Re-Tooling Academic Libraries for the Digital Age:
Missions, Collections, Staffing

California Academic & Research Libraries
Third Annual Conference


Why We Are Already Failing to Preserve Non-Print Media

Helene Whitson, Head, Special Collections and Archives, J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University

[Original title: Preserving Non-Print Media]

I am the Special Collections Librarian/Archivist at the San Francisco State University Library. I am responsible for four distinct collections: the rare/fine books; some of the University's archival material; the Marguerite Archer Collection of Historic C hildren's Materials, and the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archives. I must note that I have no budget for my department--I do not purchase books or other materials on a regular basis. Most of my collections come through gifts.

San Francisco Bay Area Television Archives

The San Francisco Bay Area Television Archives is a collection of moving image materials including local news, and selected documentaries and programs. Core collections include footage from two local television stations: the KQED (PBS) Film Archive, a col lection of approximately 1.2 million feet of 16 mm local news film created between 1967-1980, as well as selected documentaries and other footage, and the KPIX (CBS affiliate) Film Library, a collection of approximately 5-7 million feet of 16 mm local new s film created from the early 1950s to 1980, as well as selected documentaries and other footage. Additional collections held by the Archives include the KQED program Over Easy, which focuses on issues of aging, local Emmy Award-Winning programs from the Northern California Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1974-date, two music series prepared for KQED by a San Francisco State music professor, a pre-MTV rock video series entitled VideoWest, and a 16 mm film collection of 130 0 works, received from a local film collector, containing everything from silent movies to major sound motion pictures and television programs, commercials, sports, documentaries, travelogs, etc. I am a one-person shop in dealing with the moving images, a lthough my assistant will help at times, and students assist in paging the film.

Preserving moving images

I have been asked to speak about the moving image collection and the issues involved in its preservation. Most of my collection consists of 16 mm film--millions of feet of it, although we also have approximately 1200 videotapes in various formats, from 2" quad tape to the latest Betacam used by the television stations. Some of the issues involved in preservation include the following: public awareness and support, funding, problems, changing technology,and the need for preservation. My talk, while not dea ling with the preservation of digital technology per se, describes the parallel problems involved in the preservation of non-print media. Although we have been aware of what needs to be done for a long time, we do not have a very good track record as far as the preservation of important parts of our history documented in non-print media.

Most broadcasted programs not being preserved

Modern society is print-based. Although more than half of the American public receives its news information from television, most people, if you were to ask them, wouldn't even think of television programs, either entertainment or factual, as something th at hasn't been saved, or, conversely, something that should be saved. They wouldn't think about it at all. Archives and libraries became aware of the importance of local television news in the early 1980s when television stations went from using film for recording news and other programs to videotape. Videotape had many advantages, including the fact that it didn't need to be processed AND it could be erased and reused. Station managers looked around their stations and saw millions of feet of film taking up valuable storage space. Many decided that the space was wasted and discarded their film. Others decided to keep their film, and still others donated their collections to archives, libraries, and historical societies-- institutions which recognized the historical importance of these unique records. Although the institutions recognize the importance, the public and many granting agencies do not do so yet.

One of the major problems in preserving television collections--local programming, network, and entertainment programs--is finding the funding for the acquisition, organization, preservation, and dissemination of these materials, and convincing print-emph asis federal funding agencies that they are worthy of preservation. Television has always been considered "second class", yet people assume that Lucy will be there forever.

