By Siobhan Hagan

The University of Baltimore has a large amount of moving images held by its Langsdale Library’s Special Collections Department in the WMAR-TV and the WJZ-TV Collections.

WMAR-TV was the first television station in Baltimore, Maryland, and was one of the first television stations in the United States. It had its first broadcast on October 30, 1947. Then in November of 1948, the WAAM TV station was broadcast on Baltimore airwaves. By 1953 approximately 90 percent of households in Baltimore owned at least one television set. The Westinghouse Electric Corporation (Group W) purchased WAAM in 1957 and renamed it WJZ-TV. In 1959, WJZ-TV built the first three-antenna candelabra tower and shared it with the other local Baltimore stations, WMAR-TV and WBAL-TV, creating what is now referred to as “TV Hill”. The tower greatly improved broadcasting coverage in Maryland, and added new viewers in nearby Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Local television collections document the twentieth century through their first-hand depiction of people, places, and events. They are primary sources illustrating people’s differing opinions, what they cared about, how they dressed, how they talked, how they entertained themselves, how they saw themselves and other people—both the everyday American citizens and the more well-known figures. They show places that are long gone, some remembered, some forgotten, and landmarks that remain the same. They show historic events, local traditions, and lesser known occasions and phenomenon. Local television stations covered both regional and national news stories and events, and the institutions that care for these types of moving image collections should be considered “the guardians of our local heritage” as a nation.[1]

In 1997 the Library of Congress released a five-volume report on television and video preservation. One of its major findings was that there has been a “nearly complete loss of almost three decades of local television news footage, primarily from the 1950s through late 1970s.”[2] The Library of Congress reports that this results in a lack of documentary records of the United States during this era. The study also points out that this is due to the widespread use of video in television production, as “videotape was never designed as a permanent preservation/recording medium.” Another article states that “virtually all of the magnetic tape ever recorded older than as little as 10 years may be in serious jeopardy” of complete destruction.[3]

Although there are other surviving local news collections documenting this formative period of broadcast television, these collections are unique in many ways. Mostly in their size, and high number of camera-original sources and video masters of stories and programs. These combined collections are also distinctive in their scope of time: the inclusion of both the WMAR-TV and WJZ-TV Collections provides continuous coverage of 1948 through the year 2000. Lastly, the copyright to all productions created by WMAR-TV and WJZ-TV was transferred to UB along with the moving image materials.

The University of Baltimore’s holdings are valuable because they comprise a stratum of material that often has been destroyed in other localities, particularly in terms of news footage. The Library of Congress report mentioned above indicates that the problems of ambiguous ownership of copyright, lack of playback equipment, lack of staff to devote exclusively to film collections, use of originals and lack of reference copies, and nonexistent finding aids from the stations are inherent in this type of collection and the time period in which they began to be preserved.[4] The Library of Congress reported that approximately 25 years of local American history was destroyed in the years 1950-1975 due to the loss of local television news collections. It also noted that less than 10% of the news film libraries are extant and that about 20 states have zero collections of their local television stations and programming. This illustrates that any such collection in the United States is unique and valuable.

The AV at UB represents a rare and comprehensive element in a national network of collections that is fragmented, widely dispersed and irreplaceable. Unlike the few other local news collections that are extant, Baltimore’s location in close proximity to the national capital assured that much of the news content compiled and aired by this station related to national, as well as local interests.  This coverage takes on added national importance because the national broadcasting networks discarded their holdings before 1968.[5] All of these significant factors make the WMAR-TV and WJZ-TV Collections at UB extremely rare. While UB provides a secure home for these materials and are able to reformat a handful of items per year—there are still thousands of items waiting and needing to be preserved.

[1] Local Television: A Guide to Saving Our Heritage, Association of Moving Image Archivists.

[2] “Library of Congress Releases Landmark Study on Preservation of American Television and Videotape Heritage”.

[3] Jim Lindner, “Magnetic Tape Deterioration: Tidal Wave at our Shores”.

[4]  William Murphy, Television and Video Preservation 1997: A Study of the Current State of American Television and Video Preservation, Vol. 1: Report. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1997.

[5] The Vanderbilt Television News Archive claims to be “the world’s most extensive and complete archive of television news.” However, the archive contains only national network programming since August 5, 1968, no local television.