The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 13, Number 3
Jun 1989

Audiovisual Collections: A Conference at NARA

by Ellen McCrady

On March 1 of this year the National Archives held its fourth preservation conference, "Current Trends in the Preservation of Audiovisual Collections." It is always hard to do justice to a conference in a written report, but it is even harder than usual when the territory is not familiar. As a result, my notes are skimpy, even though the speakers tried to make themselves understandable to nonspecialists. So I will simply transcribe the most interesting excerpts from my notes, without any attempt to identify the speakers. As in any report based on personal notes, errors are likely and corrections are welcome.

The Archives did not tape the conference and will not publish any record of it, but there were handouts (mostly on magnetic and audio records), and some of the speakers have published the same material elsewhere. (Dalton and Gibson, for instance, have papers in the proceedings of the 30th Allerton Conference, "Conservation and Preservation of Materials in Nonbook Formats.")

The most generally helpful handouts were:

1. Magnetic Media Preservation: Selected Bibliography, by Mark Roosa. 2 pp. Available from the National Preservation Program Office in the Library of Congress.

2. Preservation and Conservation of Sound Recordings, a 10-page information package that includes a bibliography, storage recommendations for each sound format and a list of suppliers. It was probably provided by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections' Associated Audio Archives Committee (write Elwood McKee, 118 Monroe St. #610, Rockville, MD 20850).

3. A quarter-inch-thick collection of references and articles on magnetic tapes (audio, video, computer) from Jim Wheeler of Ampex.

Speakers And Panelists

Video Recordings: Alan Lewis, Consultant
Jim Wheeler, Ampex Corp.
Richard McNeill, NARA
Sound Recordings: Gerald Gibson, Library of Congress
Steve Smolian, Consultant
Les Waffen, NARA
Motion Pictures: Sam Kula, National Archives of Canada
Susan Dalton, American Film Institute
Bill Murphy, NARA
Still Pictures: Constance McCabe, NARA
Debbie Hess Norris, Winterthur
Allen Goodrich, NARA

Video recordings. Because video formats vary so much, it is best to make a film copy of anything you want to keep. There have been about 40 video formats since 1951, and there is no archival way of recording or copying them. Stockpiling of companion machines and technical manuals is vital, because the technology is market driven and will always change. It is important to have a talent base of people who can tweak the knobs. Make reference copies for researchers; store the originals under cool, dry and stable conditions. If the recordings are made wet in a disaster, call the manufacturer; dry them slowly and clean them.... NARA discovered that the gaskets of some shipping containers that tapes were stored in had disintegrated all over the tapes inside, a problem not described in the literature. Moral: look at your tapes now and then.

Sound recordings. A current trend is a significant interest in audio preservation for the first time, but there is still very little research. As with photographic preservation, before even cleaning records you have to know what they are made of. Any item to be played or stored should be cleaned first (but another speaker said not to clean acetate disks before storing them, just before playing them, because he thought excess cleaning would remove too much plasticizer). Machine cleaning is preferable to hand cleaning; alcohol should not be used on anything. Liner sleeves from Shield Pack, Inc. (2301 Downing Pines Rd., West Monroe, IA 71291, 318/387-4743) are the only ones that meet LC's specs.... Disks and tapes should be stored upright.... Cataloging is the most expensive operation in a sound recording collection.

Les Waffen gave a list of preservation principles for sound recordings, which included

Provide a good stable environment
Restrict access; have good security and charge out systems
Repair, rewind, rejacket
Rerecord selectively, always professionally, giving priority to cylinder, glass and paper base recordings
Avoid duplicating what other archives are doing (don't collect in the same area)

Motion pictures. Appraise before preserving; films need to support the mandate of your institution. The basic elements of preservation are inspection, repair and cleaning. Video copies have been made by archives to preserve film, but the best course is to preserve film as film. Film technology, unlike video technology, is stable.... Film cannot be considered preserved if the master is not in a public institution. The Film and Television Archives Advisory Committee is a group through which archives decide who should collect what. Before accepting a film collection as a gift, work out a contract with the donor, under the terms of whIch the donor would at least partially organize it and you will be able to copy the films and provide access for viewers; otherwise you are simply providing them free storage space. Low humidity is the most important aspect of preservation.

Still pictures. If you use cold storage below about 55°F for photographs, you must also stage them on the way in and out of the storage area. Henry Wilhelm suggests the use of central cold storage facilities, like those we use for storage of microfilm, because it would be cheaper and more reliable.... We need to disseminate information, provide continuing education of preservation collection managers, and flood the market with practical tips.... Baked enamel on storage equipment may emit destructive gases if the enamel was not baked right originally. If you have to paint, use water-based latex paint.... Kodak's Book of Film Care is very good and useful.... Some people use commercial underground storage facilities, which are all right, as long as you make sure they are actually protecting your photographs. Actually look at their vaults and inspect their hygrothermograph records. One facility charges $3/cubic foot for 2500 cubic feet or more, which is reasonable. There are 8 or 10 underground storage companies in this country.

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