Preserving entertainment films is not preserving local history

Surprisingly, many Americans are aware of the problems with nitrate film--that it is flammable and will self-combust, perhaps because both print and broadcast media have prepared articles/interviews on the topic. The Film Foundation has designated certain entertainment and documentary films as "national treasures,"and the general public is aware of those programs, in part because of the efforts of networks such as American Movie Classics. The country has put money behind the issue of preserving these item s, in the form of National Endowment for the Humanities preservation grants, and film industry support for the preservation of nitrate film.. The NEH has not yet been convinced that it is just as important to save local television programming as it is to save nitrate film or first editions of Shakespeare. The National Historic Publications and Records Commission, a granting agency of the National Archives, on the other hand, has been a champion for the preservation of local television news and other progr amming, giving substantial grants between 1984 and the present time. In 1985, I received a $50,000 NHPRC grant to work on the KQED Film Archive, and was able to hire staff to examine, clean, splice, log, and transfer approximately 424,000 feet of film to 1/2"VHS videocassettes--approximately 1/3 of the collection. Local television news collections are massive, often in the millions of feet. I have received LSCA and Friends of the J. Paul Leonard Library grants to process the KPIX Film Library, and have pr ocessed approximately 265,000 feet of that collection. During this past year, I supervised 5 student interns from various departments in the University in processing footage in the KPIX Film Library. They were able to do about 50,000 feet total--a dent. I nterns can be helpful, but they, too, take a tremendous amount of time to supervise. Processing local television news collections can be incredibly time-consuming and laborious.

Costs Out-of-Proportion to Funding

I have approximately 10,000 rollettes of film in the KQED Film Archive and 50,000 in the KPIX Film Library. The Library or University do not monitarily support the processing of these collections, other than providing my salary and that of my assistant. A ll other funds for the organization and preservation of the television archives must come from outside sources--use fees (since we don't hold copyright, we cannot charge licensing fees), grants, etc. It has been my experience that federal agencies are wil ling to sponsor pilot projects, but will not necessarily support projects that have become routine, even though the materials they cover may be unique. Federal funds also are drying up, and those institutions with such collections have to approach local g ranting agencies, as well as perhaps think about charging for the use of their collections. In fact, the latest version of the NHPRC guidelines shifts its preservation emphasis to preserving electronic records. I charge use, research and set-up fees in or der to gather some funding for my moving image preservation supplies, but it is not anywhere near enough to process these collections.

Preservation of film

The format for books and individual papers has existed for hundreds of years, basically without changing, whereas formats and equipment for moving images keep changing. One of the problems of being equipment-dependent, is that you may be frozen in time wi th funding and not be able to keep up with newer technology. Moving images have inherent "medical" problems which require attention. I mentioned the flammability of nitrate film, which is a fairly well-known problem. Safety film, which first appeared in t he 1950s, was supposed to be the solution to that issue. But, safety film also has its own problem--vinegar syndrome. This is a deterioration of safety film, especially magnetic stripe film, which was used mainly for television news. Vinegar syndrome is l ike acid in paper--it can spread throughout an entire collection and destroy it. I have vinegar syndrome in my collection at San Francisco State, but we have no space in which to separate out this material. Eastman Kodak has developed the molecular sieve, a temporary absorbent for the acetic acid, which can be placed in each can, but it is very expensive, and we cannot afford it.

Preservation of Videotape

According to the best estimates of professionals in the moving image archive field, film will last longer than videotape, especially if it is kept cold. Videotape also should be kept cold. We have no environmental controls in my department at San Francisc o State.

Videotape is an impermanent medium. It should not be relied upon for permanent preservation of information, yet it has supplanted film as the popular medium of choice for recording moving images. Vendors provide equipment and supplies, not for libraries a nd archives, but for the general populace which buys materials commercially. Since 16 mm film is becoming less used, equipment and supplies are becoming less, or not available. Therefore supplies and equipment for that former staple of the classroom--the 16 mm film--are rarely being produced any more. My Cinescan film viewer, a prism-based piece of equipment which is very gentle with this archival film, is on its last legs, and the company which made it no longer produces this equipment. Our audiovisual t echnician at San Francisco State is trying to get parts to fix the machine, but sooner or later even he will not be able to fix it. What will I do then? I do not have the funds to transfer all of my film to VHS, and even if I did, the VHS would deteriorat e sooner or later. And, supposing VHS isn't made any more? Rewinding tapes yearly has been suggested, but I do not have the staff or time for such a process.

