need to know what the titles are, where they exist and who has the best copy.

We have been working hard on the first phase of the project, which includes developing a complete title list, or at least one that’s as complete as possible. We’ve gathered titles and other descriptive information from a variety of sources including:
● WGBH databases
● Library of Congress’s original inventory printouts
● Microfiche of NET program records
● NET’s Flexible Service Catalog
● Additional inventories created at the Library of Congress and PBS

The majority of these were only available on paper, some even on handwritten lists. We were able to OCR a few sources, while others had to be manually transcribed. Once we had the titles from each source stored electronically, we were able to compare them with each other. The resulting list includes more than 500 series, with over 8,500 episodes, as well as over 800 individually broadcast programs. We’re working on getting the list ready to publish on the AAPB website, so that collection holders and NET-era producers will be able to see which titles NET distributed, and see if any of these titles exist in their own collections.

Starting with an authoritative title list is important because it will help us clear up potential duplication of titles and duplicated preservation efforts. One possible source of duplication is that some pieces ended up airing multiple times but under different series. In situations like these, we will have one record for the content and assign that record multiple series titles and NOLA codes, since the content itself was the same each time it was broadcast.

The authoritative title list also helps us keep track of what was and wasn’t distributed by NET. Now that we have this information, we’ve started going through the existing inventory records in the AAPB and pulling out records for NET titles. This is a good starting place for the ultimate goal of the project, which is to create a catalog of NET titles that describes the content and also tracks where copies of the content exist across the country. Based on a cursory analysis, we believe that over 60% of the NET titles exist in the inventories of at least one of the AAPB participating organizations. We’re hoping to increase that number by reaching out to other stations and archives with NET materials.

While we work on getting together more information to share with you, if you have any questions please reach out to the NET project coordinator Sadie Roosa at sadie_roosa@wgbh.org.

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