Monday, January 2, 2012

My Home Movies are Crying out for Respect

To begin the new year, I welcome this post by guest blogger David Rowntree. David has over 10 years of audiovisual archiving experience in a wide variety of libraries, archives, and broadcasting stations. He is working on two very interesting projects in 2012 including an inventory project in my home state with New Hampshire Public Radio (as part of the American Archive Project). He is also co-authoring a book with Chris Lacinak (Audiovisual Preservation Solutions) called Audiovisual Digitization, Preservation, and Access: A Handbook for Legacy and Born Digital Collections. Neal-Schuman Publishers Inc.

This post seems particularly appropriate, following just a few short days after the announcement of the most recent additions to the National Film Registry's list. (I particularly like an article in today's news related to the Film Registry called "Some Thoughts on These Amazing Shadows...") The care of old media is a problem with which we all grapple. Thank you David for sharing your unique expertise with the readers at the ArchivesInfo blog so that we may all safely care for our own personally valuable films!

If you are like me, you probably have a box, or multiple boxes, of old audiovisual recordings of family birthdays, celebrations, travels, and other events (both special and mundane) tucked away in a closet, basement, or attic. Whether it's film, videotape, optical disks or hard drives we have increasingly turned to moving images to capture our memories. However, as technology rushes forward, these collections are increasingly forgotten and neglected. It is a classic case of  “do what I say and not what I do.” I work with archives and organizations to preserve their film & media collections… but I have left mine in the closet for too long.

Home movies have been a part of our history from the time film was invented. By the1930’s both16mm and 8mm cameras had entered the home consumer market.  Although home movies were the exclusive hobby of wealthy individuals until the 1950’s, as equipment and film stock became more affordable they became more accessible. With the advent of video, and later digital cameras, home movies have become an integral part of documenting our family history.
What is generally an intensely personal record, despite our recent propensity to want to share them with the world via Facebook and YouTube, home movies have caught the attention of scholars. In the past decade there has been a dramatic shift in the perception of homes movies in both film and social history. Critical historiography and film studies have been expanding their views of what should be considered a part of the historical record. This shift signifies a move from predominant “official” histories, to one that includes popular memory, is more informal and personal… thus allowing for a richer (and visual) interpretation. Editors Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann capture this shift in their book Mining the home movie: Excavations in history and memories (2008). I just checked the book out from the library myself.

Film archivists have been at the forefront of this change. In 2003, a group of archivists created Home Movie Day - an international event that allows individuals to project their home movies in public screenings. In addition to the joy of watching these programs, the forum provides an opportunity to showcase why it’s important to care for these films and to learn how to best care for them.

A couple of years later, the non-profit group Center for Home Movies (CHM) was established to administer the growing Home Movie Day events as well as “engage in new home movie projects” and act as a “clearinghouse for information about home movies.” A sampling of home movies from the CHM collections can be viewed on the Internet Archive

This new scholarship may be an interesting read, and it may be fun to participate in a HOME MOVIE DAY event, but you may be asking ‘what does this have to do with my stack of old tapes?’ To start, this new focus has resulted in an increased number of resources dedicated to the preservation of home movies. In addition to the Center for Home Movies, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) is a treasure trove of information and is full of individuals dedicated to audiovisual preservation. The are several resources on their website (see the Preservation Committee

You can also conduct a search on the AMIA listserv archives or post a question to the group Over a decade of intimate knowledge has been archived here.

Time to Take Action

First, if your audiovisual materials are in the attic or basement… move them. Apart from physical damage, environmental storage conditions have the largest effect on the lifespan of your materials. Fluctuating temperatures and high humidity often found in these locations will accelerate the breakdown of film and video materials. I keep my materials in a closet on main floor where temperatures are generally drier and more stable.

If you have film, unless it reeks of vinegar it is probably in decent shape. Film has already proven to be able to survive 100 years, so it is less vulnerable than many of your videos. However, if they are stored in rusty cans or cardboard boxes consider re-housing them to avoid particles from scratching and damaging the emulsion. You can buy archival cans from places like Gaylord, University Products, Tuscan, and Urbanski.

Viewing film is obviously a problem if you do not have a projector or viewing equipment. If you do have a projector or are considering buying one on eBay be sure to conduct some research about inspecting and projecting your films – especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Film can shrink, curl, and warp as it breaks down, or contain splices in need of repair (where the film is taped or glued together). Running uninspected film through a projector can physically damage the film. The most practical solution is to transfer them.

Making a DVD or video file is great because you can share your memories and not subject your films to the wear and tear of projection. However, it is very important not to throw out the film originals. They will be better quality than your digital access copy and will last longer. A DVD is not a preservation format. If you no longer want the actual film… consider donating them to an archive. Northeast Historic Films in Bucksport, Maine has one of the largest home movie collections in the country.

I have a small amount of film given to me by my uncle (from the 1970’s) sitting in boxes which I will get to at some point. Ironically, my newer videotapes and digital video are more susceptible to loss than the film so I am going to focus on preserving these first.  If you are not sure what you have in your collection, the Texas Commission on the Arts: Video Conservation Guide is a good site to help you identify your tapes and gives a good introduction to the problems and risks associated with video.

My first problem is that I do not have all the equipment to play back and access my tapes. I also have many recordings on small formats such as Hi-8, digital Hi-8, and mini-dv. These formats are very unstable (the more narrow the tape the less stable they are generally). I plan to send most of my analog tapes to be digitized by a vendor. I will migrate the digital formats myself. I have worked with SceneSavers They are a bit pricey but are a reputable archival preservation company. There are other alternatives as well, just do some research.

A common misconception is that digitization equals preservation. There is both digitization for access and digitization for preservation. While digitizing an old tape onto a DVD may save the footage from further neglect (and you get the benefit of viewing it) it generally involves compression (loss of detail). When digitizing your old tapes for preservation purposes (or having a vendor do it for you) be sure to create an uncompressed file (you can save this on a hard drive) in addition to the DVD copy you will want for access.

Unfortunately, the work does not end there. Once I have my digital files I can no longer just ignore them. They will need to be managed.

1.      I need multiple back-up copies.
2.      I need to be mindful of the file types I have, as well as continually migrate the media every few years going forward (file types change and are updated).
3.      I need to migrate because the hard drive, DVD, or computer will not last indefinitely either. Common archival practice is to migrate approximately every 5 years.
4.      I also need to take the time to add metadata, such as well thought out file name. I have dozens of songs in my iTunes library titled Track 01, Track 02… Don’t let this happen to your memories. Linda Tadic talks about metadata and the challenges and practical solutions for archiving and preserving digital video.

 I know it will be a rewarding, nostalgic, and exciting process going through the old tapes and being able to see the events I’ve recorded and long forgot about. Moreover, my kids will finally get to see their parents wedding and know that we too were once young… and that I could dance. Time to roll up my sleeves and dig in!
Find David on Twitter @davidrowntree and see his web site at

1 comment:

  1. I used to have a lot of tapes recorded from the radio with music I thought I was not going to get in any other ways. It was fun that last year I decided to rent apartments in buenos aires since I had a vacation there for a week and when I got there I saw that the pvious rented had a lot of videotapes of old movies. It was interesting to see which ones he had!