It’s birthday time for a Washington institution — it’s been 30 years since C-SPAN first hit the “record” button on its video library.
Since 1987, the network’s videos have captured the congressional moments that a history nerd’s dreams are made of.
But back then, keeping a recording of every moment of air was virtually unheard of as TV networks erased footage when they recycled tapes.
“We felt that C-SPAN was primary-source material,” Dr. Robert Browning, who created C-SPAN’s video library along with the network’s founder, Brian Lamb, tells ITK. “It was more than news, it was long events — including the entire House and Senate proceedings. And they were being erased.”
So C-SPAN opted instead to preserve the footage — and invest in a whole bunch of Panasonic VHS tapes.
“We put about 12 VHS machines and we ran them on a two-hour cycle and changed them twice a day and stacked up lots of tapes. And then we immediately started entering information in the database: who was speaking, where it was, what the subject was and a brief summary of it,” said Browning, who serves as the executive director of the C-SPAN Archives.
The library went digital in 2002. In its 30 years, C-SPAN has recorded a whopping 165,000 events and 14,000 congressional hearings.
According to the cable network, the most-viewed clip in the library’s history is then-President Clinton talking about immigration in his 1995 State of the Union address. The video has been viewed more than 2.5 million times.
“What really gets people motivated is to find either gotcha moments or critical moments when somebody said something that has a different meaning today,” said Browning, a professor of political science and communication at Purdue University.
“Another clip that’s always been very popular for people using it is tobacco executives swearing that nicotine wasn’t addictive. Those kind of moments get frozen, and people keep coming back to them,” Browning added.
Much has changed, Browning says, since the early days of the library. A typical turnaround time when the library first went digital was about two hours.
“Let’s say somebody said something on the House floor and it was at 10 o’clock and they gave a one-minute speech. Well that tape wouldn’t be out of the machine until noon. Today, people want the material instantly.” Now, video is archived to the library within five minutes.
For Browning, maintaining and updating the library over the years has been like seeing a baby grow up.
“At year one and two, it took a lot of care and needing and couldn’t stand on its own. Now at 30 years, it’s pretty much an adult.”
“The only thing that’s funny about it is the next generation will take it for granted,” he says with a laugh. “They’ll say isn’t that what YouTube does, just keep track of everything? Thirty years ago, it was an unusual step to create an archive of an entire network, but today people kind of expect it.”