University of Georgia

Preserving memories: Georgia’s first and only media archive celebrates 25th anniversary

Photography By Camie Williams
Margie Compton in front of wall covered in empty film reels
Margie Compton, media archives archivist, has designed the mural “Reel Wall” in her office using empty film reels that demonstrate the historical changes to media during the past 100 years.

Famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns once said, “I don’t think that there has been a film that I’ve done that hasn’t been influenced by libraries and archives.”

That’s because libraries and archives, like the one in UGA’s Special Collections Building, contain artifacts and facts that help historians, researchers, and yes, filmmakers, frame and provide context for the events that shaped our world.

Burns’ job, and that of others like him, would be a lot more difficult without the decisions made 25 years ago that created the Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection to preserve and provide access to special collections of media. Today, the Brown Media Archives’ holdings range from radio broadcasts to home movies that date back over 100 years.

The first and only public archive in Georgia dedicated to audiovisual materials, the Brown Media Archives was founded in 1995 with 18 collections, including news film from WSB and radio and television programs submitted to the Peabody Awards. In 25 years, the unit has grown in size and scope, preserving and sharing millions of feet of film and videotape, volumes of audio and terabytes of digital media.

“I’m so proud of everyone at BMA and what we have accomplished in the past 25 years, and we are excited to share our mission and passion with media enthusiasts across Georgia this fall to celebrate,” said Ruta Abolins, director of the Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection. “Over two-and-a-half decades, we have uncovered, preserved, and shared audio and visual media that tell the stories of our nation in unique ways. We will continue to preserve the moving image and sound content from the region and, importantly, provide access to that content for the people of Georgia and beyond.”

woman touring Brown Media Gallery in the Special Collections Libraries Building
A student tours the Brown Media Gallery in the Special Collections Libraries Building, exploring collections that range from local and national television programs and blockbuster films to home movies, broadcast news, and music and radio. The building, which also features galleries for two other special collections units, is open for self-guided tours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

Reel stories

Looking at Margie Compton’s “Reel Wall,” it’s easy to see how unique media can be. Even without the film attached, the empty circles display the trends of the past 100 years, from heavy, fist-sized 1920s artifacts to a stiff cardboard relic during the metal shortages of World War II to the steering wheel-sized bright pink, orange and yellow plastic from later in the 20th century.

They all have the same shape, but the spokes can vary, and the thickness is determined by the gauge of the film. These are just a small sampling of the types of materials that the faculty and staff at the Brown Media Archives care for, but Compton feels the weight of the delicate work of preservation when she glances at her wall.

“I primarily work with the film collections, inspecting donations, making repairs where necessary, and getting an idea of what the material is about,” said Compton, an archivist at BMA.

“I spend time looking at the images on the reels so I can provide some information as to their content as we get the data into our online database, but I also do a bit of research into some scenes if I see a historic event, or something that looks important or unique.”

Compton said she finds it impossible to choose a favorite experience, but noted finding the earliest-known footage of African Americans playing baseball, from around 1919. She also remembers a collection of home movies from William B. Short, a soldier who chronicled his military assignments in the 1930s and ’40s on Kodacolor.

“It’s his personal story, his love of his family and home that are evident in his films, that make these materials memorable for me.”

Mary Miller in media archives vault
Mary Miller specializes in archiving the Peabody Awards Collection, which contains all submissions to the prestigious electronic media award competition housed in UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She also works with faculty members across UGA in the Libraries’ Special Collections Fellowship to incorporate media and other historic materials into their courses.

Two of BMA’s faculty members have their own family connections to the archives.

Mary Miller specializes in the Peabody Awards Collection, which houses and preserves the thousands of entries to the prestigious media award, which has been hosted by UGA’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication for 75 years. She noticed a familiar title to one of the entries from the 1940s, the Glenn L. Martin Airplane Company. Miller knew her mother worked as an engineer during the World War II efforts to build planes, so she asked to have the program digitized. She was delighted to hear the voice of her mother, then the only “lady engineer” at Glenn L. Martin, discussing her work as a chemical engineer.

Callie Holmes, digital archivist and digitization unit head, enjoys the challenge of working with various formats of media to ensure that they are preserved in their original and digital formats.

