Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Insurance executive Paul Simpson heard those words on the evening news one night, but had he heard them correctly? To find out, he contacted the network for a tape, only to learn it didn’t archive its broadcasts. So in 1968, Simpson founded the Vanderbilt Television News Archive at his alma mater in Nashville, Tennessee, to preserve US newscasts—including commercials—as part of the cultural record.
This year the archive of more than 1.1 million abstracted segments—including the only known coverage of its kind of the Vietnam War, the Apollo spaceflight program, and Watergate—celebrates its 50th anniversary.
“We want people to have an objective record of what has been broadcast,” says Clifford Anderson (pictured), associate university librarian for research and learning, “so that when they’re looking back at any period, they can understand how people were being informed about the world.” Anderson, who oversees the archive and its staff of five, says the collection allows viewers to draw their own judgments about potential bias and distortion.
The archive’s digital reading room, with portraits of journalists lining the walls, is tapped by students, researchers, government officials, and the general public. Anyone can request footage—the core collection is culled from ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and NBC—via the website.
Staffers then burn segments onto DVDs and loan them by mail.
Now that processes are digital, the archive works with Vanderbilt’s supercomputing center to manage its massive collection, which staffers estimate would take more than six years to watch in its entirety.
“The archive is a real jewel in our crown,” says Anderson. “What I’ve been working on is just making sure it shines a little more brightly.”