Author: chrisfite

Reports from MIRC: Final Thoughts

This post is the final in a series of reports about my Spring 2016 internship at Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries.

Popped cores are a time to consider (and curse) the material properties of film. The tangled mass they create can drive one to despair. What mass, you ask? The one that eventually filled a third of that big container on the left.
Popped cores are a time to consider (and curse) the material properties of film. The tangled mass they create can drive one to despair. What mass, you ask? The one that eventually filled a third of that big container on the left.

As my spring internship comes to an end, I’ll offer some final thoughts on the experience. First, as I had hoped, working with film gave me a better understanding of the materiality of moving image sources. As a historian, I consult primary sources in a variety of media, and I believe it is imperative to understand the material culture of those sources. Understanding how materials were produced, edited, distributed, and used can be as significant as whatever data they contain. My archival and curatorial training gives me valuable perspective as a researcher, and vice versa. Working with 16mm film gave me firsthand experience with only one of many moving image formats, but it’s a start.

Second, my time at MIRC provided a wonderful opportunity for collaboration. The broadcasting collections at USC are split between MIRC and McKissick Museum. While that arrangement may seem inefficient, related collections are often found in different repositories. The special collections landscape at USC has changed significantly over the years, with various units being created, merging, or splitting. All the while, people have been donating materials to whatever the appropriate place was at the time. Rather than constantly shifting materials around (a nightmare in terms of physical and intellectual control), we cultivate interdepartmental connections.

A WNOK-TV studio camera from the 1950s. One of the many fascinating items on display in "On Air in South Carolina."
A WNOK-TV studio camera from the 1950s. One of the many fascinating items on display as part of “On Air in South Carolina,” an exhibition at McKissick Museum (April 11 – August 27, 2016).

In this case, Amy and I found several ways to work together. Most immediately, she became part of the curatorial team for On Air in South Carolina, a broadcasting exhibition we were developing at McKissick. In addition, we are now working jointly to acquire materials from a couple of donors. This gives us the ability to direct donations to the proper place at the time of acquisition. For example, McKissick is not equipped to handle news footage, but we are equipped to take photographs and scrapbooks (many of which fill gaps in our existing holdings). Lastly, the informal discussions we’ve had each week have given a boost to the existing relationship between MIRC and McKissick. Sustaining such working relationships take conscious effort. It is all too easy to get caught in day-to-day demands at each institution.

Although I have completed the 3 credit hour SLIS internship, I plan to continue volunteering at MIRC until I move to Philadelphia in August. Beyond all of the valuable benefits listed above, the work is enjoyable and fulfilling. My little work area is peaceful, and it is very satisfying to conserve, catalog, and make available these rich historical sources.

Reports from MIRC: Delving into the DVR

This post is the third in a series of reports about my Spring 2016 internship at Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries.

My last post described my film processing duties at MIRC. These constitute the majority of my internship hours, but I have other tasks that bear mention as well. For now, I’ll cover the DVR assessment that I recently completed. The Digital Video Repository at MIRC makes digitized films available to the public for streaming, with a metadata record accompanying each video. As with other digital collections, the DVR is a wonderful resource for library patrons, providing online access to materials held at USC. This kind of digital access requires an enormous amount of work that does not end with initial processing, cataloging, and digitizing. We cannot simply put material on the web and forget about it.

Site maintenance and database management are essential. Of course, these responsibilities are certainly not unique to digital collections, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate the point when it comes to online archival access. Someone once informed me, “With computers, I guess archivists’ jobs will be going away.” There’s so much wrong with that statement, starting with the idea that electronic computing is a recent innovation. I’ll put away my soapbox for the present, however, and focus on what I did at MIRC.

The non-public side of the DVR needs periodic review to find, among other things, records without videos and videos without records. In my case, I reviewed the Local TV News Collection on the DVR. I logged into the staff view so that I could see incomplete entries absent from the public view. First, I went through each record to see if (1) the metadata were complete and (2) an associated video was present. Second, Amy combined my notes with a list of video files from a related MIRC server, and I matched videos with records. In some cases, both were present but were unlinked. In other cases, we had a video but still needed to create a record (or less often, vice versa).

Archival processing often yields exciting discoveries as one goes through materials. Metadata assessment generally lacks this kind of serendipitous joy, but it is fulfilling in its own way. Such periodic reviews, unglamorous as they may seem, help the MIRC staff make their films more accessible to patrons. Also, as a newcomer, it is a great opportunity to become more familiar with already processed collections. Speaking of which, I think my favorite Local TV News video is WIS Story #63-1471. A reporter interviews Gloria Rackley in 1963. The Orangeburg teacher had been fired for participating in civil rights demonstrations with her students. When asked if activism detracts from students’ education, Rackley replies, “I think this is educational. They are gaining something here. For without dignity, education means very little.”

