As 2020 comes to a close, TSLAC bids a fond farewell to long-time employee and Assistant Director for Archives Laura Saegert, who is retiring after 39 years with the agency. Laura began her tenure at the State Archives with a grant project in 1981 and came on board full time in November of that year. She was led to the profession through her interest in history. While a graduate student at the University of Texas School of Library and Information Science (now the iSchool), Laura’s graduate advisor believed she would find archival work appealing and introduced her to Dr. David Gracy. The rest, she says, “is history!”
Laura first served as an assistant archivist then moved up through the ranks of archivist I, II and III. Following the retirement of both the state archivist and assistant director in 2009, Laura assumed many new duties as “team lead” for archives. This new chapter began during the final stages of the renovation of the Lorenzo de Zavala Building, tapping Laura’s project management skills.
By the time the new State Archivist Jelain Chubb arrived in June 2010, Laura was ready for even more challenges. She assumed the role of assistant director of archives in September 2010. According to Jelain, “Laura impressed me immediately with the depth of her archival knowledge, insights into the collections, and how well she had managed all the new responsibilities that came her way. She was undoubtedly the right person for the job.”
Though it is difficult to imagine the archives without Laura and her encyclopedic knowledge of the collections, she leaves an impressive legacy. In an ever-evolving landscape, she has guided her team through technological innovations in archival processes and improved online access to primary sources.
Recent efforts like the implementation of content management system ArchivesSpace and the creation of the Texas Digital Archive have kept us moving forward in our mission to preserve the historical record. The archives profession was obviously a true calling for Laura and her expertise will be missed.
We asked Laura a few questions about archives, her career with TSLAC and her future plans.
Q: What is an aspect of archival work that changed the most over the years?
A: Processing. When I started, we were doing a lot of item level processing (maps, photographs), and processing agency records was slower, spending more time on arrangement and description and producing very detailed finding aids. Over the years, due to the backlog and the sheer volume of records we have to deal with, the level of processing has moved to less time spent reviewing the records and providing less detail in the finding aids. The concept of processing is the same, but the time spent on each collection is less.
Q: What will you miss most about the archives?
A: Interaction with my staff and working with the records.
Q: Is there an item or a collection that is a particular favorite and why?
A: My favorite collection is the Historic Map Collection. I have always been fascinated by maps, even took a cartography course in college and learned how maps are created. I worked on the map collection part-time for 10 years and set up the online map application.
Other favorite collections are records involving the state prison system and the Texas Youth Commission. I processed most of the records in these groups. Life in the prison system or the juvenile delinquent system is so different than what I experience and in working with these records you see some things in a whole new light. You also see how badly these systems were managed in the past and realize that history repeats itself regarding management of these institutions.
Q: How will you spend your time in retirement?
A: For the next 12 to 18 months, starting in January, I will be taking care of my new grandson part of each weekday while my older daughter goes back to work. I will be doing more quilting, reading, and when things get closer to normal, doing some traveling.
We truly appreciate Laura’s impressive service to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and wish her a happy and pleasant retirement.
Aunque la mayoría de los libros en las colecciones de TSLAC están solamente en inglés, el WebCat en español le puede ayudar con sus necesidades generales de búsqueda.
En el catálogo de biblioteca de TSLAC se pueden hacer búsquedas desde cualquier computadora con acceso a internet. Aunque los registros están en inglés, hay opción de hacer búsquedas en el catálogo en español. En la esquina superior derecha de la página de inicio del catálogo se encuentra un enlace a WebCat en español.
Navegar WebCat en español
La interfaz de WebCat en español tiene botones especiales de navegación. Para iniciar una búsqueda, en vez de usar un botón de «Buscar» o la tecla Enter, se puede usar uno de seis botones diferentes que se encuentran en la parte de abajo del renglón de búsqueda.
En la cabecera de WebCat también hay enlaces de navegación. «Regresar» se usa en vez del botón del navegador para volver atrás. Hacer clic en «Enlazar con página» genera un enlace a la página actual.
“Ayuda” abre una página nueva con más información sobre WebCat en español, y “Desconexión” se usa para abandonar el sitio.
Iniciar una búsqueda
Seleccione unos de los botones azules en la parte de abajo del renglón de búsqueda:
Words or phrase. Recuperar cualquier registro que contenga el término de búsqueda, ya sea en el título, en el nombre del autor, o en el resumen.
Author. Buscar por autor. El autor puede ser una persona o una institución.
