The C-SPAN Chronicles: Season 2, Part VII

Hello again! I’m your host (again), Kelsey Kim, C-SPAN Project Archivist.  Today on the blog……..more about the C-SPAN project! Almost fooled you that this was about something else, right? Surprise!

At this point, I imagine you’re thinking something along the lines of “This again? What more could she possibly have to say about this project???” (In my imagination, you sound a little exasperated).  But before you click away from the page, allow me to answer that question.

Yes, we’ve been over preparing for the project.  We’ve talked about the steps in the workflow: prep, imaging and QC, post-processing, and lessons learned.  You’ve even gotten a glimpse of some of the gems.  Yet, there is one question I really don’t think I’ve answered: WHY? As in, why digitize? Why this collection? Why should you care?  As Michael Scott would mumble under his breath when negotiating—you make a very compelling argument.  The “why” of digitization is an excellent question, so let’s take the elements one at a time.

Why digitize?

There are two primary reasons why materials in archives and special collections might be digitized: preservation and access.  Both are more complicated and far-reaching than appears at the surface and both are vital to maintaining long-term use and value of archival records.

  • Preservation—Archives are all about preservation.  That’s literally why they exist.  Preserving historic documents allows anyone to come and touch an actual piece of history and learn more about the lives of people who lived before us.  The only problem is, all that touching wears a document down.  Even if you wash your hands, even if you wear gloves, degradation is like erosion—it’s just a force of nature.  As documents become more fragile, due to age or handling or other issues, typically they are removed from public access and closed for research permanently.  The problem is that then, no one can see them, and the historic value of it is essentially lost.  It’s like buying a Michelangelo sculpture and putting it in your closet—I mean, sure it’s safe, but what’s the point? Enter digitization.  Digitization takes those fragile objects and captures them, so they can resurface as digital files and anyone with access to a computer can see them without touching and risking damage.

Don’t let this be you. SERIOUSLY.

One of the most common questions I get asked as a digitization specialist is why don’t we get rid of material after we digitize it? Seems like we could save a lot of space that way.  But digitization is not a replacement for a physical item, it is just a surrogate.  There is still something unique to a piece of paper as an object, not just a sample of text or film.  I mean, would you want to throw away the Declaration of Independence? Probably not (after all, there could be a secret map on the back, just PLEASE don’t put lemon juice on it!!!!).  The document itself embodies something that the words alone don’t fully capture. So we can digitize it to analyze it, but we’ll hold on to the paper too, thanks very much.

It certainly can.

  • Access—This is more self-explanatory.  Before the Internet age (when dinosaurs and glitter eyeshadow ruled the earth), if you wanted to see an old document, you had to actually travel to where it was stored. EVERY TIME.  Eventually, that improved and you could get physical photocopies made and mailed, but overwhelmingly research was pretty much an on-site job.  Nowadays, once material is digitized, it is just a click away (or several clicks and also minimal typing probably).  Through the World Wide Web, archives can now come into your own home, local library, school computer lab (do these still exist?), tablet, phone, etc.  If the internet is available anywhere around you, you have access!  The more people have access, the more diverse and informed research becomes, and the more diverse and informed research becomes, the more we all learn, and the more we learn, the more we know!  Classic win-win-win.

Not to mention, digitization sometimes allows us to see things that we wouldn’t with just our eyes. Documents too fragile to be physically unfolded can be digitally unfolded, allowing us to see what’s inside.  Different light exposures can help us determine age or see other layers to pieces of artwork or documents that are invisible by just seeing it.  Talk about incredible!

Next, why this collection? 

The simplest answer to this question is a rather straightforward “because that’s what we do.”  It is true that sometimes, when records are donated to an archive, the donors ask for the material to be digitized or set aside funds to facilitate that.  We love donors, so we will work with them however we can.

But for the C-SPAN collection, the answer to the question is also just so much more.  The material we’ve digitized is an absolute treasure trove of history for the past 40 years.  The creation of C-SPAN itself was revolutionary—never before had the actual proceedings of the House of Representatives been so available to the public to watch.  C-SPAN then expanded coverage to include the Senate, and then even foreign governments, like the British and Canadian Parliaments.  In between, it highlighted the work of notable authors and public figures, reenacted historic events, and took us along on campaign tours.  Our Press Releases series showcases how C-SPAN came to be and how it rose to become what it is today.

Six years in, 23 million subscribers. Try getting TikTok followers that fast!

But the collection doesn’t just display C-SPAN’s internal growth—it documents the external reactions to the events and broadcasts of the day.  The Viewer Mail series has nearly 30,000 letters from viewers, giving their opinions and thoughts on politics, economics, foreign relations, and high-profile individuals.  Was the Gulf War viewed positively in the public perception?  What was the national reaction to the Clinton impeachment?  How far did the Y2K panic reach?  You can find out!  Thanks to our extensive metadata gathering, you can search by subject, date, and location! That means, if you want to know if people in Oregon felt differently than people in Arkansas, you can! It’s a truly unique way of tapping into the minds of ordinary people in the past.

This person recommends a more direct punishment for Clinton.

If visual is more your thing, the Photographs series is for you!  In addition to incredible photos from the sets of interviews with such remarkable people as Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Colin Powell, you can also peek into the ins and outs of behind-the-scenes production and what it took to make C-SPAN happen, from breaking ground for satellite dishes to final editing.  Plus, you’ll catch the “silly side” of the C-SPAN staff—making goofy faces and having a blast while making the shows happen.  It’s clear they loved what they did!

I wonder if the people here know this picture exists.

Finally, why should you care?

If you’re still asking this, I’d recommend you go back and read this whole post again.  If that doesn’t help, maybe this will: We did all of this for you and others like you, because we believe there’s something in the C-SPAN collection for you to find!  In nearly 100 boxes of documents, photographs, drawings, newspaper clippings, and letters, I guarantee something will spark your particular interest.  Just wait and see! 😊

Follow SCRC on Social Media and look out for future posts on our FacebookInstagram, and Twitter accounts.  To search the collections held at Special Collections Research Center, go to our website and browse the finding aids by subject or title. You may also e-mail us at or call 703-993-2220 if you would like to schedule an appointment, request materials, or if you have questions.