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playback 1996

Session Transcripts

March 30, 1996, Morning

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Alan Lewis ALAN LEWIS: Good morning. Let me read a portion of an article from the March 22nd edition of TV Technology. I didn't realize it as I opened this periodical a couple of days ago, that we're just shy of the 40th anniversary of a very significant moment in technology. This is an article called, "Looking Back on a VTR Milestone." "There was tumult in the halls, pandemonium in the corridors, and shouts of excitement from the ceiling. Only minutes before, a hushed crowd of tired, partially hung over CBS affiliates gathered in a conference room at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters convention hall to hear their director of engineering give his annual report. At first, nobody had taken much notice of the TV cameras picking up his presentation so the audience could view it on the black and white monitors scattered around the room. But then, by pre-arrangement, Bill Lodge ended his speech, saying, 'And now, if all goes as expected, we'll see what the Ampex Corporation has to offer.' There was a whir of machinery backstage. The screens flickered. Suddenly, Lodge's image appeared again on the monitors, replaying the speech exactly as they had just seen it. The audience, as attendees remember, went absolutely nuts. That April 14, 1956. Videotape had arrived.

"From the beginning of the project until a few weeks before the convention, the total authorized expenditures for Ampex's video recorder were $106,000. The design team had spent $96,000. The company had projected they would sell a total of 26 machines in four years. In the two weeks after the convention, Ampex had sold $4.5 million worth of recorders, now named the VRX 1000, and by early 1958, they were selling more than 26 of the production model VR 1000 video recorders, 26 a month.

"The first on-air broadcast from an Ampex commercial video recorder, the VRX 1000, serial number 4, came on November 30, 1956, from CBS Television City in Los Angeles. Douglas Edwards and the news. NBC followed suit in early 1957, and ABC began delayed television broadcasts at the beginning of daylight savings time in April. In 1956, Ampex Corporation was awarded an Emmy for the development of the first practical videotape recorder. Now, 40 years later, any five year old can cram a cassette into a home VCR and enjoy home video playback."

Well, that's the context, I think, in which we're working. The task that had been set forth for the current preservation practices, education and awareness group, seemed to be a triple header thing, dealing with, obviously, current preservation practices, also concerns about education and concerns about awareness. The working group was composed of Andrea Snyder, who is here this morning, from the National Initiative for the Preservation of American Dance, Jerry Gibson from the Library of Congress, Chris Paton from Georgia State University, Robin Siegel from National Geographic Television, Susan Swartzburg from Rutgers University, and Sarah Wagner, a colleague of mine at the National Archives.

As I have observed this conference over the past day and a half, I now realize that our group was probably too limited in its background, and certainly too limited in the organizations that we surveyed as a part of our work. I was aware that there is a video art movement, certainly, but I don't think I had a grasp of the size and the complexity and the scope of it, so if we ever do this again, I think we'll reach out to a much broader constituency. Audiovisual archivists are people of the palate. Yesterday, we learned about coconut cream pie. There is another publication from National Media Laboratory that describes the combination of magnetic particles and videotape binder as Jello filled with grapes, and in some of the workshops that I do, I described videotape as crunchy peanut butter on a cracker, in which the peanut chunks are the oxide, the butter itself is the binder, and the cracker of course is the tape base. I don't think you want to eat that kind of stuff around a videotape machine, though.

For many years, we have been looking for a universal moving image recording system, and I began to describe that as a Mount Rushmore-like format that we can record these electronic images on. Not long after I did this, this Mount Rushmore metaphor, I read in the newspaper that George Washington's nose was cracked and was in danger of falling off, so I don't talk about Mount Rushmore any more.