Title. Buscar por título.
Subject. Buscar por los encabezamientos de materia. La Lista de Encabezamientos de Materia de la Biblioteca del Congreso de Estado Unidos se usa para describir lo que trata un libro, articulo o documento. Note que los encabezamientos están en inglés y la interfaz en español del catálogo no los traduce.
Series. Buscar por título de serie.
Periodical Title. Buscar por título de publicación periódica.
Los botones de opción que se encuentran arriba el renglón de búsqueda se usan para cambiar el tipo de búsqueda.
Palabra clave. Recuperar registros que contienen alguna parte del término de búsqueda. Por ejemplo, una búsqueda de título para «Texas women» recuperaría cualquier registro con «Texas» o «women» en el título.
. Recuperar una lista alfabética de títulos, autores, o encabezamientos de materia. La lista empieza con el registro que va alfabéticamente antes del término de búsqueda. Si no se encuentra el término de búsqueda, se recupera la lista de registros, en la que el término iría en segundo lugar.
Exacta. Buscar el término de búsqueda tal como está escrito. Por ejemplo, una búsqueda de título para «Texas women» recuperaría sólo registros con «Texas women» como título.
Navegar los resultados
En la parte superior de los resultados se encuentra el número de registros recuperado. Arriba de eso, en la cabecera, se encontrarán unos nuevos enlaces de navegación. «Refine search» le deja precisar la búsqueda actual. «Nueva búsqueda» le deja iniciar una nueva.
El vínculo «Mis artículos guardados» lo lleva a una página donde se pueden guardar los registros a los que quiere volver más tarde. Para guardar el registro que le interesa, haga clic en el cuadrito de «Mantener», a la izquierda del registro.
Navegar un registro
Para ver un registro más amplio del libro, artículo o documento, haga clic en uno de los resultados. La vista «Información de ejemplar» da información básica sobre el libro, artículo o documento, incluyendo su localización. Los números de catalogación en la parte de abajo se usa para encontrar el libro, articulo o documento en la biblioteca.
Para ir a información aún más detallada, haga clic en «Registro de catálogo», que puede incluir encabezamientos de materia, un resumen, o una tabla de contenidos.
Para más consejos de búsqueda, eche un vistazo a la serie blog “Out of the Stacks and Into the Catalog.”
TSLAC le desea buena suerte con su investigación. Se pueden dirigir preguntas al personal del servicio de referencia a: firstname.lastname@example.org o 512-463-5455.
While most of the books in TSLAC’s collections are in English, some patrons may prefer the experience of using Spanish-language navigation while searching the library holdings. Anyone using a computer with internet access may search TSLAC’s library catalog to discover what we have. Although the library catalog records are in English, there is an option to search the catalog using our Spanish-language interface. Located In the upper right-hand corner of the homepage, the “WebCat en español” link will change the screen to Spanish mode. Please note that the search terms themselves should be entered in English.
Navigating WebCat en español
The WebCat en español interface has special navigation buttons, with some in Spanish and others still in English. Instead of a search button or the enter key, there are six different buttons underneath the search box.
There are also navigation links in the WebCat header. “Regresar” is used in place of the browser button to go back. Clicking “Enlazar con página” generates a link to the current page. “Ayuda” opens as new window with more information about WebCat en español, and “Desconexión” logs you out.
Starting a search
Because the majority of TSLAC’s holding are in English, searching in English will yield more results.
Select one of the blue buttons underneath the search box.
Words or phrase. Will bring up any materials that include your words or phrase, whether in the title, the name of the author, or the summary.
Author. Search by author. The author can be a person or institution.
Title. Search by title.
Subject. Search by subject headings. The List of Library of Congress Subject Headings is used to describe what an item is about. Note that the headings are in English and the catalog’s Spanish interface does not translate them.
Series. Search by series title.
Periodical Title. Search by periodical title.
The radio buttons above the search box are used to change the type of search.
Palabra clave. Retrieve records that contain some part of the search term. For example, a title search for “Texas women” would retrieve any record with “Texas” or “women” in the title.
Navegación. Retrieve an alphabetical list of titles, authors, or subject headings. The list begins with the record that goes before the search term alphabetically. If the search term is not found, it retrieves the list of records in which it would go second.
Exacta. Search the search term exactly as it is written. For example, a title search for “Texas women” would retrieve only records with “Texas women” as the title.
Navigating the results
At the top of the results you will find the number of records retrieved. Above this, in the header, are some new navigation links. “Refine search” allows you to refine your current search. “Nueva búsqueda” allows you to begin a new one.
