Someone in San Francisco is digitizing 40,000 homemade VHS tapes

Someone in San Francisco is digitizing 40,000 homemade VHS tapes

Is recording TV around the clock for decades a symptom of mental illness or an invaluable contribution to history? Depends on what happens to the tapes. In the case of Marion Stokes, a woman who left behind 40,000 VHS tapes when she passed away in 2012, the answer is the latter.

Stokes began recording TV regularly in 1977. She started with the nightly news, then, as 24-hour news networks rose to prominence, Marion’s operation also became a 24-hour affair. She ran up to eight VCRs at a time, bought VHS tapes in bulk, and rushed home (or got out of bed) every six hours to change them. Stokes’ son Michael Metelits told Fast Company in 2013 that Stokes had a “deep, deep conviction that this stuff was going to be useful. That somehow, someone would find a way to index it, archive it, store it."

Enter the Internet Archive, a nonprofit “Internet library” that includes a pretty great archive of ephemeral films, and the Wayback Machine, which preserves screenshots of websites (including The A.V. Club) for posterity. Stokes’ children sent four shipping containers full of her VHS collection to the Internet Archive last year, and now a volunteer named Trevor Von Stein is busy digitizing and archiving all 40,000 tapes. 

It’s going to be a massive project—not only do the tapes have to be physically run through a cassette reader, actual humans have to watch the tapes and input meta-data on them in order for them to be useful. Simply inputting 537 tapes into a spreadsheet took an Internet Archive employee over 16 hours. But Von Stein believes in the mission,  calling himself and Stokes “kindred spirits.”

First up on the Archive: a local Philadelphia talk show called Input, which Stokes co-produced between 1968 and 1971. The footage hasn’t been seen in over 45 years, and as far as anyone knows, Stokes’ recordings are the only record of the show available anywhere. (At the time, it was common practice for TV stations to erase and reuse broadcast tapes to save money.) But thanks to the magic of the Internet and a lot of single-minded dedication, you can download them all right now for free

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