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George Mason to host C-SPAN’s historical archive

C-SPAN founder and chairman Brian Lamb during a visit to George Mason University’s Fenwick Library. (George Mason University)

The long connection between Fairfax’s George Mason University and the hallowed television institution C-SPAN just got stronger. C-SPAN is giving the records, papers and many hours of historical interviews about C-SPAN’s creation and steady growth to the George Mason University Libraries for cataloging and public use, the two parties announced recently.

This does not mean GMU is getting the archive of C-SPAN’s 34 years of programming, executive chairman and TV personality Brian Lamb told me Thursday. That is already online through an outfit in Indiana, is available here, and has virtually every minute of C-SPAN’s programming since 1987. And it’s amazing. Go play with it sometime (after you finish reading this, of course). Or do serious research. I just watched a 1994 segment with The Post’s Walter Pincus on Iran-Contra. Very little has changed, as it shouldn’t, and it reminds you of C-SPAN’s importance as a means of mass civic education.

C-SPAN — the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network — launched in March 1979, funded by the cable television industry as a non-profit venture, and it continues so to this day, without any taxpayer money. The first thing it showed was a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives by then-Rep. Al Gore. But Lamb had been planning and developing it for four years prior to launch, as a way to show Congressional, federal and other public affairs programming. There are now three C-SPAN channels, a C-SPAN radio station and several websites.

The documents that went into creating and developing C-SPAN in its early years, and up through the present, are what will be archived by George Mason, which plans to create a website that will have a portal to the programming archives as well. Lamb said there will be video in these records too. In 1985, he said he sat down and did 25 hours of interviews about the creation and early years of C-SPAN. 25 hours. Well, we’d expect no less from C-SPAN. He said other original board members and people involved at the outset were interviewed as well, for indeterminate amounts of time.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s been here for years,” Lamb said. “You could probably fill three or four moderately sized rooms. Newspaper clips, letters, all kinds of photos. The really interesting thing is the intellectual history. It’s going to be one of those things people will study in 50 years, when all of this has changed completely. This place came together step-by-step.”

C-SPAN’s ties to George Mason date back to 1981, when public policy professor Mike Kelley created the Capitol Connection wireless cable TV service, to provide cable programming to places which weren’t wired for cable. Lamb pointed out that Kelley got C-SPAN into the White House and other government headquarters during the early Reagan years, before the District was cable-ready. Lamb said Kelley, also a former director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board and a bluegrass DJ at WAMU-FM, was a significant player in Mason’s growth in the communications field. Kelley, a Fairfax City resident, died suddenly last month at the age of 71.

(Interesting side note about Kelley and C-SPAN: Multichannel News reported that in 1983, a group of students who had visited the White House then went to C-SPAN’s offices and discussed their meeting with President Reagan on-air with Lamb. C-SPAN Vice President Peter Kiley said Lamb was taking viewer calls and the operator’s voice said: “Hold, please, for the President.” Reagan had been watching and wanted to follow up on an answer he had given them. “One moment in C-SPAN history made possible by Michael Kelley and Capitol Connection,” said Kiley.)

Two years ago, George Mason’s libraries also became the permanent home for Lamb’s Booknotes Collection, featuring the books and notes Lamb kept for his long-running author interview program. University librarian John Zenelis said cataloging and making the new materials available will probably be a three-year project, and the materials will be of interest to a wide range of researchers and authors who want to examine a channel born at the beginning of the cable age, which “developed to be the premier network for public affairs in the United States,” as well as to Mason educators in a variety of politics and communications-related classes.

The collection contains board documents, correspondence, “a lot of memorabilia relating to Brian as well as the C-SPAN organization. It’s the artifacts that provide a window into the organization and how it has evolved over time,” Zenelis said. The records “really preserve, on behalf of the nation, a facet of our cultural and historical legacy.”

It will be interesting to see how Lamb gradually overcame the resistance to TV cameras in Congress, first in the House, much later in the Senate, and elsewhere around Washington and the nation. (But not in the federal courts.) (Argh.) It was C-SPAN’s success at showing government process, without being disruptive or sensational, which helped convince smaller governments across America to allow their own hearings and public meetings to be filmed or broadcast or streamed to the citizens who paid for them. Now many local and state government meetings can be seen online or on public access cable TV. It all started with C-SPAN. And that start will now be archived in Fairfax.