Room with a Viewer

A young Larry King. A racist white enclave called Liberty City. A homophobic Anita Bryant taken seriously. South Florida's past is present at the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center.

An ever-growing beast lurks deep within the Miami-Dade Public Library's main branch downtown. Hatched there in 1986, it has been pulsing with life ever since. But while the creature dwells within the walls of the library, it is not of the library.

The creature has a name. It is the Louis Wolfson II Media History Center, an archive dedicated to preserving Florida's heritage as it has been recorded on film and videotape. It is tended by director Steve Davidson and his staff of three, who repair, restore, catalogue, and exhibit the flickering images. They do it in spite of the twin demons of limited funding and daunting quantities of donated materials. They do it in spite of public apathy. They do it because they are afraid that if they don't, a significant part of Florida's cultural identity will be lost. In short, they do it for you.

"History has become perishable," says Davidson, speaking in the hushed, modulated tone appropriate to an archivist. "We're trying to preserve it." As tanned and athletically built as you might expect of a man who spends his days in a windowless, fluorescent-lighted library cellar, the Wolfson Center's director certainly looks the part: Take off the glasses, and the curly, silver-flecked black hair and bushy mustache evoke a plumpish Gabe Kaplan.

Perishable history is a concept that surfaces often in the conversations and writings of archivists such as Davidson. In less than half a century television has gone from a novelty viewed by a privileged few to a mainstay of modern life, the primary means by which a majority of Americans receive their news. Not coincidentally, the medium has begun to supplant print as a source material for historians.

"Film and video records of our daily lives will be the stuff of history," asserts Larry Viskochil, curator of prints and photographs at the Chicago Historical Society. "It's not so much about the movers and shakers of the world, but about what normal people do. The pie-eating contest on Main Street is just as important as the Kennedy-Nixon debates. That's how history is built up. It's a kind of layered thing." From those layers one can divine trends, attitudes, and social movements, like the evolution of civil rights, the origins of the space program, the disappearance of family farms.

According to Viskochil, America's TV stations broadcast an average of 400 feet of newscasts per day each. There are 600 commercial television stations in the U.S., which multiplies out to about 87.6 million feet of news videotape per year. "Television is so fundamental a part of our existence these days that we need to have a wide representation of it just to know ourselves," muses Ernest Dick, corporate archivist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Unfortunately the changes wrought by the information revolution far outpace efforts to preserve and document all that data. And those countless hours of TV news images are particularly vulnerable. Most TV stations quit using film in the late Seventies, switching to videotape, which is even more fragile. Never all that conscientious about preserving film in the first place, broadcasters have been downright cavalier about video, erasing and reusing tapes as a matter of routine. This practice enrages archivists, normally a cerebral lot not known for their militancy.

"Today's news is tomorrow's archival footage," Wolfson director Davidson whispers reverently. "It might have been news," he sighs, "but it's really so much more than that. It's culture. It's history. Video is so ephemeral. So much has already been destroyed."

Jointly founded by Miami-Dade Community College, the University of Miami, and the Miami-Dade Public Library system, the not-for-profit Louis Wolfson II Media History Center was jump-started with a donation from WTVJ-TV (Channel 4) of more than three million feet of film dating back to 1959. This initial infusion has caused some confusion: Although the archive has no financial affiliation with WTVJ, the wealth of material from that station, coupled with the center's name, which honors WTVJ'S long-time owner, created a lingering misimpression. Major donations from Eastern Airlines, WCKT-TV (now WSVN-TV Channel 7), and the Peabody Awards (broadcasting's version of the Pulitzer Prize), plus regular contributions of materials from most of Dade's TV stations, have altered that perception but have not completely erased it. Additionally, with the assistance of several donated VCRs and monitors, in 1991 the Wolfson Center began an aggressive recording program, taping news broadcasts aired on channels 4, 6, 7, 10, and 23.

Davidson stresses the need to retain as much news and documentary footage as possible, without regard to a story's perceived worthiness as historical document. "Often, with the passage of time, the images that are presented take on an entirely different meaning than what was originally intended," he explains. "What eyes do you look at it with? The pace of cutting? The way man-on-the-street interview subjects in the Fifties were so uncomfortable, and today they're sophisticated, expecting the technology? As sociohistorical document? Hairstyles, accents, automobiles, architecture -- sometimes this type of visual information is more important in the long run than whatever editorial viewpoint a story was taking."

As a case in point, Davidson presents "The Scandal of Our Slums," a news special aired in 1961 by WTVJ. In keeping with the station's (and anchorman Ralph Renick's) conservative political views at the time, the gist of the program was that black people deserved to live in ghettos because they were lazy. As evidence the segment furnished a shot of a crowd of nattily attired blacks dancing the Huckle Buck (eerily similar to the electric slide) in a steamy nightclub. Thirty years later a sequel to the award-winning PBS miniseries Eyes on the Prize used the same footage to illustrate the bustling vitality of Overtown nightlife in the days before the construction of I-95 and the expansion of downtown Miami doomed the neighborhood.

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