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Phila. woman's 35-year TV news archive to be digitized, made public

Marion Stokes died with a secret. She'd been recording the television news. All the news, on all the channels, all the time.

Michael Metelits, 53, among the computers his mother had set up at her home in Rittenhouse Square to continue her news archiving beyond the era of videotape.
Michael Metelits, 53, among the computers his mother had set up at her home in Rittenhouse Square to continue her news archiving beyond the era of videotape.Read moreAKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer

Marion Stokes died with a secret.

She'd been recording the television news. All the news, on all the channels, all the time.

For most of 35 years.

By 2012, when Stokes died at her home on Rittenhouse Square, she had filled roughly 140,000 videocassettes with about a million hours of programming.

How much is that? If someone watched eight hours a day, every day, it would take 342 years to see it all. Together, the tapes weigh about 31 tons, a little more than a railroad freight car.

"My mother had a keen sense of the uniqueness of her mission," said Michael Metelits, 53, who helps run Overdue Press, a new e-publishing company. "She would resist, forcefully, anybody who told us this was useless or a waste of time."

She was possessed, he said, by a belief that the miles of news footage would someday, some way, prove useful to somebody.

And they have.

On Tuesday, the tapes are due to arrive at a warehouse operated by the Internet Archive in California, a giant on-line library that plans to digitize the videos and make them available to the public. The gift will expand the archive's collection of national news, and open new, local collections on Philadelphia and Boston.

The project is expected to take years and cost at least $2 million.

"We were awestruck by two things," said Roger Macdonald, Internet Archive director of TV archives. "One, the size of the collection. And two, the human story behind it, that one person could create so extensive a collection."

Stokes, who died last December at 83, worked for the Free Library from the 1940s to the early 1960s, but was much more than a librarian - social-justice advocate, technophile, investor, thinker, reader, and, at one time, coproducer of a local Sunday-morning TV talk show.

News about her decades of taping, first reported by Fast Company magazine, has spread worldwide. In interviews with The Inquirer, her son offered a nuanced portrayal of a woman who was in many ways ahead of her time, whose dedication to recording the news was a positive manifestation of a Depression-era-born impulse to save and hoard.

From his mother's homes in Philadelphia and Boston, he's recovered about 50,000 books, most wearing halos of yellow sticky notes on which Stokes had scribbled a thought or comment. She kept enormous boxes of newspapers, most unsalvageable, and huge runs of magazines. Whenever she bought a toy for a grandchild, she got one for herself, filling her homes with thousands.

She owned nearly 200 Mac computers and gave away many more. Her early, wise investments in stocks such as Apple and Microsoft helped fund her taping.

"Searingly intelligent," Metelits said. And largely self-taught. When Stokes graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls in the 1940s, African American women weren't steered to higher education.

She went to library school, then to the Free Library. Through the 1950s and as the civil rights era dawned, she immersed herself in liberal causes.

In the early 1960s, Stokes led the city chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a national group that sought equitable treatment for Fidel Castro, and was criticized as pro-Communist. The committee disbanded after Lee Harvey Oswald, who had worked as its New Orleans secretary, was accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

Stokes helped organize buses to travel to the March on Washington in 1963, registered voters for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and worked on the campaign to integrate Girard College, then all male and all white.

After leaving the library, she worked for a Christian organization, Wellspring, which developed her TV show, Input. From 1967 to 1969, she and a man she later married, John Stokes Jr., were its co-producers.

Each week, a diverse panel - "conservatives, radicals, blacks, whites, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and agnostics," the Bulletin wrote - debated controversial issues such as birth control, race relations, and student unrest. Stokes often appeared on the show, in an age when it was rare for black women to be on TV.

She began taping the news, intermittently, in 1976 while living in New Hope. Two catalysts soon spurred her on: The Iranian hostage crisis, which played out on TV in 1979, and the founding of CNN in 1980.

America began to develop a 24-hour news cycle, where reporters tracked each shift in the development of a story.

In 1980, while living in Boston, Stokes began recording full-time on two or three, then four or five, then seven or eight VCRs, each attached to its own screen. Through the late 1980s and '90s, she split her time between there and here, the last decade of taping done solely in Philadelphia.

The daily demands of her project structured much of Stokes' life. Cassettes had to be changed every six or eight hours, and the deadlines created a buzz of activity, sometimes forcing dinners to be cut short. Beside each VCR stood a pile of 70 to 100 spent tapes, and a box of unopened cassettes.

Masses of tapes were kept in Boston, Philadelphia, and a storage facility in Warminster, each marked with the date, channel, and program.

Expensive? In 1987, videocassettes cost $5 each. VCRs sold for about $250, and because Stokes' machines ran 24 hours a day, they wore out quickly. Conservatively calculated, she spent more than a half-million dollars on tape alone.

As news shows became all-day operations, Stokes recorded MSNBC, Fox News, CSPAN, and others, also capturing the daily flow of commercials and public-service announcements. Her constant recording, her son said, reflected a belief that the news was an important source of information, and that a well-informed public was essential to good governance.

"She had a vision of the archive," Metelits said, "that people could go back and find [information] by date and time. She didn't really articulate it, but she realized there would be someone who could use this."

People often assume local TV stations have always kept copies of everything they air. They haven't. During the 1960s and '70s, tapes were routinely wiped clean and reused. Even as costs dropped, the volume of tapes and the expense of long-term, temperature-controlled facilities made mass storage impractical.

Stokes' recorded all the national news, as well as local news in Boston from 1977 to '86, a period notable for its busing strife. In Philadelphia, her tapes cover 1986 to 2012, a time that includes the crack cocaine epidemic and the aftermath of the MOVE bombing.

Stokes had a deep understanding of technology, her son said, embracing early innovations and rejecting some that became common.

She refused to use credit cards, certain that marketing companies would compile data on her shopping habits. She didn't use e-mail or the Internet, believing it could be surveilled in ways that recently became public during the NSA spying scandal.

In a way, the nonprofit Internet Archive is the anti-NSA, openly collecting huge amounts of information. It provides free access to digital books, music, movies, and TV shows, everything from Charlie Chaplin silent films to Conan the Barbarian comic books. Each day, about three million people visit the library, which has begun soliciting donations to pay for digitizing Stokes' collection.

"She had good instincts," the archive's Macdonald said. "She got the public value of people being able to engage in a digital world. The staff has been awestruck, and humbled, that we might have the opportunity to fulfill her dream in a manner that she couldn't anticipate."