If you thought you were the biggest news junkie there is, that's because you never met Marion Stokes.
Stokes died in 2012 at the age of 83, but not before she recored 140,000 VHS tapes of news.
The tapes sit in a storage unit somewhere in Philadelphia, most are hand-labeled with a date between 1977 and 2012. If you pop one into a VCR (remember those) you might see scenes from the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Reagan Administration or Hurricane Katrina.
It's 35 years of history through the lens of TV news, captured on a dwindling format.
Stokes built an archive of network, local, and cable news, in her home, one tape at a time--recording every major (and trivial) news event until the day she died.
Fast Company writes that Stokes, a former librarian who had once co-produced a local television show with her future husband, began casually recording television in 1977. She recorded many things, but she thought news was especially important, and when cable transformed it into a 24-hour affair, she began recording MSNBC, Fox, CNN, CSNBC and CSPAN around the clock by running as many as eight television recorders at a time.
She'd feed a six-hour tape into the recorders late at night. She'd wake up early the next day to change them (or conscript family members to do the same if she wasn't home). She'd cut short meals at restaurants to rush home before tapes ended. And when she got too old to keep up, she trained a younger helper named Frank to run the various recording equipment.
But the majority of her days were structured around paying attention to and saving whatever was on the news. "Pretty much everything else took a back seat,” says her son, Michael Metelits. “It provided a certain rhythm to her life, and a certain amount of deep, deep conviction that this stuff was going to be useful. That somehow, someone would find a way to index it, archive it, store it--that it would be useful.”
Stokes bought VHS tapes by the dozen. As she recorded, she made stacks so high they would fall over. The project took over several of the apartments she owned. “It was just a logistical nightmare--that’s really the only way to put it,” Metelits says. When people asked her why her home was filled packed with televisions, recorders, and tapes, she’d tell them, “I’m archiving, that’s all.”
To acquaintances, Stokes’s extremely time-consuming and expensive passion for archiving could seem eccentric.
Roger Macdonald thinks it's heroic. He's the librarian who runs the television portion of the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a free Internet library. Since 2000, his team has been recording national television news to a digital format in hopes of one day making it all part of a searchable archive (broadcasts from the last four years are already available). His system is much simpler than Stokes’ elaborate video cassette juggling act--it’s just a very small rack of computers with discs spinning and cables going in and out--but the visions behind both projects are aligned. “Television has been our most pervasive and persuasive medium,” Macdonald says, “but we’ve never really had much of a pause and rewind button on our experience of it to reflect back on television news, to compare and contrast and mine it for knowledge.”
When Macdonald heard about Stokes’s massive archive, he emailed her son for more information. He got an answer but it only made him more curious. So he called. “Everything I learned would ratchet my eyes ever wider. How many tapes are we talking about? How did that work? How did the family live like that? It’s just an amazing, amazing story.” The Internet Archive had received large collections of 100 or 200 tapes from individuals before, but nothing quite like this.