Library acquires, digitizes civil rights footage
Extensive film documents resistance movement, Nixon clips, moonshine raids
The University Library is now digitizing a vast collection of civil rights-era news film from Roanoke station WSLS, thanks to a quarter million dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
"There is so much amazing footage in here that pretty much anyone studying the history of anything in the mid-20th century is going to find something amazing," Head of Preservation Services Clara McClurken said.
The footage includes everyday slice-of-life news such as parades, beauty pageants and moonshine raids, as well as historic events like the eradication of polio, Preservation and Reformatting Specialist Leigh Rockey said.
But the real prize of the collection, Rockey said, is likely the extensive civil rights footage, which includes clips of President Nixon talking about civil rights and extensive coverage of Virginia's massive resistance movement to stop school desegregation.
The University initially acquired the collection because of its history with civil rights. A University graduate student was conducting research on local news stations' portrayal of civil rights figures and learned that WSLS was on the verge of throwing out old film. The student contacted Clemons Library and the Robertson Media Library, and both were willing to accept them.
"Then we just needed the money to digitize them, and thankfully the NEH came through," Rockey said.
The NEH grant is part of its "We the People" program, which, according to the NEH website, is designed to enhance the teaching and study of American culture and history.
McClurken added that "We the People" looks specifically at projects that the NEH thinks will help educate students or will be useful primary sources for researchers.
Because the film has been sitting in basements for up to 60 years, experts will need to clean and convert it from one-minute clips to larger, half-hour reels before it can be digitized. Rockey said she expects the University Library will complete that process by June 2011, after which staff will have to check the quality of the footage.
"Eventually it will be online for everyone to see," Rockey said.
The collection is not just nearly 12,500 news clips, but also about 20,000 pages of the scripts that anchors read, McClurken said, which also will be digitized. The two formats will be searchable together.
"Theoretically if there's a football game from the 1950s and you remember the starting quarterback and he was mentioned, you could search his name and find the news footage of the game," McClurken said.
The film and scripts from 1951-71 are distinctive in several ways.
"This is the only 16mm news film we've been able to find from Virginia from that era," Rockey said.
It is rare for a collection to have both scripts and film clips, McClurken said. The library also owns the copyright to all the material, which will make it one of only a few collections of television footage from that era completely available to the public.
Documentarians and University faculty members have already expressed interest in using the footage, and McClurken expects even more people to request it once it becomes more widely available.
"So much audiovisual history from the 20th century is being ignored or lost, and we're trying to correct that," Rockey said.