One of the intriguing aspects of working with the Library of American Broadcasting (LAB) collections is discovering, through routine processing, people who developed interesting careers in early network radio and television but are not well-known among broadcast historians. In particular, information on women in broadcasting can be especially scarce, making it challenging to discover the full scope of their contributions to the industry. The relative lack of archival documentation compared to their male counterparts certainly reflects their historic marginalization in the industry.
Sometimes, we have only a few items from which to assemble personal histories, such as those I find while working with our photo archive. Take, for example, this press photo of a woman seated in front of an early NBC “box camera” microphone. An included caption describes her: “Continually on the trail of celebrities to present on the National Farm and Home Hour, Helen Stevens Fisher generally succeeds in presenting at least one nationally famous personality each week. Her early experience as a newspaper reporter serves her in good stead when it comes to getting her guests to tell some of their most interesting experiences.”
Autumn is quickly sliding into winter, and we at Special Collections and University Archives are hunkering down, already reminiscing about summer days spent in the sunshine. For coping with quarantine, Maryland Public Televison’s (MPT) program On Nature’s Trail is a true delight. University of Maryland (UMD) alumni Jean and Elmer Worthley take viewers on an exploratory trip into the woods. Jean, the author of The Complete Family Nature Guide, studied human development and childhood studies at UMD, and was the host of the beloved MPT children’s show Hodgepodge Lodge. A noted botanist who received his PhD from UMD, Elmer grew plant specimens under the sponsorship of the UMD School of Pharmacy. These two approach nature with a conversational tone reminiscent of a science class field trip. Each one of On Nature’s Trail’s 26 episodes focuses on a specific environment or landscape, from summertime woods to railroad tracks and hedgerows.
The Mass Media and Culture unit in Special Collections and University Archives holds a wide range of collections documenting U.S. television and radio broadcasting history, including the Maryland Public Television (MPT) collection. In celebration of the University Libraries’ extended “Year of MPT” celebrating the organization’s 50th anniversary, we just published our finding aid for the MPT records! This finding aid is an invaluable resource for our campus community and for the public to learn about this unique and vital collection documenting the history of Maryland’s only state-wide public television broadcaster.
While the library is temporarily closed due to the pandemic, explore the finding aid from home. There is something for everyone in the 3,920 itemized videos (including over 700 with links to digitized content) and the 47 boxes of print records and photographs:
The finding aid is a guide to the entire Maryland Public Television collection, including print records, photographs, and recordings on open-reel film, Betacam, U-Matic, and VHS tapes. The print records include administrative records, correspondence, memos, program guides, promotional materials, publications, marketing and development plans, newspaper clippings, budgets, and reports. The thousands of videos represented in the MPT finding aid document the breadth and depth of MPT’s broadcast programs, primarily from the mid-1970s to the late 1990s but dating as late as 2013.
This most recent phase of documenting the MPT collection began in January 2019 in anticipation of last fall’s exhibit opening, Made Possible by Viewers Like You: Maryland Public Television Turns 50. Processing Archivist Jen Wachtel spearheaded the inventory and finding aid project. Although previous archivists documented portions of the collection, Jen started from scratch with the audiovisual inventory so that we would have an up-to-date and accurate record. An important milestone for Special Collections in working with large audiovisual collections, the publication of this finding aid also reflects an enormous effort on the part of many other people from MMC including graduate student assistant Emily Moore, past graduate assistant student Liz Holdzkom, and Curator Laura Schnikter.
Of course, documenting thousands of videotapes takes time, as does ensuring the accuracy of the metadata (the detailed information in a library catalog record). Proceeding shelf by shelf throughout 2019, the team updated and refined the inventory. Just as they neared the last few stacks of videotapes in early 2020, the University Libraries shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Working remotely with the pre-pandemic inventory, Jen Wachtel and Archival Metadata Librarian Liz Caringola experimented with workflows for reconciling large amounts of data across multiple inventory spreadsheets and linked digitized videos to the corresponding items on the inventory. In the meantime, Jen Wachtel created descriptions about the print and audiovisual series so that public viewers would be able to navigate all components of the collection. For example, although the physical videotapes and film reels are not necessarily shelved by program title, for the sake of discoverability, each item is arranged alphabetically by MPT program title in the finding aid.
We are so excited to share this public broadcasting collection, made possible by viewers like you!
Jen Wachtel is the Mass Media and Culture and Processing Archivist and Special Collections Engagement Specialist at the University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. She is also a graduate student in the History and Library Science (HiLS) dual master’s program and Museum Scholarship and Material Culture graduate certificate program at the University of Maryland, concentrating in modern European history and archives and digital curation.
For fans of libraries and archives who harbor a special place in their hearts for Maryland history, Maryland Public Television’s Chesapeake Bay Collectibles is a treasure trove! A Mid-Atlantic version of Antiques Roadshow, Chesapeake Bay Collectibles is a great starting point to explore the best of our region’s history. This 2011 episode features a couple of antiques specific to Baltimore, embodying some colorful parts of its fascinating past.
First up is a relic from the infamous Great Baltimore Fire, which ripped through the city in February of 1904. A stack of melted eyeglasses, grabbed by the owner’s grandfather, bears witness to the destruction of the blaze.
Over the course of two days, the fire, which started in a dry goods store, decimated the downtown areas around Camden and the Inner Harbor. Baltimore’s narrow streets accelerated the spread, resulting in a towering blaze that could be seen as far away as Washington, D.C. Aid from the Capitol proved to be useless as the couplings for the fire trucks did not fit the hydrants in Baltimore. Eventually, firefighters from Philadelphia and Delaware would join the battle. A February 7, 1904 issue of the Sun Metrogravure, the Baltimore Sun’s weekly pictorial magazine, covered the destruction, and can be requested here in our special collections.