Callie Holmes, a digital archivist who joined the Brown Media team four years ago, felt the call to preserve her own family history, so she donated her parents’ families’ home movies.

“In my father’s family’s collection, we found an amateur film by Walter Bergmann of my family’s peach packing shed in South Carolina in the 1960s,” Holmes said, referring to the acclaimed amateur moviemaker. “It was special to find a piece of film history in my family’s collection.”

The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection preserves millions of feet of film and videotape, volumes of audio, and terabytes of digital media. Its 410 collections are secured in the vault of the UGA Special Collections Libraries Building, along with collections for two other special collections units.

Tech trove

Everyone has an uncle or family friend that still has an old beta cassette player or some other media relic from a generation ago. Techs at the Brown Media Archives have dozens of old machines that they repair and keep running to view and digitize the wide variety of materials in the collection.

The equipment can feel almost like antiques, but to the BMA crew, it’s about a lot more than nostalgia. They know that one misstep might mean that a valuable piece of history is destroyed.

“I enjoy the challenge of working with precarious formats, knowing that we have a limited number of years to preserve some of the items in our collection and working to make sure that we’re doing that to the best of our ability,” Holmes said. “My role is very technology dependent, and connecting video decks from the 70s with computers from the 2020s is a challenge that I enjoy taking on.”

Holmes leads a team of three full-time audiovisual techs: Thomas May, K.J. McCoy and Tyler Ortel, two of whom were introduced to the archive as students at UGA. Last year, Ortel was named the 2020 Student Employee of the Year by the UGA Career Center.

“To find someone like Tyler, who has a genuine passion for analog videotape, is like winning the lottery,” Holmes said. “His skills are not just rare in our department or at UGA, but even nationally and internationally.”

Ortel and the team helped to identify a man in footage as Ed Dwight, who trained to become the first black astronaut until he was pushed out of the NASA program after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

“Without Tyler’s work, Dwight might still be languishing in our records as ‘unidentified male,’” Holmes said.

three audiovisual technicians at their work station
Tyler Ortel, Thomas May, and K.J. McCoy (left to right) serve as audiovisual technicians, teaming up to ensure the transfer of media into high quality digital formats.

While researchers and documentarians from around the state, nation and world make use of the BMA collections, the faculty in the Russell Special Collections Building remain committed to one constituency that is central to the program’s mission: the students at UGA.

“One of the best parts of my work has always been the opportunity to mentor the UGA students who’ve been employed in BMA over the years,” Miller said. “For most, their time at BMA begins as ‘just a campus job,’ but many have gone on to careers in libraries, archives or the film and television industries. There is nothing more rewarding than helping another person realize their potential and find their purpose, and we get to do that here in BMA.”

Miller and others often work with faculty members in the Grady College and other units across campus to provide archival instruction to classes, and the Brown Media Archives’ faculty work with other special collections archivists to help professors develop new ways to incorporate archival materials into their courses.

Milestones through BMA’s 25-year history

Use the arrows to navigate through the timeline.

  • 1995

    BMA is founded as the Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection with 18 collections, the most significant being the WSB Newsfilm and the Peabody Awards Collection. It is located on the 7th floor of the Main Library behind the Media Department.

  • 1998

    BMA gets a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for $96,589 to preserve African American history and culture programming in the Peabody Awards Collection.

  • 2002

    The archive is renamed the Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection after a large donation from the Watson-Brown Foundation to honor Brown, a journalist and pioneer broadcaster.

  • 2004

    BMA gets a Save America’s Treasures grant for $300,000 to digitize and preserve local television content in the Peabody Awards Collection.

  • 2005

    A unique “lost” episode in “The Honeymooners” history is discovered in the Peabody Awards Collection. The episode, titled “Love Letter,” originally aired Oct. 16, 1954, on “The Jackie Gleason Show.”

  • 2010

    BMA wins a Southeastern Regional Emmy for “Andrew Young Presents: How We Got Over.”

  • 2012

    The Special Collections Building opens at UGA, housing the Brown Media Archive and two other special collections units and featuring a new exhibit area to highlight collections.

