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Television in the Library of Congress

Jump to: Introduction | Character and Development of the Collection | Television Collections | Catalogs


Having collected and preserved motion pictures in various forms since 1894, the Library of Congress began collecting films made for television in 1949 with the addition of a "Hopalong Cassidy" feature. Because of such early acquisitions, the Library has been referred to as the "granddaddy of television archives," (1) and it continues to increase its television holdings today, adding them to the large general collection of moving image materials on film, videotape, and videodisc under the stewardship of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (M/B/RS).

Like all other moving image materials in the collections of M/B/RS, the TV programs in the archive can be seen in the Library's viewing facilities, without charge, by those doing research of a specific nature, leading toward a publicly available work. All viewing is by advance appointment. See the MARVEL document "Guidelines for Viewing Moving Images" for more information about viewing the collections.

Character and Development of the Collection

The programs comprising the Library's television archive are an eclectic group; they offer a broad but uneven view of television broadcasting history. One may wonder why there are so few episodes of certain popular early situation comedies while there is a full run of another. To demystify this puzzling disproportion of programs, we can look at some factors which - alone and in combination with each other - have dictated the development of this collection.


One of the obstacles to acquisition of early television programming was a technological one. Most early television was live, so unless kinescope recordings (kines, pronounced "kinnies") were made from the image on the screen, no physical record of the production existed. Although the image they reveal is fuzzy and distorted, kines preserve not only the production, but also a spontaneity only found in the live productions of early television. Kinescopes are scarce and desirable.


Another explanation is bound up with the Library's practice - since 1870 - of developing its collections by selectively retaining deposit copies of materials registered at the Library for copyright protection. Many producers of early television programs did not seek to register their programs, seeing little long-term commercial value for their product, or deciding that cumulative costs of registering whole series were too high. And the owners who did wish to obtain copyright protection for early television transmissions encountered the legal concepts of "fixation" and "publication." As had been previously established with film, performances by broadcasting did not per se constitute publication; publication cam at a later point, when the material had been fixed and offered for sale, lease or rental.

"Because network television programs were not sold or leased in copies, there was considerable uncertainty as to when TV programs were "published" within the meaning of the existing copyright statute. Since the Library's power to compel copyright holders to deposit copies extended only to "published" works, the mandatory deposit features of U.S. copyright law were shown to be inadequate to the task of assuring the orderly development of a comprehensive TV archive." (2)

Legal precedent had made it clear that network broadcast did not constitute a publication, but then what did? Some legal advisors to the producers favored using the date of first syndication as the first "publication date." But syndication often took place years after the initial broadcast and may have involved many different corporate entities. Most programs such as talk shows, sporting events, news, variety and game shows were only aired once and never syndicated at all, so these technicalities tended to emphasize the registration of prime-time entertainment series, as opposed to programs aired only once. Because the Library depended heavily on copyright deposits--through voluntary registration--for its television acquisitions, the result of this legal morass was that the collection grew unevenly.

The resolution of some legal uncertainties, as well as changes in the television marketplace, occurred in the 1970s:

"some of the [legal] shortcomings were adjusted by the 1976 Copyright Act.... More important, due to syndication agreements, new markets for public sale of copies of programs, and anti-piracy enforcement, an increase in the number of copyright registrations for television materials began in the 1970s, and more television became available to the Library than ever before." (3)

Of particular importance to the Library's collection was, beginning in the late 1970s, the belated copyright registration of many older TV series, including the numerous non-network filmed entertainment series of Ziv Television Productions. An example is I LED 3 LIVES (1953-1956), which, because it reflected American political attitudes of the Cold War, was retained "in toto" (117 episodes) by the Library when it was registered for copyright in 1979.

So, a complex mix of copyright-related issues, interacting with other factors, account in large part for the sporadic development of the television collection in the Library. Continuing this trend, in the last ten years the collection has benefited from the release of a wide variety of early television programs on videocassette, many of which have been deposited for copyright.

Acquisition Practices

A third major factor in the development of the collection was an attitude held by Library of Congress acquisitions officers toward television programming which paralleled that of the scholarly community in general. The Library simply underestimated the social and historical significance of the full range of television programming. There was no appreciation of television's future research value. So, before the mid-1960s, few TV programs were acquired for the Library's collections. Of those registered for copyright during these years, the Library chose only an occasional sample of entertainment series--e.g., one episode of THE HONEYMOONERS--and the so-called "quality" programs. (Presumably, scripts and other documents would substitute for the filmed shows themselves.) Further, until the mid-1960s the Library chose not to buy and rarely to solicit gifts of television programs not available through copyright.

In 1966, the job of deciding which TV copyright deposits would be retained in the Library changed hands; it became the responsibility of the then Motion Picture Section reference staff, which fielded Library users' requests for television programs. Responding to the broadening range of research needs, TV acquisition expanded. In contrast with earlier exclusivity, the post-1966 copyright selection practices included keeping all network documentaries and telefeatures, and a healthy sampling of entertainment series and other types of programming. For example, of television's longest-running prime-time series with continuing characters--GUNSMOKE (1955-75)--the Library retained only one copyrighted episode in 1963, six in 1969, and twenty-one in 1973. And so, despite the paucity of funds allotted by the Library for TV purchases and the infrequent solicitations of gifts of uncopyrighted television programs, the collection began the maturation process which continues today.

Television Collections

Following are some important television collections in M/B/RS acquired other than via copyright deposit.

