A Visit to the Archives
Videotape has been the production and storage medium of choice for much of television history. Digital disks and computer editing suites might soon render it passé, but for the moment videotape still rules.
At the CBC - where video archives are subdivided along programming lines - all new broadcasts are currently copied for archiving in either digital Betacam format or, to a lesser extent, newer high-compression digital SX format. Digital Beta is also the tape of choice for creating new archive copies of older programs currently stored on older videotape formats. Along with copying work, footage is also "shot listed" (scene contents are summarized in sequence) and catalogued in databases that CBC staff can then search from their desktop computers (these databases include all national and regional holdings but not sports, which is catalogued separately.)
Digital copying produces an exact replica of the original. As long as this tape is properly stored and preserved, archivists know they'll be able to make as many additional copies in future as they need without any loss in quality. This means your children and grandchildren will be able to watch the same broadcasts of This Hour Has 22 Minutes or Hockey Night in Canada that you do today.
The goal of the video archives is to have two copies of every program ever broadcast on the CBC - one "untouchable" master and one available to CBC staff to copy for reuse, rebroadcast or licensing to outside clients such as filmmakers and foreign networks. But as long as tapes decay and technology changes, the video archives will always be something of a work in progress.
Size: two vaults, 533 m2
Relative Humidity: 25%
Holdings: 115,000 cans
The film archive's mission sounds simple enough: "To ensure the preservation of all program material created on film, broadcast by the CBC, as cultural assets for future generations." But take one quick pass through the two film vaults in the Broadcast Centre basement and the job's true scope is clear - 115,000 cans of film is a lot of film.
How much? Joined end to end, it would stretch 19,500 kilometres. That's long enough to ring halfway around the equator. Or to span the distance from St. John's, N.L., to Victoria, B.C., three times over. Here in the vaults, to conserve space, film reels are stored in colour-coded plastic "cans" (red = irreplaceable negatives, yellow = magnetic audio, etc.) and packed side-by-side in horizontal slots on long moveable shelves. The contents are grouped into four categories: master elements, production elements, outtakes, and news. To the average person, they're precious copies of The Beachcombers, The Nature of Things or This Hour Has Seven Days.
This still-growing collection, which includes all nationally broadcast material and local Toronto programming, along with some regional material, spans CBC Television's 50-year history. In our digital age, film and TV might sound like an odd fit. But for many years film was a CBC mainstay. In the 1950s and early '60s, programs were recorded on film directly from television monitors. These copies are known as kinescopes. The adoption of two-inch videotape ended the need for kinescopes, but film - mostly 16mm - continued to be used to make news programs until 1978 and documentaries and other shows into the early '90s and beyond.
Size: two vaults, 304 m2, with climate control
Holdings: 205,000 analog tapes, DATs and CDs
The radio vaults in the basement of the CBC Broadcast Centre contain the single largest collection of audio material in Canada. The oldest item is a copy of Canada's Diamond Jubilee Broadcast on July 1, 1927.
From there, the more than 250,000-hour collection spans the trivial to the profound - from pre-television era radio game shows to Winston Churchill's famous speech to the Canadian House of Commons after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It's not just old material, either. Each week, the archives acquire approximately 135 hours of new programming. The range takes in music, comedy, news, current affairs, documentaries, plays, interviews, elections and live events.
The current storage medium is the CD-ROM. The department uses computer workstations and audio streaming technology to selectively capture new programming directly to CD via a copying and cataloguing system known as RADIOLA. Because continuous radio programming can eat up a lot of CDs in a short time, the system is equipped with a 500-magazine CD jukebox. A second RADIOLA system is used to make CD copies of archival material that had previously been stored on ¼ inch reel-to-reel audio tape. All programming material, once copied, is accessible from the department's computer database.
CBC staff from coast to coast to coast have online access to RADIOLA material through CBC's Intranet. This makes it much easier to incorporate old programming into new coverage - when reporting on the history of a conflict, say, or the death of a national figure.
Holdings: 4,000 boxes on site; 12,000 boxes in Federal Records Centre in Ottawa.
The Records Management department stores and manages paper -- all of the CBC's corporate records, from human resources to finance. Much of the time it's a largely unseen and thankless task. But certain records are critical to the programming archives; specifically, their stockpile of contracts, licensing agreements and production files.
The basic principle is simple: someone or something owns every bit of radio or TV programming. If their material is to be used again, the owner - or the rights holder - either has to be paid or to give permission for its use. When ownership isn't clear, production staff must check the original production records held by records management. Those records will identify the rights holder (or holders) and will also spell out how they are to be compensated for the material's reuse.
