Some scoffed that it shouldn’t be done; others speculated it would be too risky, too expensive for a university to undertake. But on May 25, 1953, the first educational television station in the country signed on from the fifth floor of the Ezekiel Cullen tower at the University of Houston. KUHT-TV was born.
The endeavor drew attention nationwide, because using television to deliver instruction had never been done. Everyone, from television critics to members of the Federal Communications Commission, was interested in the innovation to come.
That history—a key moment in the evolution of not only UH but also of public television itself—is at risk of disappearing, deteriorating in the old film canisters where they have been stored for more than half a century. It is just one project in a growing field, with archivists at the UH M.D. Anderson Library helping to lead the way as experts use the latest technology to save pieces of our past.
The records of those early days at KUHT are tangible evidence of the efforts that went into developing the station, led by UH President Walter W. Kemmerer. The initiative—and the expense and delays it incurred—would later lead to his resignation. Despite misgivings from some of the UH Board of Regents, Kemmerer had the backing of politicians like Mayor Roy Hofheinz and philanthropist and Board Chairman Hugh Roy Cullen, who a few years earlier had paid for the construction of a 285-foot oil derrick to serve as the first transmitter and antenna for KUHF radio.
“Dr. Kemmerer felt that UH was particularly well suited for exploring education television because we had so many working students,” said Emily Vinson, audiovisual archivist in UH’s Special Collection at the M.D. Anderson Library. “The opportunity to have classes in the evening, attend the lecture from your home and fill out workbooks and mail them in was really unique.”
UH’s longest serving faculty member, the late Richard Evans, Professor Emeritus in the department of psychology, was one of the pioneers, interviewing the foremost psychologists of the day, such as Carl Jung, B. F. Skinner and Erik Erikson as he became the first professor in the country to teach on public television.
“Dr. Evans not only had many programs that he produced himself and starred in, but he also was really into the analysis of the effectiveness of educational programming. I think he saw the potential in ways that maybe other universities didn’t,” said Vinson.
The programming was cutting edge. “Mexicania” introduced viewers to the Spanish language and Mexican culture. At a time when “separate but equal” doctrines were legal, UH, the “white college,” partnered with neighboring Texas Southern University, the “black college,” for the program “People are Taught to be Different.” It featured an African-American cast from TSU performing a script written by an African-American professor. The film centered on universal emotions shared by people despite cultural or racial differences.
“It is an interesting part of Houston history and an interesting moment in history of the University of Houston, which had not embraced diversifying,” said university archivist Mary Manning. “Yet, it also shows UH’s early commitment to the working class person’s education. Educational television expanded higher education opportunities for people who had to work during the day, who are the students UH served.”
Today, the KUHT archives—more than 2,000 films and 12,000 videos—are housed in a humidity- and temperature-controlled facility on the second floor of the M.D. Anderson Library. A digital preservation effort is underway to save many of the reels that were damaged due to improper storage in the decades before the archives returned to UH. As each reel or tape is digitally preserved, the programs are made available to the public. Considered “primary source material,” it is of particular interest to documentary filmmakers and scholars. It is also part of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting project, a national initiative led by the Library of Congress and WGBH, Boston’s PBS station, to catalog all public broadcasting produced in the United States.
The KUHT collection includes a number of formats—from U-matics, to Hi8, Betacam and DVCAM. Many were short-lived, and the machines to play them are rare or obsolete.
UH Special Collections continues to secure funding to transfer the material one batch at a time. Two hundred videos from the collection are currently available online, primarily from the 1950s and 60s. Another 300 with a focus on Texas news during the 1990s, taken from “Almanac” and “Capitol Report,” are being transferred with funds from a TexTreasures grant from the Texas State Library and Archives. Those videos will be available in August.
The digital preservation effort is time consuming and expensive, something that many archivists—from the M.D. Anderson Library to the Library of Congress—are facing as they struggle to keep up with how quickly technology changes. At UH, the issue goes well beyond the KUHT archives. Today, archivists say many of the collections include both analog and digital assets, such as hard drives, digital photos, email and computer disks and drives of varying formats. Kelleher says a significant amount of material from the second half of the 20th century has already been lost due to rapidly changing technology.
Bethany Scott is the coordinator of digital projects for Special Collections at UH Libraries. She uses digital forensic technology, initially developed for solving crimes, to analyze hard drives, disks and even whole computers that are donated as part of an archival collection.
“It was only once institutions like UH started acquiring lots of digital files and assets and started noticing that, for example, we don’t have a floppy disk drive anymore. We can’t open this file or that anymore. We don’t have the software,” said Scott.
In many instances, an emulation of the old software is set up to open files. Archivists and librarians have developed a set of best practices for digital preservation, which includes preserving the metadata by creating disk images, recording everything known about the file and taking specific preservation actions, or “microservices.” UH uses specialized software to track these actions and record information about them.
“A strategy of digital preservation is having multiple copies of something in case one of them fails,” said Scott. UH Special Collections has 10,000 feet of shelving filled with archival material from its 13 collecting areas, which includes rare books, the university archives, Houston and Texas history, LGBT history and Houston hip hop.
“It’s enough of a challenge to have to figure out how to find the document that will help the student or researcher in that amount of material,” said Kelleher. “How do you do that when you have an endless amount of primary source material online that was produced on Twitter?”
For those tasked with preserving our history, it’s the next big issue.
“How do you document what happened with the Occupy (Wall Street) movement, when so much of it was not formally documented on paper?” said Kelleher. “There is not a formal organization that produced material—it sort of lives in the ether online.”
But hope is not lost. The most damaged film from the KUHT collections now sit in a freezer. They are mostly deteriorated, but Vinson is hopeful they can one day be saved. “As technology gets better, maybe it will catch up and there will be a way to transfer them.”
In the meantime, she continues the work of migrating the films out of the old cans and into better plastic housing, “helping them live as long as possible.”