Student workers at the McNairy Library are about to be introduced to an undertaking where they’ll get to learn about historic moments from southeastern Pennsylvania through old news footage.
In late January, Millersville’s President Daniel Wubah attended a signing ceremony for the collaboration between the university and WGAL 8 to digitize 30 years worth of film rolls. These newsreels contain footage of the daily broadcasts from the TV station from 1949 to 1979, almost all of which have not been seen since they originally aired.
This collaboration has been years in the making, and has a long history. Marilyn Parrish, who is a Special Collections Librarian and University Archivist at Millersville, said that about half of these reels have been on the university campus for almost three decades.
“In the late 1980s, former MU faculty member Dr. Bill Dorman and former WGAL News Director Dan O’Donnell rescued a lot of the film from a dumpster at WGAL and brought it to Millersville.” At the time, there were renovations happening at the news station building, so the reels were deemed unnecessary and tossed out.
These reels sat in a small room in the Charles and Mary Hash building until May 2015, when they were moved over to the library and put in acid-free storage boxes to properly preserve the film. The second half of the collection came from WGAL in the fall of 2018, which completed the 30 years worth of continuous news footage.
Many at Millersville are excited at the opportunity to see this footage and archive it in McNairy Library, but there are challenges that need to be overcome first. Parrish said that there are thousands of rolls of film, almost all of which were just wrapped around a pencil before they were stored. This means that the rolls can’t just be placed in a projector to be viewed or recorded.
The equipment needed to view and digitize the reels properly is very expensive, and the process to get the proper setup is complicated. Because of this, the collaboration between the university and news station announced the “MU-WGAL Media Preservation and Digitization Task Force,” which is comprised of people from many departments of Millersville along with members from WGAL.
The working groups of the task force revolve around the practical needs of the project like funding, technology and equipment, and student learning. Parrish said that the first step in digitizing the material is to obtain the funding for the equipment. “We have to do the grant writing first, and that will hopefully be happening over the next couple of months.”
One of the members of the task force is Kim Lemon from WGAL. Lemon has worked at the station for 40 years, and many people probably recognize her from her 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. news broadcasts. As a staple of the Susquehanna Valley news scene, she offers insights to the group that no one else could.
“I’ve been a news anchor here for nearly 40 years,” Lemon said in a phone interview. “I think I’m a part of the team not only because I’m a news person, but because of my unique perspective.”
Lemon grew up watching WGAL, and entered the working world of journalism when film was the standard technology. She remembers going out in the field and shooting footage and then having to wait 45 minutes for the film to develop just to see what was captured.
She finds it exciting to see what will be recovered. “I think it’s just breathtaking. Who knows what we’ll be able to find out. Journalism has changed so much, it’ll be interesting to see what’s changed over time.”
She also mentioned one specific thing she’d like to see recovered: the day that Wilt Chamberlain set the single-game scoring record by scoring 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1962 at the Hershey Sports Arena. She recalled the memory of it happening and it being aired on WGAL 8, but said she’d love to see the moment once again.
The ultimate goal of the entire venture is student learning. When asked why the university decided to take on the project, President Wubah said that he “wants students to have a hand in the entire process. We didn’t want to send the film reels to a company that would digitize it, because students will be able to learn a lot from the experience doing it themselves.”
The digitization program can only start after the grant funding is fulfilled, which Parrish said probably won’t happen until at least next semester. After that the equipment can be purchased and the archiving can start, but the timeframe for the rest of the project is still to be determined.
Parrish said that it’s hard to figure out how long everything will take because of the enormous amount of film reels to go through. For her and those working on the archiving, it’s more of a continuous process more than a task to complete as soon as possible.