She could never have imagined the magnitude of her recordings!
One woman single-handedly preserved over 30 years of television history; now her recordings are digitized, Atlas Obscura reports.
Marion Stokes got her first Betamax magnetic videotape recorder in 1975. A former archivist, Stokes worked as a librarian with the Free Library of Philadelphia for almost 20 years. However, she was fired in the early 1960s due to her work as an activist. Stokes had worked as a Communist party organizer and co-produced Input. This Sunday-morning talk show aired from 1968 to 1971; it united the community and religious leaders, activists, artists, and scientists to discuss social justice issues and socio-political topics openly.
Being no stranger to archiving and the media’s impact on public opinion, Stokes began recording pieces of sitcoms, science documentaries, and political news coverage. Starting with the beginning of the Iran Hostage Crisis on November 4, 1979, Stokes’ son Michael Metelits said his mom “hit the record and she never stopped.”
Stokes continued through the ’80s, recording the launch of CNN and the newly instituted 24-hour news cycle. Before she knew it, there were three, four, and sometimes as many as eight tapes recording in Stokes’ Philadelphia apartment. The archivist recorded everything from news broadcasts to commercials. Eventually, she amassed thousands of hours of videos, distributing them to nine apartments she purchased for the sole purpose of storage. Later in life, her children acquired the tapes.
Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, the recordings Stokes archived from 1975 until she died in 2012 are the only complete collection that have preserved this particular period in television media history. While many assumed networks were holding on to the content they aired, that couldn’t be further from the truth. To save money and free up storage space, studios were regularly erasing and recycling broadcast tapes. The almost 71,000 of Stokes’ VHS and Betamax cassettes went to the Internet Archive’s storage facility in Richmond, California, where they were digitized.
“Our vision is really aligned with Marion’s. It’s really bold and ambitious: universal access to all knowledge,” Roger Macdonald, director of the television archives at the Internet Archive said. In 2013, Stokes’ son contacted Macdonald in an attempt to find a home for her tapes.
Macdonald recalled the conversation between himself and Metelits, saying, “How could you physically manage taping all this stuff? And he said, ‘Well, we’d be out at dinner, and we’d have to rush home to swap tapes’…that was one of the cycles of their lives, tape swapping.”
Stokes had also enrolled her husband, nurse, secretary, driver, and step-children with helping her capture every television moment around the clock. She would also regularly ask them about issues of the time and how they felt they were being relayed on television. Stokes was cautious about her recordings because of her work with the Communist party and being a victim of routine government surveillance. She avoided apps like Tivo, and while she was an early investor in Apple Inc, she never sent one email in her entire life, even after convincing the rest of her family to purchase Apple stock. Stokes used the money from her acquired wealth to fund her gargantuan recording project and the storage space it required.
In addition to her work being made public via Internet Archives, a new documentary has also been released spotlighting Stokes’ work. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project highlights her life and legacy and the tremendous impact she continues to make today.
“She was interested in access to information, documenting media, making sure people had the information they needed to make good decisions… She’s already excluded from power and established institutions, so it makes sense that she’d want to pursue her life’s work privately,” said Matt Wolf, the film’s director.
Photo Courtesy of Eileen Emond/End Cue/Electric Chinoland