In the simplest cases - a CBC-produced newscast, for instance - the owner is already the CBC and there's no restriction on internal reuse or rebroadcast. At the other extreme is something like an independent production that aired on the CBC and featured a half-dozen celebrity performers. That program could only be reused by the CBC or licensed to a third-party if the rights holder to the production and every one of those performers is compensated according to the terms spelled out in the original production records and the relevant union agreements.
Contracts and the Internet
Things get even more complicated in respect to the Internet since this new medium wasn't around for most of the CBC's history and isn't mentioned in many contracts. The CBC is still negotiating ground rules for Internet use with some of its rights holders. That's why that TV show or radio program you were expecting to find on our site may not be there yet.
To make digging simpler, records management has the bulk of its production records stored on microfiche (from 1938 to 1976 for radio; from 1966 to 1985 for TV). More recent material is catalogued in an electronic database.
Holdings: 400,000 negatives
The CBC photo archives is a still-photo collection held in the CBC Design Library. It is made up mainly of publicity shots taken by the CBC photography department in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Most of the photographs were taken during dress rehearsals of drama and variety programs produced in Toronto. They are striking mementos of their day, showcasing actors, set and costume designs, even studio equipment like lights and cameras. Among the notables: William Shatner playing Marc Antony in a production of Julius Caesar; Jim Carrey making his 1981 dramatic debut in the teen drama Introducing Janet, and singers Tommy Hunter and Gordon Lightfoot performing on the set of Country Hoedown, which ran from 1956 to 1965. Many more photo collection samples are posted on the cbc.ca web site.
Preservation work has been modest. When the collection was brought to the Photo archives, every item was transferred from plastic cases to acid-free folders. This is a standard practice for all film storage, to prevent chemical contamination from speeding up film's natural fading and deterioration. More recently, in conjunction with the Archives Project, the Design Library scanned and catalogued 8,000 images into a searchable database. Because this is costly and time-consuming, additional scanning and cataloguing is only done "on demand."
The CBC Broadcast Centre features several other holdings that are not traditional archives, but still include artifacts and materials that are part of the CBC's history and heritage.
The CBC Music Library - 150,000 records, 150,000 CDs, and reference material used by CBC producers, programmers and researchers - is more a working library than a true archives. But two components qualify as archival.
The first is the Clyde Gilmour Collection, which was donated to the CBC shortly after Mr. Gilmour's death in November 1997. Clyde Gilmour was a legendary broadcaster, writer and music collector who worked at CBC for more than 50 years. He was best known for the radio program "Gilmour's Albums," which ran from 1956 to 1997. The Gilmour collection consists of more than 10,000 long-play records (including the oft-requested and beloved shrieking lady, Florence Foster Jenkins), 4,000 CDs, program scripts, notes, correspondence, files, tapes and reference materials. It is housed in a corner of the Music Library, set up to look like his basement home office (complete with Mr. Gilmour's desk and old telephone). Clyde Gilmour's music collection is still used by CBC producers for programming.
The Music Library's collection of musical scores from original CBC commissions are also archival. Original works have been commissioned by the CBC since 1936, as part of its mission to promote and nurture Canadian arts and culture. The types of works housed in the Music Library include light classical, full-length musicals, chamber music, operas, concertos, choral music, vocal music, music for full orchestra and other kinds of instrumentation, including electronic media.
The CBC Reference Library is the main reference library for the entire CBC, serving everyone from program researchers to the president. It is first and foremost a specialty library with a 20,000-volume collection on Canadian radio and television broadcasting. As a true archive, its role is limited to its CBC-specific holdings - annual reports, copies of the CBC Times (TV and radio guides that date from as early as the 1930s), production files, all CBC press releases, as well as news clippings, program reviews and news stories about the CBC. Clipping files and other production files are also copied and stored on microfiche.
Virtually all of the material in CBC Archives is tucked away on shelves, in cabinets or on circuits of silicon. To truly appreciate the material, you either have to play it back on some kind of machine or trust in your imagination. That's what makes the CBC Museum so special. Though small and selective, it turns the CBC's seven decades of history into something tangible through artifacts and interactive exhibits. The two current exhibits are Growing Up With CBC and Radio Sound FX. You'll find a collection of artifacts from CBC Children's Television, including the Friendly Giant's castle, complete with a rocking chair or two; Mr. Dressup's Tickle Trunk; and the puppet cast of Sesame Park. The Radio Sound FX exhibition shows you how talented sound effects technicians brought radio drama to life using an amazing collection of machines and devices before the digital age.