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Future Historians: Good Luck Sifting Through Obama Video
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Future Historians: Good Luck Sifting Through Obama Video
Future Historians: Good Luck Sifting Through Obama Video
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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Only seven months into President Obama's second term in office, but there are people in the White House starting to look at what happens when it ends. A massive archiving project is already underway. Letters, photos and even scribbled to-do lists with doodles in the margins go to the National Archives and eventually on to the Obama Presidential Library.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on one part of this project that's a unique challenge for this presidency.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: A photographer has been an official part of the White House staff since John F. Kennedy was president, but a White House videographer is something new.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Arun, why are you filming me now.

SHAPIRO: That's President Obama shouting at Arun Chaudhary, who spent the entire 2008 campaign and the first two years of the administration filming Barack Obama behind the scenes.

ARUN CHAUDHARY: We are definitely talking about thousands and thousands of hours, and that's just, you know, just my camera.

SHAPIRO: Chaudhary and his successors have filmed Obama on the basketball court, in the Oval Office and pal-ing around with Elena Kagan seconds before he nominated her to the Supreme Court.


OBAMA: Just don't trip. That will be really embarrassing.

SHAPIRO: Military videographers have long filmed official White House events. Every speech and ceremony has been recorded and catalogued. So for example, this video of President Obama speaking Portuguese to an audience in Brazil is the sort of thing that would have been part of any presidential record.


OBAMA: (Speaking foreign language)

SHAPIRO: But now there's also video showing the president backstage practicing those phrases before the speech, asking a young woman if he's going to make a fool of himself and saying it'll be her fault if he gets the words wrong.


OBAMA: (Speaking foreign language) Is that good? Okay. I'm not going to make a fool of myself. It'll be your fault.

CHAUDHARY: The difference between me and the military folks is that I'm getting a lot of this backstage material that previously wasn't official.

SHAPIRO: It all seems appropriate for the social media age, when even the most ordinary moments get preserved for posterity. But Arun Chaudhary has started to worry about what will happen to all of these White House home movies when President Obama leaves office. The material will go to the Archives and eventually to the Obama Presidential Library, but Chaudhary says there are crucial differences between official and casual events that make his material much harder to search.

CHAUDHARY: Because I could put the text of a speech into a file or something next to the video of the speech, right? And then when you're searching for a specific line, it can come up. But to actually have someone transcribe every casual conversation the president had with anyone while I was filming, I can tell you would take a long time.

SHAPIRO: The behind-the-scenes footage is labeled by date and place. But beyond that, the contents will remain a mystery until someone combs through and catalogs them.

CHAUDHARY: The style of videography and the type of material I was capturing gives so much valuable context to these more easily searchable events, so I think it's what will be lost when someone is making a documentary in the future.

SHAPIRO: He's not the only one who's worried about this. Journalists, political scientists and filmmakers share his concern. Martha Joynt Kumar is a political scientist at Towson University who has devoted her career to chronicling the White House.

MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: I first started coming into the White House when Gerald Ford was president.

SHAPIRO: She relies heavily on presidential libraries for her research. And she says candid video could be a vital tool for understanding a presidency.

KUMAR: A videographer is going to take pictures where you actually see the president's interactions, and that's something you really want to get a sense of.

SHAPIRO: Sharon Fawcett agrees. She ran the presidential library system for the National Archives until retiring two years ago.

SHARON FAWCETT: I think it's hugely important. Having this video diary with this information in it will be a great source for future historians to find out what the president was thinking and how his thinking may have evolved, what kind of conversations he was having with people.

SHAPIRO: That's if the video becomes easily usable. People who work on these issues dream of a Google-style video search that will let people comb through footage looking for, say, any mention of health care or any time a specific person appears. Arun Chaudhary says tech geniuses have spent years trying and failing to solve this puzzle.

CHAUDHARY: Search engine optimization with video is very, very hard. Finding videos you're looking for is very, very hard, and in terms of sort of digital stuff, it's this real holy grail. People talk about it all the time.

SHAPIRO: So it's not just a government problem. Chaudhary says if YouTube had this cracked, we'd know about it. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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