Processing the WCVB Collection

by Karin Carlson Northeast Historic Film

Processing the WCVB collection is a big job, and while sorting through thousands of film reels may sound a little mundane it has, in fact, been an extraordinary experience. The collection of over 4000 cans of 16mm news film was brought to Northeast Historic Film a couple of years ago. It came to the attention of our director David Weiss through Art Donahue, one of the producers of the acclaimed news program Chronicle.

After years of tracking the collection David jumped on the chance to move it up to our vaults. The NHF staff went to Woonsocket, Rhode Island where the film was being stored in the basement of an old bank and returned to Maine with a heavily loaded Ryder truck. The collection consists of news stories from 1972-1979 and each can may contain anywhere from 1 to 19 reels of film.

When I arrived at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport the cans had been moved to our vault and placed in a rough chronological order. Most have a date written on them and contain reels of news stories from that day. The reels are also labeled with a date and short one to two word description of the story, or slug. Sometimes the date on the reels does not match the date on the can, but fortunately that is the exception not the rule.

Each can is its own little time capsule and I never know what I will find inside. Some cans contain neatly labeled reels, film that is adequately stored on reels or cores, and an assignment sheet with short descriptions of the stories that were to be filmed that day.

Other cans are overflowing with poorly wound film that shoots out like a Jack-in-the-box when I remove the lid. Many cans are filled with dust and dirt, sometimes so thick that it leaves an impression on the lid. One can contained a reel that was covered in a thick spider web, and in another I found a few used cigarette butts. Many contain IOU notes from various WCVB staff over the years about a story pulled from the can, which for one reason or another never found its way back. Regardless of what I may find inside, each can is cleaned up, the information is recorded, and the reels are returned in a more orderly state.

Despite finding some reels in less than ideal shape, most of the film appears to be in very good condition. A decade of Boston history is documented within these film cans - including the busing controversy in 1974, on the street interviews about Nixon’s resignation, protests and strikes, fires, and smaller stories about newly opened restaurants, high school sports stars, car accidents, and new construction around the city.

As I slowly make my way through the pile of red cans in our vault and document what each can contains, I am happy to know that I am one step closer to making these stories available.