Reports from MIRC: What Do Film Archivists Do All Day? What Are These Strange Terms They Use?

This post is the second in a series of reports about my Spring 2016 internship at Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries.

So, what does one do all day in moving image archives? Well, the short answer is, a lot of things. Like other special collections professionals, the staff at MIRC have myriad responsibilities, ranging from archival and curatorial to administrative and technical. Maybe a better questions is, “What is a typical day for the intern writing this blog post?”

My primary task at MIRC is film processing. In archival parlance, “processing” encompasses a variety of tasks that incorporate materials into a repository’s collections. Archivists talk about establishing “intellectual control” over materials. Basically, we want to know what we have, know how these items and collections are related to one another, and have that information available in a catalog or database of some sort. If we have physical control, that means the stuff is in our possession. If we also have intellectual control, that stuff in our possession can be of use to people. In my case, I’m dealing with WIS-TV News outtakes from the 1970s. These film reels contain footage that camera operators shot on location and brought back to the station for editing. For the most part, we don’t know which segments were used in broadcasts, but that’s not a problem. All of that footage is still a boon for researchers.

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Film processing workstation. The two black gadgets with yellow handles make up the vertical film winder. Unprocessed film on the left is winding onto reel on the right.

When I sit down at my work station, I select an unprocessed reel and put it on a vertical film winder. This device allows me to go through the film manually. I inspect the film for physical condition, technical information, and content. My notes will become part of the internal database record and the public catalog record. Yes, it is indeed ironic that I spend all that time in a film repository without “watching” any films. However, we have to inspect film this way before putting it on a scanner or other machine that works at high-speed. There are two main reasons for this policy. First, the film must be in good condition for playback. Manual inspection allows us to repair weak splices, torn sprockets, and other defects. Second, time is short, and we can get the information needed for cataloging without watching the film. There’s already a massive amount of film to inspect, and screening each item would unnecessarily lengthen our processing time.

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The finished product. Inspected film is wound onto a polypropylene core. Pertinent information is written on white polyester leader. The gray disc underneath is the storage can.

At the beginning and end of each reel, I add several feet of white polyester “leader.” I write whether it is the head or tail of the film, add the WIS story number, and put some technical information (color or B&W, type of film stock, and type of soundtrack). I wind the film around an inert polypropylene core that will not hasten film deterioration and put it in a film can for storage. It sounds straightforward, and it is (for the most part). As with other types of archival processing, it just takes a lot of time and attention to detail. The procedure might sound mind-numbing, and it can be after too much time at the work station. However, procedure is also comforting. It provides a way of dealing with both the shared properties of these films and the unique features of the individual items. I find all of the films to be interesting in one way or another, but celebrity appearances are always a nice surprise.

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A little hard to see, but that’s William Shatner as Captain Kirk in the 1968 Columbia Christmas Parade.

Reports from MIRC: The Inaugural Post

This post begins a series of reports about my Spring 2016 internship at Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina Libraries.

Shortly after I arrived at USC in August 2013, I heard that the university library system had a major film repository located somewhere off campus. I had just started my job at South Carolina Political Collections, so I knew already about Rare Books and Digital Collections, our neighbors down the hall at the Hollings Library. However, this was the first I’d heard of MIRC and, for that matter, the peculiar properties of nitrate film. I was intrigued and, after learning more about the MIRC collections, thought it would be an interesting place to do an internship. As the semesters went by, my interest in working with film continued to grow, especially when I ended up with an M.A. thesis that largely depends on moving image sources. See, for example, this little gem from General Electric.

Having finished my M.A. coursework in the fall, I decided to seize my last opportunity for interning at MIRC. The timing was optimal for other reasons too. I think I will benefit more from this experience now than I would have at earlier points in grad school. Two and a half years of graduate study have made me acutely aware of the materiality and mediation of the archive. This awareness is particularly important when dealing with audiovisual sources. Their material culture is much different than that of manuscripts and published materials, and they offer an illusion of immediacy that paper sources often do not.

On a less theoretical note, I am also quite familiar with the subject matter, namely South Carolina broadcasting. At MIRC, I am working with Amy Ciesielski, curator of the Local TV News Collections. Fortunately, as a GA at McKissick Museum, I have spent countless hours processing photos and documents for the South Carolina Broadcasting Association Archives. When I started at McKissick, I saw the SCBA Archives as niche collections, but after going through about 2,000 photos and 15 feet of archival papers, I have a reformed perspective. I see the myriad uses for local broadcasting materials. There are possibilities for cultural histories of technology, popular music studies, and any number of other research projects.

I look forward to spending a semester with the allied collections at MIRC. Although far different from a M.A. thesis, in its own way, my internship will be a capstone experience.