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Year-old C-SPAN Center broadens scope of network’s archives


Fall 2018 | By David Ching. Photo by Brian Powell.


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Connie Doebele worked at C-SPAN for 25 years, playing a pivotal role in developing some of the programming for which the television network is best known.

So, when the opportunity arose to hold a position focused on making the network’s public affairs content readily available to scholars and the general public, Doebele’s experience made her a perfect fit.

“I guess it’s not surprising that my love for that network goes pretty deep. I spent my whole professional career there,” Doebele said. “The opportunity to take the programs that I and my colleagues worked so hard on and see it have a new life and new possibilities of use for future generations, that opportunity was something that is such an obvious next step for me.”

That next step is a leading role with the year-old Purdue University Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement, where Doebele serves as managing director. Purdue launched the center as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of the C-SPAN Video Library, housed at the Purdue Research Park.

The center’s objective is threefold: to facilitate use of the network’s expansive online archive — approximately 250,000 hours of available programming across three C-SPAN channels — for scholarly research, to promote its use in the classroom, and to engage with the public and academic community on public affairs issues.

“We want to look at this collection from a Purdue standpoint, from an academic standpoint, and say to the faculty, ‘We’re a resource to help you use it. We’re a resource to help you find material. We’re going to create a website that will be organized around topics in political science and communication, and we’ll help you and help you work with your students to use the material,’” said Robert X. Browning, professor of communication and political science and director of the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement.

C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb, a Lafayette native and Purdue graduate (B.A. 1963, speech), approached the university in 1987 with the idea of developing a video archive of its programming. Browning was on board from the beginning, and when College of Liberal Arts Dean David A. Caputo gave the idea the green light, the C-SPAN archives were born with Browning at the helm.

By 2010, Browning and the Video Library’s staff had digitized the network’s entire catalog, assembling an immediately accessible online video library that is free and available for all to use. The archives won a 2010 George Foster Peabody Award — arguably the nation’s most prestigious award for public service in broadcasting — for the online library’s creation.

Recording, duplicating, indexing, and archiving C-SPAN’s programming was no simple task, but it was critically important because of the network’s unique role as a window into the daily operations of our nation’s government.

C-SPAN — the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network — was founded in 1977 and launched with groundbreaking, gavel-to-gavel telecasts of deliberations from the U.S. House of Representatives two years later. The Senate joined the network’s programming lineup in 1986. The private, nonprofit network is funded by affiliate fees paid by cable and satellite providers.

In addition to its wealth of politics-, history-, and book-related programming from the United States, the C-SPAN Video Library also features occasional governmental proceedings from a number of foreign countries — most notably the British Parliament’s Prime Minister’s Questions each Sunday night — offering viewers an unfiltered look at how these bodies operate.

“Our philosophy is to stay out of the way, not give opinions, all those little things,” said Lamb, who received an honorary doctorate from Purdue in 1986 and for whom the university’s School of Communication is now named. “We tried from the very beginning to be natural with the audience. It’s not television to us, it’s not radio to us, it’s a conversation, and you weren’t putting on a show. There’s a major difference in what we do and what everybody else does, and that’s not critical of the others. They are in the business of making money and we’re not.”

The impartiality of C-SPAN’s broadcasting approach is what makes it such a valuable resource for scholars. The unedited feed of exactly what was said and done on the congressional floor leaves viewers to draw their own conclusions about the proceedings rather than have those actions filtered through a third-party viewpoint.

Associate professor of history Kathryn Brownell is among the Purdue faculty members who have used the archives in their research and instruction. She collaborated with Jason Steinhauer, now director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University, on a series of videos about presidential elections that used the archives as a resource.

“Making these videos really inspired a new way of thinking about and doing history that I’ve then brought into my classroom,” said Brownell, who is also using the C-SPAN library to research an upcoming book on the political history of cable television. “The following semester, they served as an inspiration, and a model, for how students could make their own videos based on the C-SPAN archives. In a C-SPAN video assignment, students used primary historical footage that the archive has compiled from all sorts of documentaries through the years, as well as discussion by scholars about the significance of certain historical developments.”

Connie Doebele

Doebele has assisted additional faculty members — a group that includes Jennifer Hall, the COM 114 course director; Peter Watkins, a visiting professor of political science; and Natasha Duncan from the Honors College — in facilitating their own use of the archival material in the classroom.

She will further engage with scholarly work at an archives conference that the C-SPAN Center plans to hold each fall. This year’s conference, set for Oct. 21-23, will broadly focus on President Donald Trump and the upcoming congressional elections.

Jennifer Hoewe, a new assistant professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication, will be one of the presenters.

“The work the C-SPAN archives is doing is really important and really interesting, and it’s great to have records of what our representatives and senators are saying,” said Hoewe, who will assist the center on scholarly engagement as a faculty member. “My paper is going to look at how they’ve been talking about immigration and immigrants, and how that may or may not have changed with Trump’s inauguration and his presidency.

“I’m going to look at how senators and representatives from all parties were talking about immigration policy before Trump was elected and then afterwards — about 18 months on each side — and in particular the language and the rhetoric they’re using when talking about it in terms of policy.”

The C-SPAN Center’s mission does not begin and end with facilitating scholarly work and classroom use, however. The community engagement plank will also be an essential function, with plans in the works to revive a Maymester program that takes Purdue students to Washington, D.C., to work at C-SPAN headquarters, plus a springtime speaker series that will feature notable national journalists or politicians.

Susan Page, Washington Bureau chief of USA Today, was the inaugural speaker in the series. Her April 2018 Q&A session with Lamb drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Purdue Memorial Union North Ballroom.

“I’m pretty proud that we brought Susan Page here a few months after we kicked off,” Doebele said. “That was a pretty aggressive thing for a new center to do, but we did it, and we’re already talking about who we want to bring in next year.”

If anyone besides Lamb understands which guests might best fit the C-SPAN ethos, it would be Doebele. Between two different stints as a C-SPAN employee, she produced a number of different shows and helped bring trademark C-SPAN programming like Washington Journal, Book TV, and America and the Courts to U.S. airwaves.

Eagle-eyed viewers might have even caught a glimpse of her in the recent documentary RBG, which used footage from a 1986 C-SPAN interview Doebele conducted with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seven years prior to Ginsburg’s nomination as a Supreme Court justice.

After its first year of existence, Doebele is pleased with the way the C-SPAN Center has evolved thus far. As long as she is able to expand scholars’ and students’ awareness that the archives are available for their use and to further C-SPAN’s public-service mission, Doebele’s role at the center will remind her why her time at the network always felt so special.

“It’s kind of like working for the same place, but having a brand-new job,” she said. “You’re working with the same people that you respect and love and have the same mission, but you’re looking at it in a new way.”