  • 2012

    The Pebble Hill Plantation Film Collection reveals the earliest-known filmed footage in Georgia, from 1917.

  • 2013

    The earliest-known plantation baseball game, from 1919, is discovered in The Pebble Hill Plantation Film Collection.

  • 2018

    BMA gets a National Historical Publications and Records Commission grant for $216,280 to digitize and preserve public broadcasting content in the Peabody Awards Collection in collaboration with the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

Lasting legacy

There are a lot of important dates in the archives’ timeline, such as the 2002 donation from the Watson-Brown Foundation—when the unit was renamed to honor Walter J. Brown—and the 2012 move to the state-of-the-art Special Collections Building, which included a gallery space dedicated to showcasing BMA collections.

This year marked another major milestone, as the archive received an unexpected blessing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

K.C. Carter, processing and metadata assistant, worked with temporary workers this summer on special projects to transcribe thousands of shot logs in the WSB News Video Collection and view and describe hundreds of hours of tapes to improve searchability and access. The work greatly augmented researchers’ ability to access Brown Media’s collections online.

When UGA closed campus to prevent the spread of disease, some UGA Libraries staff and student workers were unable to continue their regular duties from home. That presented an opportunity for Brown to provide a teleworking project that could sustain them through the months at home and make a dent in the backlog of work to make materials more accessible via online databases.

BMA’s processing and metadata associate K.C. Carter worked with Miller to train their new temporary workers on the special projects, which included transcribing thousands of shot logs in the WSB News Video Collection and viewing and describing hundreds of hours of tapes to improve searchability and access.

Though the work of the faculty and staff in the Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection is tied to the past, they are always looking toward the future to ensure that the relics of media survive for future generations.

“Fact: digital files decay, too. People assume that once you’ve digitized something, you’re done, but digital files require as much or more care as their analog counterparts,” Miller said. “Just as cassette players gave way to CDs, which gave way to MP3s, so must the digital technology be upgraded.”

The archivists are reminded constantly of the impact of their work, as they see the clips that they steward make their way into research and films. Abolins said one of her career highlights was when Ambassador Andrew Young presented her with a Southeastern Regional Emmy for BMA’s work on the Civil Rights Digital Library, which led to the documentary “Andrew Young Presents: How We Got Over.”

“It was a great honor to have Ambassador Young hand me the Emmy after the win and tell me personally that we deserved it,” she said.

In 2010, director Ruta Abolins accepted a Southeastern Regional Emmy on behalf of the Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection from Ambassador Andrew Young for work on “Andrew Young Presents: How We Got Over.”

Two of the most popular documentaries of 2020 were produced with the help of the Brown Media Archives. “John Lewis: Good Trouble” and “Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President” tell the stories of two of the most influential Georgians of the past 50 years. Their early days of activism are preserved in the Special Collections vault through news film and other collections, and the archival footage helps to frame their legacies.

During an anniversary event featuring a discussion with archival researchers from Burns’ Florentine Films, Miller said the message of preservation is evident when the footage comes to screens again in a new format.

“I think that [documentaries] are one of the best arguments in favor of material being preserved,” Miller said, “because we can say, ‘it still has a life; it still has meaning; it is still relevant; it can convey information in a powerful way.’”

woman hosting informational booth in library
Mary Miller sits at the Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection booth during Archives Week at the Main Library in the late 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection)

To explore Brown Media’s collections, go to

This article also appears in the UGA Libraries biannual magazine Beyond the Pages and is posted with permission.

BMA anniversary events

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection, UGA Libraries will host a weeklong celebration of Home Movie Day 2020, including a lookback on the early days of legendary Athens rock band The B-52s, as well as a panel discussion featuring freelance documentary filmmakers.

Virtual Tour
Home Movie Collections

Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020
2:00 – 3:00 pm
Facebook Live

Virtual Discussion
Keith Bennett B-52’s Home Movie Collection
Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020
7:00 – 8:00 pm
Facebook Live

Virtual Family Day
Home Movie Day 2020
Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020
Facebook Live

Virtual Panel
Behind the Scenes with Freelance Filmmakers

Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020
7 p.m.
Facebook Live