Indiana University Moves Forward with its Media Preservation Initiative
Jan 23rd, 2012 by Isaiah Beard

1/2 inch, consumer, open reel video format used in the 1960s-70s. This format suffers from Sticky Shed Syndrome, making playback difficult. Working machines for this long-obsolete format are scarce. Source: IUB Media Preservation Initiative, used with permission. Note: IUB has asked me to stress that the above photo is not representative of all media collections at the university.

The Media Preservation Site at Indiana University – Bloomington (IUB) makes its message loud and clear the moment you first set your eyes on it: “Our History is At Risk.”

Home to at least 3 million media objects, including sound and moving image recordings, photos, documents, and artifacts, IUB has come to grips with the issue at hand: a great deal of their heritage is locked within obsolete electronic and analog playback formats for sound and moving images.  As an old format becomes obsolete, it gets harder by the day to find working equipment to play back these objects.  And that assumes that the objects can be played back, not having succumbed to age, wear and physical decay. Lacquer from old aluminum audio discs can delaminate, making them unplayable. Video tapes from the 1960s, 70s and 80s can suffer from a condition where the binding agent that holds the recording material to the plastic base sheds, allowing audio and video recordings to literally flake into nothingness. Film, too, has its own serious decay problems.

With its vast collection, faculty and staff at IUB knew the situation could become serious if nothing was done.  Their first step was to take stock of the situation, and consult outside experts (myself included) to get input how how best to address the problem.

Their efforts began nearly 18 months ago when a group of IUB faculty and staff, concerned about the potential fate of important special collections on campus, approached their Office of the Vice Provost for Research about the critical issues of media, and to impress upon them that time was of the essence to address these issues.

“Even though [IU Bloomington’s] needs are now documented, and it is far better equipped than most universities in the country to meet them, there is no guarantee that IU can adequately preserve its collections in the near future.”

The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States, Council on Library and Information Resources for The Library of Congress, Washington 

The culmination of their efforts to date have been documented on the IUB Media Preservation Website, where they document their comprehensive effort to preserve IUB’s vast audio, video, and film holdings.  Some important documents from their study and efforts including IUB’s Director of Media Preservation Services Mike Casey‘s  Media Preservation Survey (PDF), outlining the collection holders, preservation stakeholders, the risks involved, and potential preservation strategies.  A follow-on public report (12MB PDF) also lays out the situation and what steps are being taken to save their special collections and historic content.  Continued engagement, updates, and discussion on decisions made and procedures undertaken are regularly made available on their Media Preservation Blog.

The IUB Media Preservation Blog

IUB has many years of work ahead of it, not only to transfer older content into more modern digital formats, but also to continue to maintain those archives, preserve new content, and keep pace with new technologies and formats to ensure that their collections are accessible.  It’s encouraging to see them in action, and their efforts stand as a potential framework for other organizations in a similar bind to model their initiatives after.

The last days of Kodachrome are at hand… but not film in general
Oct 18th, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

If you have any Kodachrome Film stashed away, the last days to get it developed are at hand.  According to Dwayne’s Photo, the last commercial developer of the film format, they will be developing their last received rolls of Kodachrome film on December 31, 2010.  After this date, their remaining equipment to handle this type of film will be shut down forever, and discarded.  Per the statement on their website:

The last day of processing for all types of Kodachrome film will be December 30th, 2010.  The last day Kodak will accept prepaid Kodachrome film in Europe is November 30th, 2010.  Film that is not in our lab by noon on December 30th will not be processed.

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Reel2Bytes: Digitizing 1950s-era analog tape
Feb 23rd, 2010 by Isaiah Beard

Of all the work I do, I think dealing with older formats, and just figuring out how they work, is the most interesting aspect.

A few weeks ago, a stack of old open real tapes arrived, along with a similar-vintage tape player.  The recordings were done in the early 1950s, as part of a project to record the oral histories of various labor officials who were active in the early 20th century.  The recordings made it unequivocally clear that the intent was to allow students and researchers from decades into the future to get insight on the history of the labor movement in the state.

