September 11, 2001, most of the U.S. and the world were glued to television
news broadcasts. Within minutes of the first plane crash, viewers saw events
happen live. One month later, the Television Archive, a Web-based nonprofit
collaboration, was launched to provide Internet access to television broadcasts
from around the world. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I visited the
site, which offers a list of links to sites with perspectives on television
news, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and other general television resources
One site listed, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive (http://tvnews.vanderbilt.edu),
is noted as the "world's most extensive and complete archive of television
What? Vanderbilt University? Not a news association or the networks?
Amid the heightened awareness of preserving news broadcasts, this was definitely
a resource I wanted to check out. Coincidentally, access to the Vanderbilt
Television News Archive was just made available in July through TV-NewsSearch,
a single searchable Web database. The work on this project was coordinated
by Marshall Breeding, the technology analyst for Vanderbilt's Heard Library
and a columnist for Information Today. I talked with him about the
history of the collection, recent developments, and plans for future access.
Since the Vanderbilt Television News Archive's launch in August 1968,
staff members have consistently recorded, indexed, and preserved network
television news for research, review, and study. Complete videotapes of
news programs were reportedly not routinely saved until the archive began
to do so during its early stages. As the project moves into its fourth
decade of operation, the collection holds more than 30,000 network evening
news broadcasts and more than 9,000 hours of special news-related programming.
These special reports and periodic telecasts include coverage of presidential
press conferences and political campaigns, as well as national and international
events such as the Watergate hearings, the hostage crisis in Iran, and
the Gulf War. (See sidebar on page 64 for available programming.)
According to information on the site, the Vanderbilt Television News
Archive was created by Nashville insurance executive and Vanderbilt alumnus
Paul C. Simpson. It was financed by grants from the late Jack C. Massey,
David K. Wilson, the Massey Foundation, the Justin and Valere Potter Foundation,
Mobil Oil, the Freedom Forum, and the Ford Foundation. A nonprofit organization,
the archive has been maintained by grants and generous contributions.
According to Breeding, staffers in the early 1970s began creating abstracts
and indexes for the archive. Without comprehensive indexing, the vast collection
of news broadcast videotapes would be of very little use. In the early
days, producing the indexes was manual and tedious. Staff members used
typewriters and index cards to create a print publication called Television
News Index and Abstracts. By the mid-1990s this information was converted
to electronic form to establish an online index. The earliest version used
a gopher server with the WAIS search engine. The online indexes were later
moved to a Web server, but they continued to use the WAIS engine. This
approach had quite limited search capabilities, forcing the archive to
work toward a much more powerful way of providing access to its collection
of television news broadcasts.
During the past year, Breeding worked with the archive's staff to convert
and merge the various electronic files into a single searchable database.
With his self-taught Perl programming skills, he has added a new Web interface,
keyword searching, and an e-commerce system. (Not bad for a philosophy
major who doesn't even own a television!) The database now includes more
than 700,000 records that describe news items. About 8,000 of these list
the special news broadcasts in the collection; the remainder are concise
abstracts of regular evening news programs.
The search interface is clean and easy to use. Keyword searching can
be performed on the titles and descriptions. Searching accommodates Boolean
AND, OR, NOT, and truncation, with limiting by date, network, reporters
or anchors, regular news, special programs, or commercials, or to a specific
broadcast. Not only could I read a descriptive abstract of a news segment—such
as an NBC Evening News report on Americans who use a cellphone as
their only phone—but I could then see the segment as part of a full listing
of the entire broadcast for that evening. With a click I could save that
report or the entire broadcast for ordering on videotape and continue searching.
(See Figures 1 and 2.)
A staff of five, headed by director John Lynch, now provides all the
services for the Vanderbilt Television News Archive: videotaping, indexing
and abstracting, and fulfillment of loan requests for the tapes. According
to Breeding, because of copyright restrictions, Vanderbilt can rightfully
loan the videotapes but can't sell them. (CBS had filed a lawsuit in 1973
challenging the archive's efforts to tape its news broadcasts. However,
the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976—specifically the Baker Amendment,
which is also known as the "Vanderbilt Clause"—allows the library to legally
Individuals anywhere can request videotape loans for reference, study,
classroom instruction, and research. The archive offers tapes that are
duplications of entire broadcasts as well as compilation tapes of individual
news stories specified by the borrower. Users pay borrowing fees to help
defray the costs of providing this service. According to Breeding, the
archive needs to establish additional revenue streams to balance its budget.
It's therefore currently working out the details of a subscription model
that will be implemented early next year. So while searching is currently
free on the site, subscriptions will soon be offered to institutions on
a tiered pricing scheme. For a reasonable cost, personal subscriptions
will be available for short terms such as a month.
The Vanderbilt Television News Archive provides a unique historical
service. The database not only offers a valuable finding resource for broadcasts,
it also serves as a unique reference tool for studying historical and political
events. The archive has reportedly been used to research a number ofbooks,
reports, and political and sociological studies on how the national news
media covers events. According to Breeding, more than one-third of its
use is by private individuals; another one-third by higher education institutions;
and the remaining one-third by commercial groups, nonprofits, and government
Terence Check, a faculty member at St. John's University in Minnesota,
uses the archive for research and in the classroom. His students do close
textual and image analysis to see how issues and arguments are framed.
He is utilizing it in two classes this year: one that focuses on political
communications, the other on the usefulness or uselessness of environmentalists'
Loretta Alper, from the Media Education Foundation, which studies the
media and its effects on culture and society, said: "The Vanderbilt Television
News Archive is a very important tool/service for us. The database describes
the news in enough detail for us to be able to order the tapes we need
from the descriptions. And the new database makes both searching and ordering
tapes much easier than it was before, while keeping the excellent abstracts
that we have been using in the past."
I asked Breeding whether the archive's staffers had considered wider
distribution of the database, such as to a service like LexisNexis, which
offers broadcast transcripts. He said they had discussed other opportunities,
but since the database mostly serves as a finding aid to the lending collection
they had not pursued it further.
Burrelle's Information Services also covers television news (among other
media broadcasts) but is mostly a media-monitoring company that offers
transcripts of television and radio programs of all kinds. Burrelle's site
features lists of networks and daily news programs by date, but has no
search capabilities. One of its partners, Video Monitoring Service, records
news broadcasts and public affairs programming but concentrates on providing
services for advertising and public relations.
The television networks are beginning to see the potential for Web sales
of their broadcasts. ABC's newscasts have been available on RealNetwork
since 1995. This past summer, the company launched ABCNEWS on Demand, which
provides video access by subscription. CNN offers similar subscription
options with CNN NewsPass or RealOne SuperPass.
But to get that historical perspective on television news broadcasting—with
a great search interface—visit the Vanderbilt Television News Archive.
Paula J. Hane is editor of NewsBreaks, contributing editor of
Information Today, a former reference librarian, and a longtime online
searcher. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.