One video at a time, Louisiana Public Broadcasting and the Secretary of State’s Office are preserving the past.
Federal marshals escorting Ruby Bridges as she integrated New Orleans public schools; President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald distributing information on Bourbon Street; footage of the devastation left by Hurricane Camille all along the Gulf Coast — these historic videos and hundreds more are now available for anyone to see at ladigitalmedia.org.
Five years in the making, the Louisiana Digital Media Archive was launched last month with 1,600 digitized video clips from LPB’s and the State Archives’ collections. An ongoing project and the first such partnership between a public television station and a state agency, the number of clips contained on the website will continue to grow.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of hours, thousands of tapes still to be digitized,” said LPB archivist Leslie Bourgeois.
The digital age has made these historic video news reels, tapes and film somewhat obsolete. The equipment to play them isn’t manufactured anymore, and the more they deteriorate , the less chance they will be able to be saved at all.
It’s a problem shared by not only LPB and the state, but television stations across the country.
“People were just throwing their things away at TV stations,” LPB President/CEO Beth Courtney said. “We are interested in saving things, thus our history projects that we’ve done. We’ve understood the significance of what we have.”
What LPB has is 40 years of its news coverage, series and documentaries on Louisiana, Courtney added.
With grants from the Library of Congress and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, LPB commenced the daunting process of not just saving its “treasure trove,” but making it available to all.
“It’s for educational and public use, and we may make shows out of the past,” Courtney explained. “We’re going to try to highlight something in history, maybe every month.”
Last month it was Black History, this month Women’s History. Blogs from those who witnessed the actual events also are planned. Visitors to the site can browse by topic or individual series.
Boosting its cause, the state network also was a pilot station for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s nationwide American Archive of Public Broadcasting project.
“We focused on World War II,” Courtney said of the project’s beginnings. “Then we just continued on.”
The State Archives, meanwhile, has news video collections from WBRZ and the Brooks Reed Collection, WWL-TV in New Orleans and KLFY-TV in Lafayette. Courtney said the hope is that other television stations in the state will join in the project, and that other collections can be made available through underwriting.
“So much of this hasn’t been seen in decades, because we haven’t been able to play them because of the formats they’re on, so that’s kind of exciting,” said archivist Bourgeois.
So far, about 15 of LPB’s archival tapes could not be salvaged. The South’s humidity was a factor, as was a water leak in the building a few years back.
“But we’re doing a very good job of saving lots of things,” Courtney said.
She cited LPB’s coverage of the opening of the National D-Day Museum — now World War II Museum — in New Orleans in 2000.
The network not only covered the opening day extensively, but hosted a live show prior to the opening to let the state’s viewers know about the museum and extend an invitation to war veterans across the state.
Interviews with veterans and historians like Stephen Ambrose, all since deceased, are invaluable, Courtney said.
“I think about how people don’t write letters anymore, those wonderful Civil War letters Ken Burns (well-known documentarian) uses. We don’t even save emails, so what do we have? You can go to Wikipedia, or you can hear Stephen E. Ambrose talk himself,” Courtney said. “So I think it’s just a wonderful thing.”