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TV producer's collection of 840,000 hours of news tapes finds a home

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Philadelphia woman started recording TV news onto cassette tapes in 1977
  • The collection — 140,000 tapes in total — will be digitized into an online, public library
  • The Internet Archive will handle the project, which will take several years and $2 million

By Morgan Winsor

Marion Stokes, a child of the Great Depression, spent her life saving everything -- literally.

The Philadelphia resident kept everything from newspapers and electronics to empty cigarette packets and sticky-notes. Among the cardboard boxes and magazine stacks in her home were 140,000 cassette tapes containing recordings of all local and national TV news programs from every channel.

Stokes spent 35 years recording the news 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That amounts to 840,000 hours of videotaped news.

With help from her family and a personal assistant, Stokes systematically recorded the news at her home until her death at age 83 in December 2012.

She left her collection of tapes--- her "life's work"--- to her only son, Michael Metelits. She gave him no specific instruction but told him that he could donate them to a charity of his choice.

On Tuesday, Stokes' cassette tapes will arrive at the Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization in California, after a cross-country journey in four large shipping containers. The organization will digitize all 140,000 tapes into a public, searchable online archive. The $2 million project will take about 20 digitizing machines, volunteers working around the clock, funding and several years to complete, Metelits said.

Metelits said he always knew what his mother wanted to do with the tapes.

He called his mother a private yet persistent woman who believed that if the public had access to good information, they would make good decisions. Stokes, a TV producer, librarian and political activist, took it upon herself to preserve hundreds of thousands of hours of televised news in hopes of one day making these tapes a repository of knowledge available to the public.

Now, nearly one year after her death, Metelits is finishing what his mother started in 1977 when she bought her first videotape recorder.

"I feel confident that maintaining a family connection and supporting the archive to whatever degree we can and working with them, we're helping preserve my mother's legacy," said Metelits, who temporarily moved back to Philadelphia from London before Stokes died.

It took some time to decide on a home for his mother's tapes, and Metelits worried the entire collection would be too big of a project for one organization. He was overjoyed when the Internet Archive's director, Roger Macdonald, said the group would take them all.

"I almost teared up at how grateful I was. It's just amazing that someone can use everything that my mother did," Metelits said.

For several years, Stokes and her husband traveled back and forth between houses in Philadelphia and Boston, until finally settling permanently in Philadelphia in the late 1980s. But this didn't prevent Stokes from recording the news; in fact, it allowed her to document historical events like the Boston busing crisis.

It's this unique collection of local and national news that makes Stokes' tapes so "remarkable," wrote Macdonald in a blog post for the Internet Archive.

"Her dream of using this collection for the public good can now be fulfilled," Macdonald wrote.

Macdonald could not be reached for additional comment.
   
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