Next we’ve got the Betsy Patterson music box, a beautiful piece named after a woman commonly referred to as “The Belle of Baltimore”. The daughter of an Irish immigrant who eventually became the second richest man in Baltimore, Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson was beloved for her grit and risque fashion. Perhaps most famous for her short-lived marriage to the younger brother of Napoleon I, Patterson enjoyed a brief stint in Europe during which she was forbidden from touching French soil. A number of tomes celebrate Patterson as the heroine of Baltimore, including Glorious Betsy, being the romantic story of the Dixie belle who defied Napoleon, by Arline De Haas and Rida Johnson Young, currently available in UMD’s collection in the Maryland Room.
While we at Hornbake Library have finished celebrating MPT’s 50th anniversary, our digital archives of their offerings continue to entertain and educate viewers of all stripes. Chesapeake Bay Collectibles is a great jumping off point for exploring the rest of our digital collections – a treasure hunt that you can do from your couch! Matching items from the show with resources in our collections demonstrates the web-like nature of our holdings: each object speaks to another! From rare books to antique maps, UMD’s special collections build out the context around each object and provide the opportunity for creativity in search. It’s a great reminder that our holdings can be applied for learning in a ton of different ways. Be sure to check out our next installment on MPT, where we check out Wolf Trap, and the amazing cultural events that you can enjoy from home.
Emily Moore is a second-year MLIS student with a background in art and theory. In addition to her role as a student assistant at Special Collections and University Archives, she works as the Archival Assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
May is here, bringing with it bouts of summer weather that have us eager to shed the stress the spring semester. While the library often represents serious intellectual pursuits, at Hornbake Library we have plenty of materials documenting the lighter sides of history. May I present Crabs, an irreverent sketch comedy show produced by Maryland Public Television (MPT) in the 1980s. Crabs serves up clever commentary on culture and politics both local and national. The pilot episode, “Nature’s Way” premiered September 5, 1984 and invited the Mid-Atlantic to taste Baltimore comedy.
Each 30-minute episode was taped before a live studio audience and cast members served as both actors and crew. Our featured episode consists of nine hilarious skits, ranging from spoofs to musical numbers. While the entire show has plenty to discuss, today we’ll be focusing on three comedic gems that make light of the dynamic between Baltimore and Washington, DC.
The show opens with an exterior shot of Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, the original home of the Orioles. Voice-over informs the audience about a concerted effort to encourage more D.C. baseball fans to come see the Baltimore Orioles. Wearing a “Where’s the beef?” t-shirt that is three sizes too small, the Baltimore fan in the stands is a ballpark classic: heckling the players, waving his arms and spilling his beer. Sliding in to take the seat beside Where’s the Beef (despite the fact that the section is otherwise totally empty), our man from D.C. comes complete with a picnic basket, a quiche, and a cravat to boot. The two new companions are both thrown off by the other, with Where’s the Beef asking Cravat “Are you from a foreign country?”, to which he disdainfully replies “I’m from Washington.” The juxtaposition and back-and-forth between the two pays irreverent homage to the dynamic between the two cities, a theme that runs throughout the episode.
Mary Ellen Agnes Kelly (1926-2005?) was an American television researcher, talent coordinator, and associate producer with the pioneering early morning television program Today on NBC. She was also a special assignments reporter, traveling far and wide to film feature segments. Kelly crisscrossed the United States many times and covered stories from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. Newspaper articles from the period compared her to Nellie Bly, the intrepid 19th-century reporter known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. Kelly traveled around the world – on the first commercial flight over the North Pole in 1957 – in 71 hours and six minutes. Unfortunately, her remarkable career is little known today.
A remarkable collection of photographs and clippings from her career are now part of Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture. The journey of these materials to our collections is typical in how it was nearly discarded but later adopted by an appreciative collector. In the 1960s, Kelly sublet her New York City apartment to a man who subsequently discovered several boxes she left behind. He contacted her to offer to return the boxes, but she declined. However, he thought that the contents were fascinating and kept the boxes for over 50 years. When he passed away, his widow – realizing that Kelly must have been important as one of the few women working in early television – donated the material to the UMD libraries.
On February 26 and 27, the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force will host its first conference on the subjects of historical media archives, and the organization of educational and preservation initiatives on a national scale . Friday’s activities will take place downtown at the Library of Congress, and Saturday’s will be held at Hornbake Library North.
Speakers will include numerous UMD librarians, faculty from various campus divisions, and several iSchool alum, as well as prominent archivists and scholars from throughout the United States. Highlights include panels and workshops on how archives can deal with audio materials, discussions about using digital tools to save our radio heritage, panels on how radio materials document race and gender throughout American history, and a workshop featuring three NEH representatives on how to find funding for archival projects.
Registration is free and open to the public, and can be completed by sending an e-mail to Kevin Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are pleased to announce the Spring Media Studies Talks, hosted by UMD Libraries, Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture, in Partnership with Media Studies at Catholic University of America.
Join us on March 26 at 4:30pm for a talk by Ethan Plaut of Stanford University.
Ethan R. Plaut received his Ph.D. in Communication in 2014 from Stanford University, where he continues his research as a postdoctoral fellow in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric. His dissertation addressed communication “avoidance”—the ways we limit our own communication—and other research interests include silence, propaganda, digital media, transparency, journalism, remix culture, media ethics, and humor. Recently published and upcoming work appears in both popular media and academic journals including Quartz, Public Opinion Quarterly, and Communication, Culture & Critique. Before coming to Stanford, Ethan spent three years working as a journalist in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.