“Mis artículos guardados” links to a page where you can save records you want to go back to. Clicking the “Mantener” box to the left of the record saves it in this page.
Navigating a record
Clicking on one of the results retrieves the item display. The “Información de ejemplar” view gives basic information about the item, including its location. If you find a title you are interested in, contact the Reference Desk: email@example.com. Knowing the call number (“call number” in figure 4) or title will help identify the title more quickly.
Clicking “Registro de catálogo” directs you to more detailed information, which can include subject headings, a summary, or a table of contents.
Our Don Kelly Southeast Texas Postcard Collection offers the ideal imagery for the meditative pastime of assembling jigsaw puzzles. The collection captures the scenery of twentieth century life in that region of the state and adds a bit of nostalgia to the pleasure of piecing together a moment in time. Choose your favorite postcard and start your online puzzle. Come back when you feel like taking on another scene!
As our archives staff work on an ongoing basis to arrange, preserve, describe, and make available to the public the materials under our care, we spotlight new additions to the website in a regular feature from Out of the Stacks. The column lists new and revised finding aids recently made available online. We close out the piece highlighting fresh uploads to the Texas Digital Archive, our repository of electronic items.
Archivists create finding aids for collections once they are processed and add these descriptive guides to Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO). TARO hosts finding aids from institutions around the state and researchers may determine whether or not to limit searches to the State Archives. Not all collections have been processed and therefore the list of finding aids does not represent the entirety of our holdings. The Archives & Manuscripts page of the TSLAC website provides more information and guidance on how to access archival collections.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-463-5455 with questions about using TSLAC’s archival resources. For a comprehensive list of all recently added and updated finding aids visit Archives: Finding Aids (New & Revised).
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission is the oversight agency for certain state agencies with health or human services functions. Records are the meeting files of many of the commission’s advisory committees, dating 1996-2019. Records are electronic as well as paper.
The Texas Prescribed Burning Board (PBB) was created within the Department of Agriculture in 1999, for the purpose of establishing minimum standards for prescribed burning in Texas. The PBB certifies commercial, private, and not-for-profit prescribed burn managers to ensure they have the proper training to execute prescribed burns designed to confine fire to a predetermined area and to accomplish planned land management objectives. Records include board meeting minutes and agenda, research and publication development files, Prescribed Fire School documents and curriculum, planning records, personnel documents, and audiocassettes, dated 1995-2018 and undated, bulk 1998-2010. The audiocassettes have been digitized and are part of the Texas Digital Archive.
The Texas Senate is one arm of the Legislature of the State of Texas (the other being the Texas House of Representatives), which the Texas Constitution (Article III, Section 1) vests with all legislative power of the state. Senate recordings contain floor debate, press conferences, speeches, interviews, hearings, ceremonies, and joint meetings with House committees. They span the 62nd Legislature, 4th Called Session, through the 79th Legislature, Interim Term. These digital copies of the original audiotape recordings, created by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission with grant funding provided by the Library Services and Technology Act, Institute of Museum and Library Services, are part of the Texas Digital Archive.
Texas Tourist Development Agency photographs and audiovisual materials document the activities of the Texas Tourist Development Agency (TTDA) and its work to increase the state’s share of the national tourist market using a variety of mass media. The materials include photographic color slides, transparencies, negatives, photographic prints, videotapes, motion picture films, and audio tapes and date from 1964 to 1997 and undated. Portions of the slides and negatives have been digitized and are part of the Texas Digital Archive. In addition, a portion of digitized slides is available through the Texas State Archives Flickr page.
By Lisa Miesch, Archivist/Museum Curator, Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center
Over a period of many years, Liberty, Texas resident and avocational archeologist Andrew James “Andy” Kyle (1915-2014) collected prehistoric artifacts from numerous sites in southeast Texas. He eventually amassed a collection of more than 30,000 prehistoric artifacts from 95 southeast Texas surface sites in nine counties, including Liberty, Polk, Jasper, Tyler, and Hardin Counties. In 1977, he donated his collection to the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center.
Surface collections such as Kyle’s make up much of the archeological record in Texas. Because of erosion and damage from modern construction activities, there is little information available from stratified or buried sites. While not as complete as that from stratified sites, data from surface sites can still be significant. This is especially the case with Kyle’s collection, as he painstakingly documented and recorded his discoveries by site. The sites represent an area between the Trinity and Sabine Rivers and are representative not only of southeast Texas archeology, but include Louisiana influences as well.
