U.Va. Library Receives NEH Grant to Save Rare News Film Collection

Preservation Services at the University of Virginia Library has won $254,600 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve and digitize unique, civil rights era film from a television news station located in Roanoke, Virginia. The WSLS-TV News Film Collection 1951-1971 is a much-needed yet inaccessible scholarly resource that the Library will make available online via streaming digital video.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has designated the project a part of its “We the People” initiative, which seeks to encourage and enhance the study and understanding of American history, culture, and democratic principles. For more information on this initiative, please visit http://www.neh.gov/wtp/.

The collection consists of nearly 12,500 individual news clips on 16mm cellulose acetate film dating from 1951 to 1971, as well as an estimated 20,000 pages of scripts read by WSLS news anchors on nightly broadcasts. Possession of both the film clips and the corresponding anchor scripts is rare and will allow for deeper contextual understanding and cross searching between word and image.

At present, the WSLS-TV collection is the only known original 16mm news film archive from the civil rights era in Virginia. At the completion of this project, the WSLS-TV collection will be accessible online as a dynamic audiovisual record of life in mid-20th century America, from soap box derbies and beauty pageants to polio vaccinations and civil rights demonstrations.

In Spring 2008 Preservation Services digitized a small portion of the WSLS-TV collection in order to estimate the worth of its content. This project unearthed remarkable footage and indicated that the collection holds a great amount of untouched, undocumented film relating to the civil rights movement.

For example, in one clip, the Reverend James Lawson, protégé of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., explains what he hopes to achieve with lunch counter demonstrations in Roanoke. In another clip, Governor James Lindsay Almond, Jr., wields defiant language at the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals after its decision to knock down the Commonwealth’s massive resistance laws. And silent footage speaks volumes as black and white children enter schools together for the first time in Virginia. These examples of the collection’s content and more are viewable above.

Local television news is an audiovisual history of 20th century America, yet much of it has been forgotten or discarded. The Library of Congress estimates that less than 10% of local news film from the 1950s through the 1970s survives. Therefore, U.Va. Library’s WSLS collection is an essential primary source soon to be accessible due to grant funding from the National Endowment for Humanities and U.Va. Library’s stewardship of at-risk audiovisual materials.

The reformatting of the WSLS News Film Collection—truly a moving image time capsule—is a windfall for scholars and an example of U.Va. Library’s commitment to preservation. For more information about U.Va. Library’s Preservation Services program please visit http://www2.lib.virginia.edu/preservation/. For more information regarding the WSLS News Film Collection, please contact Judith Thomas, Director of Arts & Media Library Services at 434-924-8814 or jet3h@virginia.edu.

Please see media below.

Charlottesville Newsplex UVa Today: WSLS-TV Film Collection
The Daily Progress UVa Preserves Civil Rights-Era News Films
The Cavalier Daily Library Acquires, Digitizes Civil Rights Footage