Did Marion Stokes record the largest personal television archive in the world?
Marion Stokes was an activist who kept more than three decades of television recordings, resulting in what some say is one of the largest known personal archives of such material. A Reddit post claimed to detail his remarkable life:
TIL by Marion Stokes, a civil activist who bought a Betamax VCR in 1975 and never looked back, recording thousands of hours of television over nearly four decades with multiple VCRs, creating an archive of over 70,000 bands. It is the largest known television archive by an individual.
This post is partly correct. Stokes was a black social justice activist and television producer. According to a profile of Stokes in Atlas Obscura, in 1975 she purchased a Betamax magnetic VCR with which she began her archival project. In 1980, she began recording full-time on several VCRs, starting with two or three and increasing to eight.
While many report that she began recording in 1975, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that she began intermittently recording television shows in 1976. But, according to her son, Michael Metelits, who spoke to the Inquirer in a number of interviews, her recording became constant at the start of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 when “she hit a record high and she never stopped”. It was also reinforced by the founding of CNN in 1980, which ushered in an era of 24-hour news coverage, where reporters followed every development of a story in real time.
Her recordings continued until her death in 2012 and spanned nine news stations, according to the 2019 documentary “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project.”
According to the documentary’s website, her recordings began in earnest in 1979. Regardless of her start date, she recorded for more than 30 years, in a way her son described as part of her impulse to save and to hoard, but also “a form of activism”.
The documentary, which screened at the Tribeca Film Festival to critical acclaim, describes the importance of its archiving:
Before “fake news”, Marion fought to protect the truth by archiving everything that was said and shown on television. The public didn’t know it, but the networks had been throwing their archives for decades into the dustbin of history. Remarkably, Marion saved her, and now the Internet Archive will digitize her tapes and we can search them online for free.
It’s a mystery in the form of a time capsule. He is a radical communist activist, who has become a fabulously wealthy reclusive archivist. Her work was crazy but it was also genius, and she would pay a heavy price for devoting her life to this visionary and infuriating project.
According to early reports in 2013, she owned around 140,000 VHS tapes that recorded media coverage of revolutions, political scandals and more. However, the Internet Archive corrected that number to 40,000 when they began receiving containers of tapes from Stokes’ family. Her son donated the tapes to the nonprofit known for its extensive online archive, and they planned to digitize everything and make it available to the public.
A correction to a Fast Company report on the digitization process was published in Poynter in 2014: “And there are not 140,000 VHS tapes, as Fast Company and Poynter wrote in November. Just 40,000. The family overestimated.
Internet Archive has also reached out to Fast Company with an update:
The Internet Archive received four shipping containers of tapes from Stokes in December. After conducting an inventory of samples, he realized that the family’s initial estimate of the number of tapes was incorrect. The collection has about 40,000 tapes. “I think it’s daunting when you’re faced with lots of storage containers, 20 or 30 feet deep, to figure out,” Macdonald says of the reason for the error.
However, in 2021, the Internet Archive tweeted the number of tapes along with a photo of when they were first delivered to them. They added that the number was over 70,000:
Today, the tapes can be found in the Internet Archive’s extensive collection at the following links:
The Stokes collection is certainly not the largest such archive in the world. That accolade may belong to Vanderbilt University which claims to have “the most extensive and comprehensive archive of television news in the world.” They “have been recording, preserving and providing access to national network television news since August 5, 1968”.
UCLA claims to have “the largest college collection of motion pictures and broadcast programs”. The Dartmouth Media Ecology Project ranks the UCLA Film and Television Archive as “the second largest moving image archive in the United States after the Library of Congress and the largest academic media archive in the world.”
Atlas Obscura describes the Stokes Archive as “the only complete collection preserving this period [of 30-plus decades from the 70s to 2012] in the history of television media. Some reports state that it is the largest known archive of television made by an individual. This assessment may be correct, given that recording all this material from one’s own home was particularly unheard of at the time. We are not aware of any other personal project with this expanse of archival footage.
Al-Samarrai, Noor. “The remarkable story of a woman who preserved over 30 years of television history.” Dark Atlas, April 29, 2019, http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/marion-stokes-television-news-archive. Accessed April 26, 2022.
Archive Partners – The Media Ecology Project at Dartmouth College. https://mediaecology.dartmouth.edu/wp/partners/archive-partners. Accessed April 26, 2022.
Bender, Abbey. “The woman who recorded decades of TV news on 70,000 VHS tapes.” HyperallergicJune 6, 2019, http://hyperallergic.com/503528/recorder-marion-stokes-documentary/.
Bradshaw, Peter. “Recorder: The Project review Marion Stokes – the woman who kept the television on for 30 years.” The Guardian4 Nov 2020. www.theguardian.com, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/nov/04/recorder-the-marion-stokes-project-review-documentary-television-news. Accessed April 26, 2022.
Explore Collections | UCLA Film and Television Archive. https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/explore-collections. Accessed April 26, 2022.
Gammage, Jeff. Phila. Woman’s 35-year-old television news archive will be digitized and made public. Philadelphia plaintiff, https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/20131209_Phila__woman_s_35-year_TV_news_archive_to_be_digitized__made_public.html. Accessed April 26, 2022.
Kesler, Sarah. “The incredible story of Marion Stokes, who single-handedly recorded 35 years of television news.” fast businessNovember 21, 2013, https://www.fastcompany.com/3022022/the-incredible-story-of-marion-stokes-who-single-handedly-tapped-35-years-of-tv-news. Accessed April 26, 2022.
“Marion Stokes’ 40,000 TV news recordings are slowly coming online.” PointerMarch 26, 2014, https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2014/marion-stokes-40000-tv-news-recordings-slowly-come-online/. Accessed April 26, 2022.
Online resources for moving images (Moving Image Research Center, Library of Congress). https://www.loc.gov/rr/mopic/onlinesources.html. Accessed April 26, 2022.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. https://recorderfilm.com. Accessed April 26, 2022. “Tribeca Film Festival”. Accessed April 26, 2022.
the new yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/movies/tribeca-film-festival-3. Accessed April 26, 2022.
“Why a Woman Secretly Recorded 30 Years of TV News.” BBC News. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-48190528. Accessed April 26, 2022.