Have We Learned Anything? Lessons from the WCVB Collection

Submitted by Shannon

Director David Weiss often introduces me as the oldest living intern. And during my tenure, twice now, as intern at NHF, I admit to loving the time on staff in equal measure with my years, that is, as my age increases so does my joy!

There were chilling moments, however, during the year while viewing selections from the 4,600 tapes in the WCVB collection. I am in my 70s working as an archivist now, but began adult life, with young children, as a professional journalist.

A knot formed in my stomach as I watched CityLine in July, and Five on Five in September, and then several Good Day segments in October, 1991, discussing the nomination and then confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas. Joe Biden chaired the senate committee, and I listen to them all talk about what Thomas was saying and what kind of justice he might be.

All that talk inspired something less pleasant in me than a pause. It caused me to think about myself 30 years ago, about my children then, and my children now, who are parents themselves with grade-school-aged children of their own. I wondered, were there clues in the hearings, in Thomas’ record, in the testimony? Is it possible to predict future behavior in this way?

One of my internship tasks is to abstract the content of the broadcast tapes, to summarize each broadcast into a quick digest. I embarrass myself at least weekly when tears spill down my cheeks as I am caught off guard by the familiar in the broadcasts I am witnessing.
For example: The antics of Red Sox Roger Clemens that I remembered when they were fresh; the great blizzards when each of them were the greatest; the wars that we seem to keep fighting generation after generation; the AIDS epidemic that seems small in its statistics by comparison to COVID-19; the sports victories and the terrible losses; Boston Pops concerts on the river with cannons and fireworks; great stories of tiny towns I know or have visited, and thrill to see on tape in this collection.

Sometimes it is hard to separate my past from this past that I am seeing and hearing again on the thousands of reels of Aqui ,The Baxters, Body Works, Chronicle, CityLine, Discover New England, Five on Five, Good Day, Park St. Under. Sometimes I have to let the tears wash away my past before I can write the details dispassionately that need to be in the abstract for today. As a trained journalist I have learned something about separating my personal feeling from my working self, and as an archivist I have learned something about the value of preserving and presenting an accurate portrait of a particular period, even if it is out of synch with the taste and standards of the current times.

Again and again, the WCVB collection astonishes me with its depth and breadth of New England during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. From the coast to the mountains, through woods and across more meadows than I can count, there are stories of disappearing rail lines and vanishing waterways that make me want to step away from the keyboard and get on my hiking boots.

Learning new skills on the library and tech side, at the hands of very patient teachers in Emma, Joe, and Karin, gave me plenty to do throughout the year without leaving the office, however. Mistakes were made regularly and luckily for me, Jane and Andrea, on the office side of the staff, were kind about my missteps. During the year, two close friends died – one to brain cancer and another in a car accident – and each death caused me to be less focused on work. Everyone at NHF tolerated me with kindness.

There is work yet to be done, and I hope I will be invited back – yes, this is an open unabashed request for more time at NHF! The digitizing of the tape required more time than initially expected because of mold and equipment limitation, and so the abstracting work was delayed. Some of that has been abated, and as of this writing more than 20% of the tapes are digitized and abstracted for uploading to the web. Yeah!
The WCVB Collection is worth the time and money already spent, and will be worth so much more when complete in providing a rich snapshot of New England’s character and emblematic reflection of the world, that I would love to contribute to any on-going work. It is such a gift to the knowledge database!

—Shannon E. Martin, intern