Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 9 — October 2002
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IT Feature •
Vanderbilt Improves Television News Archive
Its recently added TV-NewsSearch offers users a single searchable database
by Paula J. Hane

On 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 (, is noted as the "world's most extensive and complete archive of television news." 

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. 

TV-NewsSearch Database
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.) 

The Service
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 tape broadcasts.) 

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 agencies. 

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' protests. 

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." 

Beyond Vanderbilt
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

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