In 2017, as the Sam Houston Center was planning the renovation of its museum, the Center requested the Houston Archeological Society (HAS) to examine the Kyle collection and assist in identifying and selecting artifacts for a new exhibit on the prehistory of the Center’s ten-county region. During this process and during subsequent examination of the collection, HAS made numerous discoveries that have increased our knowledge of the earliest inhabitants of southeast Texas, and their investigation continues.
The majority of the artifacts consist of projectile points (stone tools used for arrows, spears, and darts and commonly known as “arrowheads”), but also included are cutting and scraping tools, drills, grinding stones, and pottery. A significant number of items were constructed from heat-treated petrified wood. They range from the Paleoindian (ca. 13,500-8,000 BP*) to the Late Prehistoric periods (ca. 1,400-500 BP).
One of the most significant discoveries from the collection was the presence of Paleoindian projectile points, including the bases of two broken Clovis points. These points are from the Wood Springs site, only 0.4 mile southeast of the Sam Houston Center. (Wood Springs is a minor tributary of the Trinity River). This site was likely a seasonal site for Clovis-era nomadic hunters following big game animals, as opposed to a permanent campsite. The site’s abundant water would have been attractive to humans and animals alike.
The points represent the first reported occurrence of the Clovis culture in Liberty County, documenting the earliest occupation of the area to at least 13,000 years ago. Seven additional artifacts of Clovis affinity from the Wood Springs site were also identified as well as two tooth fragments from a mastodon and a mammoth. Large mammals like mammoths and mastodons were hunted for food by the Clovis people. These animals went extinct about 10,000-11,000 years ago. The larger fragment is highly polished and may have served as a tool. All of these artifacts may be viewed in the museum’s prehistory exhibit.
[Images are taken from The Prehistory of Southeast Texas: Observations from the Andy Kyle Archeological Collection, Power Point presentation by Wilson W. “Dub” Crook III, Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, October 2, 2018.]
The Savoy site is another of the more prolific sites represented in the Kyle Collection. It is located about 2.6 miles southwest of the Moss Hill community in north-central Liberty County. Among the significant items from this site discovered in the collection by HAS members were 58 sherds from a large oval-shaped vessel, that Andy Kyle had bagged separately from all the other sherds he collected at that site. The sherds have sweeping curvilinear designs made by a bone or wood tool (“stamped”). Two large sections of the vessel were retrofitted by HAS members, which indicated a large oval-shaped bowl about 12 inches across.
The sherds are from a “Mabin Stamped” vessel, an early ceramic type from the Woodland Period (2,000-1,400 BP). After extensive examination of the sherds’ decoration, the piece has been tentatively identified as “Mabin Stamped, var. Joe’s Bayou,” a rare variety of ceramics previously found at only five sites in eastern Louisiana and western Mississippi, adjacent to the Mississippi River. This marks the first known occurrence of this type outside the Lower Mississippi Valley as well as in the state of Texas. In each of the other cases, only a single sherd was found. Considering the number of sherds found and the likely size of the vessel, this piece in the Kyle collection represents the best-known example of this type of pottery. It is the only decorated piece of pottery in the entire Kyle collection. It was likely made in the Lower Mississippi Valley and traded or exchanged between various groups before ending up at the Savoy site. (This item is not currently on exhibit.)
[Images are taken from The Prehistory of Southeast Texas: Observations from the Andy Kyle Archeological Collection, Power Point presentation by Wilson W. “Dub” Crook III, Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, October 2, 2018.]
The Sam Houston Center’s museum is currently open by appointment only. Please call 936-336-8821 to reserve an appointment. For more information, please visit the Center’s web page at https://www.tsl.texas.gov/shc/index.html.
Crook, Wilson W. III, ed., The Andy Kyle Archeological Collection, Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, Houston Archeological Society, Report No. 29, 2017.
Crook, Wilson W. III et al., “A Rare Mabin Stamped, Var. Joe’s Bayou Vessel from the Savoy Site (41LB27), Liberty County, Texas,” The Journal 141: 53-61, Houston Archeological Society, 2019.
The Prehistory of Southeast Texas: Observations from the Andy Kyle Archeological Collection, Power Point presentation by Wilson W. “Dub” Crook III, Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center, October 2, 2018.