As I noted before, videotape is not permanent. The adhesive used to attach the oxide to the base disintegrates, and the adhesive may turn into a gummy, sticky residue, especially in tape made world-wide during the 1970s. The oxide can flake off. The imper manence of the medium will be a factor whether the information is analog or digital. Tape is tape. My local Emmy-Award Winners, which begin in 1974, have many non-viewable tapes. If I put them into the VCR, they jam within a few seconds and stop the machi ne. Solutions have been proposed for stabilizing the videotape in order to make a copy, but those solutions are not widely used. Because I am working with archival materials, the film or videotape in my collection may be the only copy of a particular work . Even the station may not have kept a copy.

Another issue in terms of videotape is changing format. I have several formats in my various collections: 2" open reel tapes, 1" open reel tapes, 3/4" cassettes, 1/2 VHS cassettes, and the newest format for the Emmy-Award Winners--Betacam. I have no equip ment on which to play 2", 1", or Betacam videos. 3/4" videocassettes, as well as the equipment on which to play them, are being phased out in the industry, and when they are gone, I will not be able to use those videotapes, either. I am trying to make cer tain that I have one or two working machines available for as long as they last. They probably will last longer than the tape. By the same standard, I do not have the money to purchase a Betacam player, so I cannot see the most current years of my local E mmy-Award winners. And, if the local Emmy-Award Winners should appear in another format, I will not have the equipment for that, either.

Videotape has reached the digital age, with the ability to encode information digitally, but which formulation are we going to use: D1, D2, D3, D4, or D5? who has $50,000 to purchase a machine? When the format changes again, who has the money to keep up ?

Finding Aids - First Experience with Digital Records

Not only do I have problems with videotape format and preservation in my collection, but I have problems with my finding aids, my guides to the collection. The finding aids originally were in print form, but we have been trying to put that information int o automated form,so that we can annotate our entries and be able to search.. I received a MacIntosh computer for the office in 1988 (I've received newer ones since) and have created about 30 different databases for various collections in the department. T hose databases contain thousands of unique citations, including about 10,000 for the KQED collection, 12,000 so far for the KPIX collection, and 12,000 for the San Francisco State student newspaper index. There are no other copies of these databases elsew here, as we created them and they are for our materials.

I began by using Record Holder, a simple database management system, recomended and used by one of my colleagues. It was quite useful for my purposes. As the various systems have been upgraded on my machines, I found that Record Holder simply will not pri nt. There has been no update to this system for many years, and I believe the company which produces it has ceased to exist. One of my patrons is quite familiar with FileMaker Pro, and created a parallel structure in FileMaker Pro for the databases in Rec ord Holder. We then transferred the information from one database to the next, although we had to go through the Record Holder database first and edit each record so that it could be transferred exactly. But, how long will FileMaker Pro last? Will it, too , be superceded? Will have to transfer my information to something else? Will I know about it in time and have the resources to upgrade my databases? Or will that information be locked up in a system which no one can enter?

Over the last 14 years, I have worked very hard to find ways to preserve my moving image collections for posterity. I believe that local television news information is incredibly valuable research material for the scholar of today, as well as the scholar of the future. What has been saved so far across the country is only a small amount of what was produced. But, trying to get support for that preservation from professional associations or the industry itself, from corporations, and even holding instituti ons, such as the libraries and archives, is very difficult. There are very few of us who have these rich collections, but no one listens to our voices as we call for national support for this preservation. Too many competing interests hold sway. Before th ese collections can be digitized or in any other way made more available, they must be saved. Until the country is willing to do that, there will be a few professionals trying desperately to save what is a national treasure, and much will be lost.


There are parallels in what I have said about moving images to the preservation of digitally encoded information. The public must be made aware that electronic information is valuable, but vulnerable, and must be persuaded to fund the costs of preservatio n. The medium in/on which the information is contained is fragile and will deteriorate. It's condition must be monitored, and the information must be regularly copied to fresh storage media. But the software that allows access also becomes obsolete, and r ecords must be transferred to new programs on a systematic basis. Problems such as that I experienced with Record Holder, are just as likely to cause loss as the oozing adhesive on my videotapes. Those putting their faith into electronic information as a recorder of important information MUST keep abreast of changes in technology. If the owners of electronic archives forget, or lack the resources, to copy information before a program becomes unusable, culturally and societally valuable information will be lost forever.

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