Well, for quite a few years, these tapes remained shelved and seldom accessed, until a faculty member from the School of Management and Labor Relations learned of their existence and wanted to use them in his courses.  Owing to the age of the recording format, the scarcity of playback equipment, and the condition of the tapes, there is no way that multiple students would practically access the tapes and have them survive.  But, that doesn’t mean the content should stay inaccessible.

And so, after getting a demonstration from out Special Collections staff on the best way to handle the tapes, and after mustering the courage to risk handling them, the player was hooked up to more modern digital recording equipment, and the digitization had begun:

I’ve always heard people talk about what wonderful sound fidelity the old open reel tape formats had, and they’re right; the sound quality is great, particularly for 55+ year old recordings. The physical condition of the tapes left much to be desired though: one reel had a paper backing, and was extremely fragile. Just playing it back was a white-knuckle experience. It’s a shame too, because one thing you do miss in the migration of old content to digital formats is the experience of handling these old things, and getting them working again. The operation of the tape deck; threading the tape, feeling the very mechanical-ness of the format and how it worked… these are things that modern digital formats have yet been unable to duplicate or preserve.

Additional photos of the setup and the reels themselves appear below the cut.
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Polaroid Instant Film Dead Stock to go on sale today
Aug 21st, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

If you’re interested in grabbing some of the last of Polaroid’s instant film, or even interested in picking up a Polaroidcamera, today may be your last remaining chance to do so, at least for a while.  Starting at 10:00 a.m. today, a number of Urban Outfitters stores in New York, Los Angeles, Cambridge, MA and Vancouver BC will begin selling remaining Polaroid Supplies.  On August 28, anything that’s left will be sold at these store locations.

This sale is in partnership with the Impossible Project, which purchased up Polaroid’s last stocks of instant film (theyceased production in 2008) as well as the last factory to produce it, in the Netherlands.

The Impossible Project’s eventual aim, according their site, is “NOT to re-build Polaroid Integral film but (with the help of strategic partners) to develop a new product with new characteristics, consisting of new optimised components, produced with a streamlined modern setup. An innovative and fresh analog material, sold under a new brand name that perfectly will match the global re-positioning of Integral Films.”

A documentary on Polaroid film’s final year is also in the works.

Another film format extinction: Kodachrome’s last run
Jul 22nd, 2009 by Isaiah Beard

Today, Kodak announced the final production run of Kodachrome film, after a 74-year run.  Kodachrome is yet another  casualty of the long march towards digital formats, as fewer and fewer sales of Kodachrome film have meant continuing to mass produce it is no longer viable.

“KODACHROME Film is an iconic product and a testament to Kodak’s long and continuing leadership in imaging technology,” said Mary Jane Hellyar, President of Kodak’s Film, Photofinishing and Entertainment Group. “It was certainly a difficult decision to retire it, given its rich history. However, the majority of today’s photographers have voiced their preference to capture images with newer technology – both film and digital. Kodak remains committed to providing the highest-performing products – both film and digital – to meet those needs.”

To be sure, Kodak acknowledges that there is only one professional film outlet in the US that processes Kodachrome film, that being Dwayne’s Photo located in Parsons, Kansas.  They have announced that they will continue to sell the film until supplies run out (probably in the Fall of 2009), and will continue to process it until December, 2010:

This is a sad occasion for us, as we’re sure it is for many of you. While we understand the business realities driving Kodak’s decision, we are still sorry to see the film go.

Kodachrome has been hailed as being remarkably color accurate, unique in its characteristic deep color saturation unmatched by other film formats, and praised for its longevity in storage.  Properly cared for, most Kodachrome film has managed to retain its color accuracy despite decades of aging.  One case in point is this circa 1949 image.  Some of us who are way too young to have lived in this era, find it incredibly striking to find such a vivid color photograph, when we’re used to seeing numerous faded black-and-whites depicting the era.

The rich color and depth of Kodachrome is owed to a unique and very complex film processing method, which differs substantially from the process in use for “modern” film formats.  Dawyne’s is, at this point the only photofinisher up to the task, and Kodak is the only supplier of the chemicals needed to render photos from Kodachrome film.    Thus, not only is Kodachrome’s days numbered, but the time runs short for those with unprocessed film to do something about it.

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