When faced with damaged or fragile books, conservators have several approaches they may take. A damaged book might be conserved by repairing a binding that is breaking. The covers may need to be replaced with new ones or the text block may have to be resewn. These treatments are intensive and time-consuming. At any given time, libraries and archives will have many books in need of conservation, and not every volume can be considered for full treatment.Another preservation option is to create custom enclosures for books. A common book enclosure is the phase box.
The term “phase box” has been in use for a long time, but it is often a misnomer. “Phase box” indicates that the book will be placed into the enclosure until the time comes when it can be more fully repaired.
However, many books remain in their phase boxes long-term, and that is a good thing, especially for leather bindings. Leather is inherently unstable over time. It becomes brittle and can develop red-rot, the dusty red powder we are familiar with on old leather books. Brittle leather is prone to breaking on the book’s hinge, where it flexes for opening. The leather spine piece, where a book usually has its title, will often break away from the binding when the hinges have failed. These damages can be repaired by replacing the damaged spine with new leather, but the replacement leather will age eventually as well. Nevertheless, leather rebindings and leather repairs are used by conservators. They are appropriate when a book’s binding is of particular artistic or historical significance. Book conservators are trained in historic methods and can repair or replicate leather bindings to restore the original appearance.
To build a phase box, the book’s length, width, and thickness are measured precisely in a measuring device made just for this purpose. Using these dimensions, two lengths of acid-free board are cut and folded to match the book. When the fit is just right, the book will be snug and will not shift inside the box.
There are a number of other protective enclosures used for library and archives collections. A clam-shell box is made much like a book binding and is usually covered in book cloth. These attractive and strong boxes are often made for high-value books. A portfolio with a four-flap enclosure inside can be used for thinner, lighter-weight books.
Phase boxes can be used for more than bound materials. Here at TSLAC, our historic photographs (daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes) are housed in individual phase boxes within a storage cabinet. The enclosures protect these glass and metal plates from physical damage and limit direct handling.
What about preserving family artifacts?
Protective enclosures are used in libraries and archives, but they are also appropriate for preserving family artifacts such as scrapbooks, family Bibles, and other bound volumes. For family documents that are unbound sheets, like photographs or certificates, another housing system is preferable. Place documents, unfolded whenever possible, into archival paper folders. Don’t overfill them. Place groups of folders into archival boxes. Choose a box that fits the folders well. If the folders are placed vertically and there is extra space in the box, fill it in with wadded-up, acid-free tissue so that folders do not fall over. Boxes and other archival supplies can be purchased from online stores. Look for high-quality, acid-free materials and comparison shop to make sure you are not over-paying for these specialty items.
In an earlier post, we wrote about the recovery and preservation of Supreme Court case files removed from state custody. Today, we highlight recent efforts by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) to improve public access to early Texas Supreme Court case files.
TSLAC holds Texas Supreme Court case files dating from 1841 to 2004. Case files that date between 1841 and 1892 are known as M case files. These files are known as M case files because the Court renumbered them in the 1940s with an M prefix to resolve problems caused by duplicate numbering systems. These case files include Supreme Court cases from the Republic era, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and cover important topics from the 19th century, including slavery, property, and the rights of women, freed people of color, and other minorities. They document the workings of government, matters of business and law, and the experiences of past Texans.
Digitizing the M case files makes these records available to the public through any internet-connected device, while also preserving the original documents from regular exposure and handling. Early case files are fragile due to pest destruction, iron gall ink deterioration, water damage, the nature of the materials (such as “onion skin” paper), and the age of the documents. Below, we will go over the Supreme Court M case files available on the Texas Digital Archive (TDA) and ways to access M case files.
M case files provide information about the lives of Texans between 1841 to 1892. Many of these files are available on the TDA, such as M-119, Maria Jesus Delgado de Smith v. Samuel Smith. This file provides details regarding Maria Jesus Delgado de Smith’s 1844 petition to the Supreme Court of Texas to be made the executor of her late husband’s will. While not all M case files have been added to the TDA, we are scanning and uploading files regularly.
These case files can vary in length, as sometimes only portions of a case file survived. As we discussed in our previous blog post about recovering Supreme Court case files, sometimes we recover portions of case files that had been lost or stolen.
TSLAC has also digitized records helpful in finding case files and providing procedural details about them. The records available on the TDA include dockets and indexes.
Researchers can review the direct and reverse index to M case files for the names of the parties, the old case file number, the M case file number (if one was assigned), a citation to the published opinion in the Texas Reports, and the filing date. The Texas Reports are also available through the Portal to Texas History. Some card files also cite the South Western Reporter. Not all case files from this time period survived and received M case file numbers, so the citation to the opinions can help find published information when the case files have been lost.