The working group divided its task into the three groups that I mentioned earlier: current preservation practice, promoting awareness and promoting education. Promoting awareness and education are linked together, and I'll talk about them jointly. As you have learned over the past day and a half, if you didn't already know it, videotape is not considered by most of the people in the field to be an archival medium. It is erasable, its technology is ever-changing, and it's based on a wholly commercially-driven market, and the archives community is not a market that appeals much to the manufacturers of this kind of technology. It was with that depressing background that we began to survey some institutions that were holding videotape collections. We attempted to talk to institutions that had cultural and artistic collections so that we were talking to the right group of people, and we may or may not have been successful. It was an unscientific poll, to be sure, and we knew that the Library of Congress' television study was underway, and they would be asking some specific and pointed questions, and we didn't want the survey to be so onerous that people wouldn't respond. So we did it by telephone to a small group of people, and these numbers are, therefore, not very scientific. But I was surprised to note that in cultural institutions, there are at least 2000 half-inch open reel tapes that need to be dealt with. There were at least 3000 VHS videocassettes that need to be dealt with. There are over 26,000 3/4 inch U-Matic videocassettes to be dealt with in our little unscientific poll. Not too many one-inch type A tapes - about 100 of those. We found about 500 Betacam and Betacam SP tapes, and I suspect that will only be the tip of the iceberg. About 225 one-inch type C videotapes, and there was a sprinkling of other formats: D2 videocassettes and some other odds and ends of things. With regard to the 3/4 inch U-Matic videocassette format, four years ago, Sony Corporation sent out a press release, indicating that they had manufactured or licensed the manufacture of their one millionth videocassette machine. My gut feeling, the thing that struck me at that point, was that if each of those machines produced just one videocassette that had long-term historic value to whoever bought the machine, then there were one million of these critters out there worldwide that will need some sort of preservation or reformatting in future years. That's a big universe - that's a lot of business for somebody. And now we have learned that last year Sony manufactured the last 3/4 inch U-Matic machine. So we are now dealing with an obsolescent, if not an obsolete, format. It seems to be a rule of thumb that manufacturers will maintain stocks of spare parts for a device like a videocassette machine for maybe ten years. So I suspect that by the time we get to the year 2006, U-Matic machines will be harder and harder to come by, harder and harder to maintain, harder and harder to deal with. A number of the questions that we asked the institutions which whom we spoke was what their storage conditions were. And rather than going into the details, suffice it to say that most institutions are storing their materials at higher temperatures and higher humidity levels than what one now understands to be the recommended temperature and humidity levels. Those levels, and we talked about this book yesterday, "Magnetic Tape Storage and Handling: A Guide for Libraries and Archives," from the National Media Lab, and jointly published with the Commission on Preservation and Access in Washington. I think that the title page of this book, with ordering information, may have been Xeroxed and may be on the information table out front. It's probably the best ten bucks you can spend, to get a manual that will tell you an awful lot about videotape handling and storage. It's also a good item to cite in grant proposals, because now we have some documentation established from an established research laboratory, which can add some clout to the things that you want to say to a potential funder, or to the higher authorities in your institution.

Poorly controlled environments included collections that were stored in basements with no humidity control, those that are in commercial office buildings where the environmental system is turned off by the building management at 4:30 on Friday afternoon, and not turned on again until 7:00 Monday morning, and there was a small sprinkling of off-site storage facilities that are used by some of the institutions as another alternative, and some of those were presumed to be very good, and some of those probably weren't. Only one of the institutions with whom we spoke, Barbara London's Museum of Modern Art facility, is going into a new building with appropriate storage for position, temperature and humidity control. The question of reformatting came up in the survey, and I realize that we had not framed the question correctly, because there was not a general understanding of what I meant - in constructing the survey - by reformatting. What I was driving at probably was the working definition that I use, that with original videotapes, we are conserving the original item, and the word preservation comes up when we deal with the information that's recorded on the tape, so that when we preserve what's on the videotape, we reformat it to another piece of tape stock or some other medium, perhaps film. So there are two different kinds of things. A couple of people, when we talked about reformatting, they thought did you really mean that you want to make a copy of this thing on a low-cost format, so that researchers don't have to use the original item? The bottom line, though, is that we didn't find any institutions that have large-scale reformatting or preservation activity to duplicate copies of original material. Unfortunately, it's an expensive proposition, and it always raises the question, as someone surely will raise, what format should I transfer to? And I don't have a good answer for that one.

The survey recapped, then, in retrospect, it seems clear that the ability to safely store collections varied across the survey group. Some were satisfied with what they were doing, some were not satisfied, but they all understood that there were better conditions that they should be striving for. They all felt that improved information about conservation and preservation techniques was necessary. And they all seemed to feel that improved information about all of these technical matters and the limitations of the various formats that were kind of on the menu and available to them was needed. In short, there's plenty of room for improvement in current preservation practices, and hopefully the more detailed Library of Congress study will more accurately measure how big and how expensive that room for improvement will be.

With regard to the promoting of awareness and educational matters, the committee sat for two and a half or three hours in what I would describe as a very constructive bull session. And going through these items, and in follow-up to that, I kind of decided that some things were more in the educational line, some were in the awareness line, and I have broken them down in those two categories. I doubt that you will hear anything new; I doubt that you will hear anything that you haven't heard in our sessions yesterday and earlier today.

In the area of awareness, encourage institutions that have video preservation people to share their message and their needs with others in their own institution. That's simply common sense, since the archive is downstream from the policies and procedures and activities of other people who create the videos and other people who manage your own institutions.

