Over the last several months, I’ve worked as a Research Assistant at WGBH on the PBS NewsHour Digitization Project. This project involves taking the predecessor programs for the PBS NewsHour, including The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and making them available to a wider audience through digitization, preservation, and online access. My specific responsibilities include reviewing the proxy files, or digital copies, of multiple NewsHour episodes and making sure they are presentable (no major audiovisual glitches, complete transcripts, subtitles are legible), and recording the information in an online spreadsheet. This may sound like a straightforward job, but working at WGBH taught me even straightforward jobs can have unpredictable aspects, and I learned a lot about adapting to new challenges and going outside my comfort zone.
Before working on this project, I attended a rigorous Archives Management program at Simmons University, learning about several archival processing practices, chief among them being More Product, Less Process (MPLP). The idea behind MPLP is that, in cases where large amounts of archival content needs to be preserved, the Archivist must focus on processing as many objects as possible. This approach served me well in several real-world internships, including two in different departments at WGBH. The first of these was in the Creative department during the summer of 2015, helping my co-workers not only track data but set up a Google Drive account so as to store it in a spreadsheet. I then parlayed this experience into my Simmons Archives Field Study capstone project in the WGBH Media Library and Archives (MLA). Throughout the winter of 2016, I reviewed and cataloged episodes of regional news magazines produced by the Wyoming PBS and Oregon Public Broadcasting. Between the academic training and real-world experience, I thought I could handle working on the NewsHour Digitization Project, but over time, I found out just how unprepared I was, in the best way possible.
While archives share general principles, every place and department I’ve worked at has its own unique, unpredictable challenges, and the same was true on this project as well. A typical day on the job involves watching NewsHour episodes in bits and pieces, making sure the videos were watchable and their accompanying materials (i.e. transcripts and subtitles) were present and accurate. Most of the time, review has been straightforward, and the clips themselves have occasionally been interesting looks at iconic figures from new perspectives: personal favorites include retrospectives on what would’ve been the 100th birthdays of Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney, for example. But there are times where I have been thrown for a loop and needed to adapt.
For clips without transcripts and/or subtitles, I had no choice but to watch them for longer time periods, paying close attention to the audio. This need for paying close attention goes both ways, and there were times during graphic reports (like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina coverage) where I needed to take small breaks to keep from getting overwhelmed emotionally. Fortunately, my co-workers and supervisor, remembering me from my previous Archives internship, have been remarkably sympathetic and understanding, which helped alleviate this stress, among other worries. The friendly, open atmosphere also encouraged me to branch out and extend a helping hand to them, and new people at WGBH, in kind.
Throughout the summer months, the MLA had several interns join over the summer, and as a welcoming gesture, I sat down with each of them for lunch on their first days, and over the course of their time I offered practical advice whenever I could, most importantly to not rule anything out vis-à-vis future work opportunities. At the same time, I myself was a fresh addition to the audience at several MeetUps and SpeakEasys: one of each a month for promoting and socializing with people from different departments of WGBH. The MeetUps even have a whole minute set aside for the purpose of introducing yourself to strangers, a nice and well-appreciated touch. Between this mentorship and more socially conducive environment, I had a support network that helped me a great deal.
As a kid, two of the biggest things that scared me were thunderstorms and spicy foods, particularly buffalo chicken. I would always stay away from both of them at every possible opportunity, to preserve my anxiety and avoid any kind of discomfort. The last few months had their fair share of stormy heat waves and spicy hot wings, but as with archival work in general, uncomfortable situations can only be avoided for so long. In the end, I had to buck up and accept that summer storms could at least be tolerated, and it helps that my co-workers never treated it as a debilitating setback. As for the spicy foods, that I did have control over, and to set a positive example for the interns, I not only tried buffalo chicken, but also pulled pork covered in Jamaican jerk seasoning. To my surprise, neither one of those foods burned my mouth off or led to searing pain, and this growth can be directly attributed to both my at-work support group and my need/willingness to handle unforeseen archiving circumstances.
Being adaptable to unpredictable elements is the most valuable lesson I learned from this experience. On-the-nose food metaphors aside, my experience with the turbulence in both the clouds and video files forced me out of my comfort zone, but it was all in terms I could understand thanks to my years of real-world experience. In my goal of preserving and making accessible the NewsHour files, I persevered and made myself more accessible as well.
Written by Ben Gogel, https://www.linkedin.com/in/bengogel/