Six years ago, University of Houston archivist Dick Dickerson noted the pungent odor of vinegar as he bustled among the shelved rarities in his library. The scent, emanating from stacks of acetate motion picture film, telegraphed disaster. It was the smell of history rotting.

The nearly 600 reels — some more than 50 years old — were the legacy of the university's television station, KUHT-TV. The station, the nation's first non-commercial educational TV broadcaster, hit the air in summer 1953, and the films, dealing with topics such as juvenile delinquency, low-cost housing and big-city nightlife, architecture and arts, chronicled Houston at a unique stage of its development.

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