By Ray Smock
I am just back from a visit to the C-SPAN Video Library, at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN. This incredible vast video archive contains more than 231,000 hours of C-SPAN broadcasts going back more than thirty years, and it is growing daily, with digital audio and video recordings of each day’s broadcasts on the three C-SPAN channels and C-SPAN radio. While I have been a user of this archive before, this was my first opportunity to see how it works.
It was C-SPAN that had the vision and the wherewithal to find a way (and the funds from the Cable TV industry) to convert thousands of hours of analog tape to digital and then devise a system of easy access, by indexing, and key-word searching, that brings this vast resource to everyone with Internet access on their home computers.
Dr. Robert X. Browning was the driving force in the creation and development of the C-SPAN Archive. Proudly displayed in the C-SPAN offices in West Lafayette is the prestigious Peabody Award that the C-SPAN Video Archive received in 2010 for “creating an enduring archive of the history of American policymaking, and for providing it as a free, user-friendly public service…”
Research using video broadcasts offers incredible opportunities to researchers and teachers in many fields including history, political science, mass communications, American culture, the art of governance, human psychology, biography, and journalism, to name a few.
The fact that this vast archive is available free to the public and is so readily accessible and easy to use is a remarkable feat and it is a model for how we can and should preserve audio and visual material for future use. Digital resources are incredibly important but they can be ephemeral, and easy to lose because we do not systematically save such records. The digital age is fraught with perils because we do not systematically archive enough of records that are born in digital format, nor do we have the funds to systematically identify and preserve in digital format the paper records of the past that can be made more accessible if they were in digital form.