Project Goals and History

Recognizing the unique historical value of the 40 year run of the series now known as American Black Journal, Detroit Public Television (DPTV) has worked with Michigan State University (MSU) to develop a $1.4 million plan to catalog, preserve, and provide broad public access to the entire corpus of the shows. This plan has three long-term goals: (1) save the show's content and associated materials, (2) make these materials accessible for research in a professionally-maintained archive, and (3) develop varied and contextualized Web access to selected content for educational use by the public, scholars, teachers, and students.

In September 2000, DPTV entered a partnership with MSU to accomplish these goals. The partnership between DPTV and MSU has taken advantage of the university's capacity and expertise in archival preservation, disaster prevention, humanities technology research, digital library preservation and production, and providing public access to ephemera. Two MSU units bring crucial expertise and resources that serve this partnership: MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social sciences Online, with its digital lab and digital repository software, and the MSU Libraries' Special Collections, with its public reading room and archival vault.

As part of the overall planning of this project, DPTV held a focus group of Detroit citizens, teachers, and librarians to discuss American Black Journal programming and potential uses for the archive. Information from the citizen focus group was collated and analyzed to guide future programming and uses for past shows.

From the beginning of the collaboration, DPTV and MSU shared the full range of goals, including both digitally preserving the ABJ tapes and using the shows to create a significant, accessible multimedia archive of African-American history. The project has evolved by working on both tracks, preserving selected shows and using them in educational presentations to demonstrate the value of the series and to justify further funding for both preservation of the series and providing meaningful access to it. The partners have now obtained the necessary resources to preserve the entire collection of ABJ tapes and to create two enriched collections of ABJ materials for educational use. Preserving all the tapes will create many more opportunities to create educational presentations using the valuable content from American Black Journal, one of only two longstanding series about African Americans produced by public television stations.

Assessing the collection and its condition

The initial challenge of the partnership was to clarify the content and state of the archive. American Black Journal used tape formats and tape management practices that were common to weekly television production throughout its 40 years of production. While footage of significant people was often saved for reuse, field material generally and some master tapes not deemed important were recycled in order to reduce the station's tape costs. As with most production-oriented broadcast stations, DPTV had no dedicated archivist on staff. Materials were stored insofar as space, staff, and funds permitted. Tapes that were not recycled and papers (production notes, schedules, background research, etc.) without immediate usefulness in on-air production were put into boxes and stored in the basement of DPTV on wooden shelving. In the late 1980s, a climate-controlled storage space with metal shelving was developed on the 3rd floor of the studio building, and new materials were stored here. Thus the first task of DPTV and MSU partnership was to assess the collection.

Collection analysis began with a rapid hand inventory of all ABJ tapes in storage at DPTV headquarters. This count produced a tally of ABJ tapes by year and tape format, shown in Table 1, Columns 1- 3.

Table 1: Tapes of ABJ Shows from 1968-2002

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Column 5
Tape format Dates Number Reformatted by Oct. 2008 Proposed for reformatting
2" Quad 1968 - 1980 32 16 16
1" 1971 - 1999 365 227 138
3 / 4" U-Matic 1978 - 1999 634 275 359
BetacamSP 1993 - 2002 406 0 406
TOTAL   1437 518 919

Additional research of office files was undertaken primarily to determine rights and release information. Information was obtained by delving into program files for relevant data and was recorded in a simple Access database. Program information gleaned from the folders includes: Series Title (American Black Journal [ABJ], Detroit Black Journal [DBJ] or Coloured People's Time [CPT]), Tape ID, Recording Date, Length, Format, Host, Producer, Year Produced, Topic, Release, and Notes (including guest names). A separate guest table includes Tape ID, Guest Name, Vocation, Guest Bio and Signed Release box (checked if signed waiver and release form is available). By the end of 2003, DPTV had collected all information from the office files and entered it into the database.

DPTV's archive of the ABJ series also included boxes of supporting materials. These boxes were reviewed by DPTV in-house specialists, and several folders were selected to use with pilot online presentations. MSU's project archivist and MATRIX project managers visited DPTV storage and assessed the boxes of ephemera. Dr. Peter Berg, Assistant Director of MSU Libraries Special Collections, selected three boxes of supporting materials and brought them to the MSU Libraries Special Collections. The remaining boxes of ephemera were transferred to MSU Libraries Special Collections in early 2008.

Planning, initial digitizing, and creating a pilot website

The NEH Public Programs division provided a 2002-2004 planning grant that allowed the project to consult with key scholars and implement a pilot website for a small sample of shows that were readily transferable. This public programming work engaged five leading scholars of American history - Richard Thomas, Thomas Sugrue, David Bailey, Earl Lewis and Julia Robinson-Harmon - to identify important themes in African-American history that are represented in the ABJ shows. Scholars reviewed the complete list of show titles, guests, topics, hosts and rights information and watched 12 full programs representing different eras of program style. Through this process, the scholars identified ten themes that cross major issues in African-American historiography and the particular experience in Detroit:

  1. Education and Families: Building Opportunity and Community
  2. Leadership: Politics, Politicians, and Reform
  3. Musical Roots and Branches: Jazz, Motown, Gospel, Hip Hop, & Techno
  4. Literature and Language: The Richness and Diversity of Black Voices
  5. Religion and Spiritual Life
  6. Sports and Entertainment: Actors, Athletes and the Black Community
  7. Africa and African-Americans
  8. Urban Challenges: Development, Re-development, and Community Life
  9. Poverty, Progress, and the Rise of African-American Businesses and Professionals
  10. Motor City & Motown: Detroit in Regional and National Context

The consultancy also supported development of a pilot website, which provided online access to four shows from in-house transfers and contextual essays and educational resources by project humanities scholars. Such thematic organization moved this project beyond an earlier generation of online archival projects that simply provide access to raw materials. These themes provide a practical and contextual frame for selecting and presenting ABJ shows so they are more easily used for scholarship and teaching.

