Archiving the “Mother of the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act of 1972”

Like many a figure of huge accomplishment, Ellen Stern Harris (1929-2006), the “mother of the California Coastal Zone Conservation Act of 1972,” never quite got around to getting together all the records of her activities.

In 1969, the L.A. Times named Harris its Woman of the Year, and columnist Art Seidenbaum called her “a modern kind of earth mother who fights for land, sea, and air…a state official, a community organizer and a most uncommon scold.” She warned of oil spills; she urged her fellow citizens to become citizen activitists.

Independent archivist Loretta Ayeroff spent five years preparing the collection – 200 boxes of papers, books, photographs, and audio-visual materials – and has now turned it over to the University of California at Los Angeles Special Collections. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, UCLA archivists will digitize the pioneer conservationist’s vast collection, making it available online to scholars, fellow conservationists, and anyone interested in understanding her goals and drive.

Harris, the Times reported, lobbied state legislators to protect the Santa Monica Mountains, served on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, and advised mayors and governors on rapid transit and energy policy. She also was renowned for the ballot parties she often held at her home.

Somehow, she also found time to produce a consumer affairs public-access TV program. Those comprise part of the collection that Ayeroff has prepared for UCLA.

The archivist is now writing the “frontmatter” – overview of the collection, biography of Ellen Stern Harris, technical description of the archive organization, details about outside repositories for related materials, and so forth – for UCLA, and here describes the audio-visual materials in the collection, as well as what they revealed to her about her subject.

I have catalogued 95 cable-access programs, produced by Mrs. Harris, on Umatic tape. Some of these programs were transferred to VHS cassettes during her lifetime. Last summer, these programs were transferred to DVD format, as well as a smaller collection of audio tapes from her KPFK and KCRW radio programs. My colleague on this project, Alex Auerbach, has sent me the following information on the transfers: The video transfers from UMATIC to DVD and hard drive were done by Tri-State Video Transfer, Dubuque, IA. … They delivered the transfers on individual DVDs, two to a protective Amaray plastic case, with custom paper labels with show identification on the DVDs and a custom paper wrapper with show information on the DVD case.

Most of Ellen’s programs were produced in the 1980s. This collection also includes a selection from her UCLA Extension media classes, Producer’s Academy workshops; on-street interviews; and ballot parties (election discussions) at her home.

I have viewed some of the VHS cable access programs, as well as listened to the audio cassettes, and all original formats are in excellent condition. They were not stored in a temperature-humidity controlled environment until recently. The audio-video collection will also be housed at UCLA, not sure yet which department.

I never met Mrs. Harris during her lifetime, and the audio-video collection gave me a much fuller and more accurate understanding of who she was. It is easy to see her ingratiating style of persuading friend and foe alike, to her positions! I am sure this media component of the Ellen Stern Harris Archive will be an important addition for future scholars researchers and students of the early environmental movement in California.

Mrs. Harris fought for citizen access to not only the California coastline, but to every extra minute the cable access companies were mandated to share with the public for citizen programming. “MEDIA” has its own box in the archive; this topic was of great importance to Ellen Stern Harris, and she connected it to politics, power, and promotion of community issues, throughout her long career.

Three of Loretta Ayeroff’s photographs from her “The Motel Series” have been included in The Getty Trust’s 2012, statewide exhibition “Pacific Standard Time: Art in Los Angeles, 1945-1980,” a collaboration of some 50 cultural institutions. Her work will appear in the Palm Springs Art Museum’s PST exhibition: “Backyard Oasis, The Swimming Pool in Southern California Photography, 1945-1982.”

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