National Preservation Week at NYPL / by KirstenStudio

canistersThe American Library Association recognizes this week  (April 21-27th) as Preservation Week. As a result, the New York Pubic Library had it's own free programing around preservation for individual, as well as institutional collections. I managed to make it to their Preservation of Personal Media Collections and Digital Files and their Introduction to Film Preservation with NYPL's Reserve Film and Video Collection presentations.

The first presentation on personal media collections covered a lot. From archiving and preserving home movies, to audio recordings, to emails, websites and more. I have a fair number of small gauge films, photographs and then of course digital media, so I found this talk to be very informative. Some points I was already aware of, but NYPL also provided handouts with a resource list and hard copies of part of their slide show. The presenters were incredibly knowledgable and obviously had great energy for the work they do.

The challenges they presented in regard to conservation and preservation was something I deal with both for my personal collections and for my professional work. The challenges they brought up include materials that are not human readable without additional equipment (video and audio tapes, digital files, etc.), the fragility of some mediums (damage to films, tapes, corrupt digital files), Obsolescence (when playback equipment is no longer available, or replacement parts for it, hard to come by) and reproductivity (if the film is a negative, it's not easily viewable without making a print of it, and in turn creating copies, or transfers from that print). Considering these challenges, archiving and preserving these materials can become a time-consuming and expensive ongoing project, one that requires real commitment and interest in order to keep things in the best possible condition and reference able for years to come.

The presentation, given by Media Preservation Coordinator, Jonah Volk and Special Projects Coordinator, Rebecca Holte, offered a breakdown of different media types and recommended storage environments. I will give a review in brief of what I found most relevant to my own efforts in hopes that it might be useful to others with personal or professional collections.

Volk provided some media information by year it was introduced and offered ideal temperature control for each element. Film (16mm, introduced in 1923, 8mm in 1932, Super 8, 1965), audio cassettes (1962) , 8 tracks (1964), Betamax (1975), 8mm Video, Hi8 (1080's), Digital Vidoetape formats such as miniDV (1990's) and the list goes on. Each have their general rule for storage and temperature control (humidity = bad in most cases). Film should be stored on cores inside vented film cans and shelved flat, while something like a VHS should be stored upright like a on book shelf. Film should be stored in cool, dry rooms and should avoid light exposure, which is pretty logical, but when things get shoved into boxes, they often end up next to a heater or in a musty basement or attic. Not good. 

vinegar1With film, one should pay attention to what type of photo-chemical makeup it is. If it's nitrate film (although not a common home movie film gauge), it is considered to be highly flammable. You can identify its edge code, which will read "Nitrate". Cellulose acetate film came around in the 1930's. It's edge code reads "Safety". It is considered more stable and isn't as highly flammable. Unfortunately it is also subject to Vinegar Syndrome, a odorous mess which cannot be undone (although can be slowed down) once it takes hold. This is why it's so important to store your films in cool and dry places, as Vinegar Syndrome is more likely to form with heat and humidity. If you want to test your films for signs of this syndrome, you can purchase detection strips.

Volk also provided some information about transferring your precious collections to digital formats. This is something I'm encountering now. When I first started transferring my family's 8mm home movies, as well as other small gauge films I've acquired over the years, I was having the films transferred to MiniDV. My reasoning was that I'd have the original film, properly stored, for safe keeping and then I'd have a physical tape that I could capture onto my computer, edit and also have a digital copy of it on various hard drives.

Today, the transfer house I have been using doesn't offer film to MiniDV transfers anymore. The current choices are playable DVDs (a highly compressed file) or an HD digital file in an Apple ProRes 422 codec. So my latest batch of film transfers have been film to digital file on a hard drive. Even though I retain a copy on of these digital files to multiple hard drives for safe keeping, Apple ProRes 422 won't be around forever. In fact, probably not that long at all. I can keep converting that original file to new and updated codecs, but I believe I risk further compression by continuing to convert them to the latest codecs. There is the option of having film to digital file transfers done as uncompressed 10 bit files, but these files are huge and will take up a lot of storage space. Not only that, but even uncompressed, they will still need to be wrapped in a Quicktime, or the like. Those wrappings will become dated. Volk's discussion around transfers only confirmed these concerns.

The answer, it seems, was in the overall theme of the presentation. Conservation, preservation and restoration takes much due diligence and tenacity. Volk and Holte suggested ongoing maintenance for your digital collections such as confirming you can read your content every two years, use open, non-proprietary, well-documented formats (Quicktime, JPEG, TIFF,AIFF, etc). Every five years you should copy material to new storage. The shorter content cycle will help to catch any media malfunctions. In other words, it's practically a full-time job, but it seems as though once you get the materials organized, set up a system, and maintain the system, it will get easier. I also think it's worth it. If you are reading this, I assume you have a personal collection and care about preserving it. Good luck!

* The New York Public Library has started a blog on preservation. See nypl.org/voices/blogs/blog-channels/preservation