Another element, encourage the preparation and publication of articles in both the professional association press and in serious amateur and in the lay press on video preservation topics. Jim Lindner spoke about that yesterday, and some of the difficulties he had encountered in getting his preservation message out in the press that was, in fact, commercially sponsored.

Prepare curriculum materials and get funding for their distribution to video production and audiovisual librarian training venues. Another item that has come up in the AMIA- and something that we hope to do through the Professional Development and Training Committee of the AMIA - use conventional public information and public relations techniques to involve amateurs in production and preservation of video materials. It's not enough to put video cameras and blank tape into people's hands, they need to be sensitized to seeking the survival of the tapes that are meaningful to them. Bottom line here is, don't put it in basements and attics, don't put it in the hall closet, but put it in some kind of proper environment, so that the tape will last. This concern was expressed yesterday about high school annual videos, and certainly wedding videos, a big field nowadays. I'm afraid that 20 years down the line, there will be an awful lot of disappointed people at their 20th anniversaries, trying to look at their wedding videos, and discovering, one, they don't have the machine to play it on, and secondly, that maybe the videotape itself has failed. Or the marriage has failed. Doesn't say that here! Seek out other users of video through their professional organizations on matters related to preservation. This includes museums, law enforcement agencies that use video, government entities, etc. Jim Lindner, I think, provided a list that was discussed yesterday of the various organizations that are involved, one way or another, in television and video production and in archivy. Jim's list, I think, neglected the Association of Moving Image Archivists.

Schedule joint conferences of video organizations and other organizations that are related, but less focused on video matters. One of our AMIA meetings in 1994 in Boston was a joint meeting with the New England Archivists, and we had some concurrent sessions with them, and at their request, we do an annual basic training pre-conference workshop. We restaged that basic training workshop as the last day of their conference, putting the cart before the horse, but at least we had a chance to do some basic training teaching to traditional archivists in these audiovisual matters.

Compliment and encourage AV media and archive supply companies to carry products and carry literature that are relevant to the field. Some are already doing this because they recognize that we are a potential market. Encourage funders of arts and cultural videos to require preservation work and arrangements to be a part of their proposals. This is going to be a tough one, because most people who want to produce video or produce television programs want to spend all that money on getting the thing on the air, or getting it on tape and distributed. It's going to be a tough sell to earmark some of those funds for the preservation of the material. On a personal note, I ran into this difficulty when I worked for Public Broadcasting Service, attempting to establish a Public Television Archives at PBS, and when I talked to some of the development folks about trying to get a little bit of money from the various funders of "Masterpiece Theater," and these other types of series, they look at me like I had just arrived from Saturn. That wasn't about to happen, because all those bucks needed to go into fresh production. Wouldn't hurt to try, though.

Using the usual public relations techniques, seek ink and airtime in the local, regional and national press. Public radio and television magazine programs might be naturals, as well as commercial news broadcasts.

Encourage videotape manufacturers to add more preservation information to their labels, advertising materials and case inserts. Many of them already do this, but they are generally not done in a way that the buyer of the tape is much interested in reading. It's sort of like the warning label on a can of beer or a pack of cigarettes. Yeah, it's there, but does anybody really look at it?

And lastly, in support of awareness, publish the list of conference attendees with these proceedings, perhaps with a geographical and an institutional cross-index, in the hope that local and regional support groups, either formal or informal, will evolve. And I wonder whether it's permissible to do that in a public document, but I guess it is, because we're all here officially.

Those are the awareness ideas that we come up with. In terms of education steps, some of these begin to dovetail with awareness. Publish or redistribute a list of related courses being taught in schools of library and information science, or in other similar institutions. The hope here is that if you find that there are courses being offered in your particular area, somehow or other you can get on as a guest lecturer and adjunct instructor, or somehow get the preservation concerns out to people who are going to be producing material in the future.

Publish or distribute course syllabi for courses that exist in the video preservation field, and there aren't too many of those.

Full-time video people should be encouraged to present or to participate in preservation workshops that are sponsored by the widest possible range of organizations who have interest in video uses. Again, this goes back to the awareness thing, in trying to reach all these various constituencies that are recording material on video.

Make recordings of these sessions available on audiotape. Publish the proceedings of this conference as soon as possible in paper form, and also get the proceedings on line, if that's possible.

Encourage the publication of bibliographies via paper media or by the Internet, but they should be annotated as to the contents of the cited material, the number of pages in the cited item, and the source.

[Missing here are the conclusion of and discussion after Alan Lewis' presentation, and "Establishing Priorities for Preservation," presented by Debbie Hess Norris]

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