Dockets from this period are also available on the TDA. Dockets provide the original number of the case, the attorneys, the parties, the county filed in, and notes about actions that occurred related to the case. The Court also sometimes stamped the dockets with M case file numbers.
Both dockets and indexes can be used to locate an M case file number, which is necessary to locate the case file. Our Texas Supreme Court case files from this period are organized by M case file number, on both the Texas Digital Archive and in our Austin, Texas, facility.
Other Texas Supreme Court records from this period are not available through the TDA and are still accessible through the original paper records. This includes the minutes of the Court, indexes of attorneys registered to practice before the Court, and opinions. These paper records are described in more detail in the finding aid.
Searching for Supreme Court Case Files
A search tool to locate Supreme Court case files on the TDA may help with locating case files. You can search all of the case files that are have been uploaded onto the TDA, by party, M case file number, presiding judge of the District Court, originating county, and more. The cause of action field identifies the legal basis for a lawsuit, such as assault, debt, and probate. This allows you to locate multiple cases on a particular issue.
As a reminder, not all case files in our holdings are available on the TDA yet. We are still scanning and uploading case files dated 1841-1892 onto the TDA, so if a case isn’t available, it is a good idea to check with us.
Remember, if a case does not have an M case file number in the index or dockets, the case file could be missing or stolen. We maintain a list of missing M case files on our website, which is updated biannually. If a case file is missing or stolen, the published opinion in the Texas Reports may provide information about the circumstances of the case. Many volumes of the Texas Reports are available electronically through HathiTrust.
Please contact the reference desk for information about case files. Whether you need assistance locating one on the TDA, confirming the location of one that is not on the TDA, or help with restricted case files (dated after 1943), our reference staff are ready to help. You can contact the reference desk at email@example.com.
The Texas State Historical Association (TSHA) is now accepting applications for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) Research Fellowship in Texas history. The fellowship includes a $2,000 stipend and is awarded for the best research proposal utilizing the collections of the State Archives in Austin.
The TSLAC Research fellowship in Texas history is administered in partnership with TSHA and made possible by the Texas Library and Archives Foundation, Inc. through a generous donation from the Edouard Foundation.
The application must include the purpose of the proposed research, collections of interest, a description of the medium of the product of the research, a complete vita and why the fellowship is necessary to complete the project. The recipient of the fellowship may be asked to present the results of their research at a TSLAC event. The award will be announced at the TSHA’s annual meeting in March 2021. Judges may withhold the award at their discretion.
Individuals should submit an online application, including completing the application form, research proposal and a curriculum vita by Nov. 15, 2020. Only electronic copies submitted through the link above and received by the deadline will be considered.
Past Recipients 2020 Sheena Lee Cox and Micaela Valdez 2019 Maggie Elmore and Deborah Liles 2018 Edward Valentin Jr. and William S. Bush
Too much time on your hands during the pandemic? Digitize your old home videos before it’s too late!
Staying at home during this period of COVID-19 has allowed many of us to appreciate movie watching at home. Now may be a great time to consider digitizing your old home video movies that have been collecting dust in the closet. Unfortunately, we are facing the obsolescence of videotape and VCRs (Video Cassette Recorders). Those of you who may have bought Betamax in the 1980s are already familiar with the difficulties of an out-of-date format. But the more common VHS format, and the dozen or so camcorder formats that came and went since the 1990s are to the point where they will become unplayable due to either the tape degradation or the loss of working playback equipment and parts to repair them.
There are several approaches to digitizing your videos. One is to send them out to a service and let the professionals do all the work. This service is provided by companies ranging from small internet startups to well-known large corporations. If you are among the many who could never program the VCR’s clock, then this might be your best option. But, if you like to tinker and happen to have an old VCR to dust off, or know family or friends who do, you might be able to do this yourself. Here are three different options to try depending on what type of media and equipment you have available.