NBC Television Collection

The NBC Television Collection was acquired by LC in July 1986. This is an historic collection 18,000 television programs broadcast, preserved and for the most part produced by NBC. With programs dating from the beginning of network television in the United States (1948) through 1977, the NBC Television Collection includes not only performances by major actors and musical talents, but also numerous events featuring significant individuals in public affairs. This acquisition significantly increases M/B/RS's holdings of television not acquired via copyright deposit: programs from the late 1940s and early 1950s and genres such as sports, game shows, children's programs and daytime television. It should be noted that this acquisition does not include NBC's news archives (which contains raw footage shot for news broadcast) nor any post-1977 material.

Kinescopes comprise the majority of the NBC Television Collection. M/B/RS holds mostly picture negatives with separate sound tracks. Viewing copies are presently available for only a few titles. Researchers with enough lead time may request that video viewing copies be produced for in-house use only. Request for purchase or reuse of material in the NBC Collection must be made directly to NBC.

NET (National Educational Television) Programs

NET programs held by LC probably total over 10,000 titles and date from 1955-69. NET became PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) in 1969, and a few PBS programs from the early 1970s are included in this group of NET programs.

Because the "collection's" segments were acquired at different times and from different sources, strictly speaking, they are not a single collection. But each represents a facet of the large body of work generated for NET.

The first segment--16mm prints of some 550 titles--came directly from the original distribution center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1965-1967. The programs are instructional or educational, including, for example, the series TOURISTEN-DEUTSCH (14 programs teaching elementary conversational German, produced in 1957 by WTTW, Chicago); THE NATURE OF COMMUNISM (60 lectures co-produced by Vanderbilt and Notre Dame Universities in 1964); and TWO CENTURIES OF SYMPHONY (20 programs teaching music appreciation, produced by WGBH, Boston, in 1960).

The much larger second and third segments were received in the late 1970s-mid 1980s and consist of preprint elements (16mm negatives, sound tracks, etc.) for some 10,000 programs. There is overlap with the first segment, as well as other similar series: THE BASIC ISSUES OF MAN (12 programs, Georgia Center for Continuing Education, early 1960s), and SEARCH FOR AMERICA (series on American institutions and problems, Washington University). The broadening interests of educational television are also reflected in such series as CASALS MASTER CLASS, international acquisitions such as CIVILIZATION, and programs documenting the social revolution of the 1950s and 1960s such as ESCAPE FROM THE CAGE (on mental illness), HISTORY OF THE NEGRO, JAZZ MEETS THE CLASSICS, and NET JOURNAL.

Finally, with the 1993 conclusion of a major agreement with PBS, the remaining PBS holdings of NET material, which came to PBS from WNET in 1980, have been donated to the Library. There are nearly 8500 master films and videotapes. They probably largely overlap with previous acquisitions but are essential, because they are the best remaining, complete copies.

PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] Collection

The Library will continue to acquire a broad range of public television through PBS's gift of programs to which its distribution rights have expired. It is one of the largest of M/B/RS's television acquisitions--some 30,000 master videotapes were available for transfer at the time of the agreement and will be preserved by the Library of Congress.

LEONTYNE PRICE AT THE WHITE HOUSE, 3-2-1 CONTACT, and James Burke's THE DAY THE UNIVERSE CHANGED are just a few examples from the full range of cultural and informative programming PBS has made available in this country since 1969. PBS will continue to transfer additional programs annually.

It should be noted that the Library also collects public television programs through its other acquisitions activities. Copyright deposits (1950s--) and Off-air recordings (late 1970s-- ) include a wide selection of current programs, which are available to researchers as viewing copies. These also include some programs aired by public television stations but not necessarily distributed by PBS.

D. Television News

The only example of "early" television news in M/B/RS is a non- copyright deposit television news series, DOUGLAS EDWARDS WITH THE NEWS (CBS) (40 issues, 26Sep-11Nov 1960), comprised primarily of coverage of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential election campaign. The Division holds nearly complete weeknight broascasts of ABC EVENING NEWS (1977-1992) and numerous issues of NIGHTLINE (beginning in 1987); nearly all CBS news programs (1975-1993); an extensive collection of MACNEIL-LEHRER NEWSHOUR; but there are no NBC EVENING NEWS deposits. In the early 1990s, as ABC and CBS stopped depositing their evening news broadcasts, the Division began acquiring master copies of ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news broadcasts from Vanderbuilt Television News Archives. Master videos acquired from Vanderbuilt are not available for viewing at the Library of Congress.


In 1989, M/B/RS published "Three Decades of Television: a Catalog of Television Programs Acquired by the Library of Congress, 1949- 79" compiled by Sarah Rouse and Katherine Loughney. The catalog is a complete list of holdings up to 12/31/79, excluding commercials and news programs. The nearly 20,000 entries provide synopses of fiction and nonfiction programs, genre and broad subject terms, cast and production credits, and copyright and telecast information. At this writing, the catalog is out of print.

Additional cataloging for television programs can be found in the Moving Image Research Center as well as on the Library of Congress's computer catalog. For information on these see the MARVEL document "Library of Congress Catalogs and Indexes."


  1. Eric Breitbart, "Save the Waves," in American Film, October 1985, p. 65.
  2. Lewis Flacks, International Copyright Officer, Library of Congress, U.S. Copyright Office, Office of the Registrar, November 1985.
  3. Ibid.

This document is a synthesis of excerpts from two publications:

"Three Decades of Television: a Catalog of Television Programs Acquired by the Library of Congress, 1949-1979," compiled by Sarah Rouse and Katherine Loughney. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1989.

Footage 89: North American Film & Video Sources, New York: Prelinger Associates, 1989.

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  September 12, 2022
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