During this period, DPTV also secured a services grant (2003-2006) from the National Television and Video Preservation Fund to restore and transfer half of the 2" format open reel videotapes. This grant supported cleaning and reformatting of 16 of the earliest programs from obsolete two-inch Quad tape to Digital Betacam by The Post Group, followed by in-house transfer to DVCPro50.

Voices of Detroit - Implementing an educational website with ABJ episodes

In 2004 MSU received an implementation grant from NEH Public Programs to expand the original pilot into this current website, which created substantial materials about each theme. In this phase of the project, called Voices of Detroit, staff and advisors selected an additional 26 tapes in good condition for transfer and are continuing to work with humanities scholars to add more materials to the site that enrich these shows.

Sixty-seven full-length ABJ shows and more than 90 short clips from them, organized around the ten themes, are of interesting to the general public. To make ABJ interviews more meaningful to non-specialist users, short summaries of each episode, written by Dr. Steve Jones (African-American history PhD), provide context about the historical and political moments when they were produced. Curriculum materials were created that encourage students to look more closely at specific aspects of individual shows. The clips, and more than 130 questions about them, provide pathways through each thematic unit, aiming for both comprehension and critical thinking. To extend the usefulness of these unique materials for students and teachers, the thematic units include annotated lists of external resources, totaling 60 web resources, 30 films and 53 books. The "For Educators" section of the site explains to teachers how to use the collections of materials with their students.

In order to digitize a larger number of shows and build the digital repository for this site, MSU's MATRIX staff set up a 3/4" transfer workstation, calibrated the system with professional assistance, trained two technicians, reformatted these shows, produced streaming media files, set up the Public Broadcasting Core metadata scheme as ABJ's Video Core Scheme within the MATRIX digital repository, and developed a template for displaying the repository material and metadata on this website.

From Resistance to Rights - Using ABJ shows to explore Michigan history

A second educational resource focusing on Michigan history that builds on American Black Journal shows became possible through funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Partnership for a Nation of Learners program (2007 - 2009). MSU and DPTV have partnered with Michigan Historical Center to develop an innovative set of publicly available multi-media resources on African-American history in Michigan, titled From Resistance to Rights: An Audiovisual Resource on Michigan's Civil Rights Legacy. This phase of the project explores Detroit's role as a site of contestation between anti- and pro-slavery forces, Michigan as a microcosm of larger national and international forces of slavery and freedom, and the connections among 19th and 20th century dimensions of America's civil rights movement. These topics are explored using selected ABJ episodes, curated excerpts of legal documents and historical photographs and drawings, along with new contextual narrative and carefully linked metadata. This collaboration aims to advance secondary school student and adult understandings of civic engagement in public and legal processes.

Partners on the IMLS grant will produce a new DPTV broadcast for American Black Journal utilizing historical footage, a new exhibition at the Michigan Historical Center (MHC), and an innovative online resource from MSU's MATRIX that links all of these activities through contextual documents and images, specially-tagged and searchable videos, and educational materials. Evaluation instruments and a kiosk at MHC Museum will provide assessment to inform further development.

A demonstration site of From Resistance to Rights is available, including two Flash demos. This project also has a planning site used by project partners. To date, we have convened planning meetings, made selection of primary source materials from MHC and DPTV collections, and assembled a team of teachers to advise about content and program use.

Preserving all existing ABJ shows and ephemera

The activities completed before 2008 developed a strong base of accessible shows from the ABJ series and valuable contextual materials. However, these activities focused primarily on preserving and providing access to a significant, but limited, number of shows for specific content uses. Preserving the rest of the corpus of 40 years of ABJ shows was the next priority of the DPTV - MSU partnership.

A recently initiated collaborative effort of Detroit Public Television, MATRIX, MSU Libraries Special Collections, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit has received funding from the NEH Preservation and Access Humanities Collection and Resources program for 2008-2010 to preserve and make available to scholars, researchers and the general public the comprehensive collection of existing ABJ episodes, including remaining undigitized shows as well as supporting archival materials accumulated by DPTV over the course of the ABJ's long-standing series.

MSU Libraries will accession and preserve all existing American Black Journal tapes and more than 20 boxes (circa 40 cubic feet) of associated production materials from the 34 years of ABJ programming between 1968 and 2002. These materials will be stored in the climate-controlled vault of the MSU Libraries Special Collections. MATRIX will reformat all remaining tapes that are on obsolete formats (two-inch Quad, three-quarter inch U-Matic, and one-inch tapes). DVDs of all reformatted tapes will be available for viewing at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the city where the shows originated, and at the MSU Libraries in East Lansing, where the original tapes and the collection of print ephemera will be archived and cataloged. Collection-level information and an inventory of the physical collection will be available on the MSU Libraries online catalog; item-level descriptive information about these tapes will be available via this website. In addition, a subset of approximately 100 shows, identified by the project's scholars for their scholarly and educational value, will be available as streaming video on this website.