TIP: Different video formats have different ways to protect the tape from being recorded over. Research your videotape formats and do whatever you need to your tapes to protect your video. VHS tapes have a tab on the back, just like audiocassettes do on the top edge. Simply break that tab to prevent an “oops” moment! Do this regardless if you are digitizing the tapes yourself or sending them out to a service! You can see the wide variety of formats here in the Texas Commission on the Arts Videotape Identification and Assessment Guide: https://www.arts.texas.gov/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/video.pdf
OPTION I: VHS-DVD combination player transfer
If you already have one of these combo units around, you are in luck. These VHS players were popular in the 2000s and may be hiding in your closet, under the bed, or buried in boxes in your garage. If you don’t have one, you might look around at thrift stores, yard sales, and other outlets that may have old electronics. These units were already designed to convert your home video to digital video for DVD. DVDs were considered long-lived at the time they came out, but the writable and rewritable disks are not permanent and are prone to lose data over time – in as little as 10 years! They are not good preservation media and professional archivists don’t rely on DVD or CD media for sole copies of data in long-term archival digital storage environment. However, DVDs will work as a bridge to get your video into a computer.
What you need:
A VHS-DVD combination player
Blank DVD-R or DVD-RW disk media
Computer with a DVD drive (internal or external)
Free DVD video extraction software (such as Handbrake or VLC Media Player)
With the VHS-DVD combo unit, you can record your video onto the DVD, sometimes referred to as “dubbing” in device manuals. This DVD will be formatted to be played on a standard DVD video player. Follow the instruction manual for the unit to properly create and finalize the disk. Once complete, you will need a computer with a DVD drive attached or built-in (please note many computers today don’t include these drives, so you may need to use an older computer or borrow a USB DVD drive from someone). You can’t just drag and drop video from a DVD video disk – you will need to have software like the two in the list above that can read the disk’s data structure and repackage the video as a stand-alone file. Once you have extraction software installed (a.k.a., ripping software), you can copy the video (a.k.a., ripping) from the DVD and store it on your hard drive. A simple search online should uncover plenty of tutorials about the process for the software you choose to install. Remember, there is free open-source software that can do this, so you shouldn’t need to pay for any software to extract from the DVD.
In the professional archives field, best practice is to capture old analog video at its original resolution and uncompressed, which results in very large files not practical for most. For preserving your home movies, save it at the original resolution – here in the US that is NTSC at 720×480 pixels. DVD video already uses video compression to reduce its data footprint. Your best bet for video compression during extraction is to choose H.264 for the video and MP3 for the audio. This should provide you with the best balance between image quality and a file size. The final video file will likely have an extension of .mp4, although .mov or .avi may be found as well depending on your operating system and software.
TIP: Always inspect your media. If there is mold on it, you probably need to find someone to send it to for cleaning and digitization. Mold exposure can cause medical issues so don’t risk it at home. Look not only at the outside of the cassette but look at the tape pack through the window of the cassette. Any white or gray fuzz growing on the tape pack is a bad sign – it may also be yellow, green, black, or even dark purple in color. You do not want to contaminate all your other tapes by playing a moldy one in your VCR!
image: mold growing on tape
OPTION II: MiniDV camcorder transfer
If you have a VCR and are fortunate to still have a MiniDV camcorder, you can use the camcorder to pass the VCR video to your computer. Keep in mind, MiniDV camcorders typically use Firewire cables (a.k.a., DV) to connect to your computer.
For those with newer Apple computers, adaptors can be found for Firewire to Thunderbolt. For those with Windows computers, you may be able to find Firewire expansion cards or other video capture interfaces that allow for Firewire (or DV as they may be labeled) connections for your PC. Some interfaces have additional inputs making this MiniDV camera method unnecessary, so keep that in mind if you decide to purchase a video capture interface. Image: firewire cable
What you need:
A VHS player, or player for whatever format you have
Apple computer with Thunderbolt and Firewire adapters, or Windows computer with Firewire add-on card or USB video interface with DV connection
Movie software (Apple’s iMovie or Windows Movie Maker)
Once you have the MiniDV camcorder’s DV/Firewire cable plugged in, you should be able to find an AV input on the camcorder. Often camcorders have a miniature 1/8” jack for the AV input, similar to the small headphone jacks you are likely familiar with. The cable likely came with the camera, and it breaks out into three RCA connectors (sometimes referred to as “phono plugs” in consumer manuals) – one for video, one for audio left, and one for audio right. These RCA connectors are the common connections you find on VCRs and DVD players.
You can connect your VCR output to the RCA connections and plug the minijack into the camcorder. The camcorder should have a function selection on it that allows you to operate it in an “AV” mode instead of camera mode. This allows it to see the video from the VCR, convert them to a digital signal, and output them to the computer. If you have the camcorder in the correct setting, you usually should be able to see the video from the videotape playing on the LCD screen built into the camcorder. iMovie software on an Apple, or Windows Movie Maker software on a Windows PC, should be able to see the camera device and capture the digital video stream to your local computer. Review the section above for best settings for saving your files.
