We live in a visual age in which news events from around the world appear on televisions, computer screens and even cellular phone screens, sometimes within seconds of occurring.  But several decades ago, the only way people could see moving images of events was in newsreels shown in local movie theaters.  Many of the early films are lost, but hundreds of hours of such material are being restored and protected at a special library archive at the University of South Carolina. VOA's Greg Flakus has the story from Columbia, South Carolina.

From around 1911 to the dawn of television in the early 1950s, newsreels provided a window on the world.  People around the United States would see these news films when they went to their local theater to be entertained by movies.

"Americans saw visual images of their news only in their theaters and they saw them twice a week," said Greg Wilsbacher, Director of The University of South Carolina's Newsfilm Library.  "There were five major newsreels a week, two issues a week and people saw those before the feature film that they went [to the theater] to see. At best, you might see five newsreels twice a week that would give you a total of ten different newscasts in a given week in America, in a big city."

Newsreels really came into their prime with the introduction of sound and moviegoers were able to follow such events as World War II campaigns, even if the battles had happened weeks before they were shown.

Today, people can see video images almost instantly via satellite and digital line connections and there are now millions of professional and amateur photographers around the world shooting video with small digital cameras. But in the early part of the 20th century, images were captured on film using bulky devices that either had to be cranked by hand or operated with simple spring-driven motors. At the archive, Greg Wilsbacher maintains a large collection of old cameras.

"This Bell & Howell 35 millimeter camera was considered portable in its day," he explained.  "It was spring driven. It had no electric motor. It weighs about 10 pounds [4.5 kilograms] and when the magazine is filled it can roll for a little over two minutes."

Newsreel cameramen went around the world to cover events. Sometimes they were able to be in the right place at the right time to capture something extraordinary.  Wilsbacher says this happened to Fox Movietone News cameraman Al Brick when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on 7 December 1941.

"He happened to be riding into Pearl Harbor with a friend of his who was an officer on the USS Arizona the morning of the attack and was on site with his camera equipment when the bombs were falling and was there to document a lot of the carnage," noted Wilsbacher.

Nearly 30 years ago, the company then known as Twentieth Century Fox donated its Fox-Movietone newsreel collection to the University of South Carolina with the understanding that it would be restored, protected and archived for public use.

Greg Wilsbacher says his archive is working with the Library of Congress to digitize every frame of the old film at very high resolution.

"That will allow us, in the future, if we needed to, to take all those digital frames and reprint them back on to a modern film stock if we needed to and run it through a projector," he explained.  "We could show prints of films in a theater even if the film is already decayed, because we made such high-quality digital scans of it.  It will also allow us to distribute the material in very high quality over the Internet." 

The university provides hundreds of hours of video copies for viewing at its facility and puts many shorter clips on its Web site.  Higher quality copies are available for a fee to professional filmmakers and broadcast organizations.

What once served as a window on the world's current events now serves as a window into history.