OPTION III: Video capture
Alternatively, if you don’t have a MiniDV player or the VHS-DVD combo deck, big box stores and online retailers carry USB based video interfaces that provide RCA connections for audio and video, S-video (an improved connection for video you might choose to use if you have it on your old playback equipment). These vary in quality and cost. Typically, the adage “you get what you pay for” is often true, but one of these should not set you back too much for capturing basic VHS quality video. If you have a lot of home video you would like to digitize yourself, this small investment may be worthwhile.
TIP: It’s best to keep your original tapes safe after digitization just in case you need to access them again in the near future. Always store your tapes in an air-conditioned environment if possible. The best place is a closet, and of course avoid any “wet” areas such as a bathroom, kitchen, laundry room, etc. Keep the tapes off the floor at least several inches. A water leak will easily ruin your tapes.
Trouble with Tapes
You might have your old VCR all set up, along with your box of home videos you pulled from the garage. Excitedly, you put the first tape in, and after a short while the image starts looking terribly crooked and distorted and the audio might have a distinct odd distortion to it – or the tape just grinds the player to a halt and stops playing. Hit stop immediately! Your tape may be suffering from binder degradation. Forcing your VCR to play a degraded tape can damage both the tape and the VCR. Tape is a plastic base film with a coating to store the magnetic recordings. These coatings absorb moisture and begin to breakdown over time. Maybe your decision to store the tapes in your hot garage or attic was not such a “hot” idea after all! Tapes need dry and cool conditions to survive a long time – and ideally should be stored in a rewound state and vertically on their side.
Certain brands commonly have binder degradation. Sometimes you can identify a tape with degradation by smell, but it is not 100% foolproof. A very crayon-like waxy odor may indicate that it is suffering from problems. However, some tapes may smell slightly when first removed from their sleeve, yet playback fine. Some may not playback fine but do not smell.
There is a way to remediate the binder degradation, but only temporarily. In the professional digitization world, we do what we call “baking” – heating a tape over low temperatures for a long time. This temporarily cures the “stickiness” of the tape and allows it to perform better on playback – typically for a few weeks only. After a few weeks it will likely revert to an unplayable state and would need to be baked once more to be played again.
IMPORTANT: This “baking” is NOT something you can do with your home oven –do NOT put audiotapes, videotapes, OR motion picture film in your home oven! You can damage or destroy the media, or worse you may start a fire!
The idea of tape “baking” is to dehydrate – not to cook. Sometimes just adding the tape to a sealed airtight plastic bag with desiccant (that stuff you find in boxed products that states “Do not eat”) to absorb the moisture can work. But often tapes are too far gone and need more extreme measures. Professional archives like ours often have laboratory ovens that can accurately maintain temperature and perform this treatment. Image: laboratory oven
There are some devices that allow you to perform this at home. Less expensive food dehydrators such as NESCO and Excalibur brands have been used to dehydrate tape. Some internet searches will turn up discussion forums on the use of these for tapes. It is NOT recommended to use a dehydrator for both food and tapes, and certainly not at the same time! The chemicals that leach out of plastics and tape coatings may not be something you want to eat! And you do not want to contaminate your tapes with byproducts of food either. A dehydrator for this purpose should have an internal fan to move air and should have a temperature control. I have used an Excalibur dehydrator at home to bake my own tapes at times when needed and successfully digitized them afterward.
Baking tapes is a lot like Texas BBQ, low and slow. If you find you need to do this for a videotape, keep the temperature no more than 130 degrees Fahrenheit – and bake for 12-24 hours. If the tape has been stored in humid conditions for a long time, it may take even longer. Before placing tapes in a dehydrator, test it over time with a quality oven thermometer to see how accurate the device’s thermostat is.
IMPORTANT: Do NOT heat these tapes at higher temperatures or you risk melting the tape and/or plastic components! And again, NEVER put motion picture film in a dehydrator. This suggestion only pertains to videotapes!
Your video is digitized. Now what?
Having your video digitized is great – unless your hard drive fails, and you lose your data. Then you are back to square one. It’s best to follow the LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe) concept – keeping a digital copy on your hard drive, a backup drive, and on the cloud provides you some extra security in case of a drive failure or other catastrophic loss of the physical storage device. You should have at least three copies of your digital files, and one copy should not be physically stored near the others.