For Preservation Week this year we are highlighting webinars offered for free from the American Library Association‘s CORE division. CORE sponsors Preservation Week and provides helpful resources for cultural heritage professionals and the general public. Two upcoming webinars focus on support systems available for preserving collections after crises and disasters. CORE also provides access to recordings of past webinars dealing with other aspects of preservation, such as family history, community archiving, and sustainability.
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 Those of you who may have bought Betamax in the 1980s are already familiar with the difficulties of an out-of-date format.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.
The Texas Historical Records Advisory Board (THRAB) invites participants to develop an Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan for their archival repositories with a free webinar series launching May 20. Over the course of five weeks, professional consultant Rebecca Elder of Elder Cultural Heritage Preservation will guide participants through the step-by-step process of creating an Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan for their archival repositories. Each 90-minute webinar will focus on components of building a plan, with the final installment an opportunity to assess draft plans and review potential implementation concerns. The topics are as follows:
Week 1: Emergency Planning Basics and the Emergency Team
Week 2: Risk Assessment and Choosing a Plan Template
Week 3: Contact Lists and Salvage Priorities
Week 4: Procedures, Supplies and Implementation
Week 5: How Did It Go?
Registration is for the series. Please note that week two covers risk assessment, which would typically require access to the repository. Those not able to make on-site visits because of COVID -19 may need to address the more specific details of this module at a later date. Register here: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/1539294695231443212
Support for this project provided by the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the funding arm of the National Archives.
An essential component of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission’s (TSLAC) mission of providing Texans access to the information needed to be informed, productive citizens is preserving the archival record of Texas. But what if archival materials are too fragile to be regularly handled? How do we balance preservation with access to the information? Efforts to both preserve records and maintain public access to them has changed over time as technology advances. In celebration of the American Library Association’s Preservation Week (April 26-May 2,2020) we are highlighting one of our collections that exemplifies this balance: Texas Adjutant General’s Department Civil War military rolls.
The Texas Adjutant General’s Department Civil War military rolls include muster rolls, payrolls, rosters, returns, and election returns of Confederate States Army, Texas State Troops, and Army of the United States units that were stationed in Texas during the Civil War. A typical military roll includes the soldiers’ names and ranks, their commanding officer, a description of the organization, enlistment and discharge data, descriptions of individuals, when and where they were stationed, and arms issued. Much of this information can be seen in the muster roll for Company C, 15th Brigade, Cavalry, Texas State Troops included below. Because of the level of individual information contained within the military rolls, researchers and genealogists consider this a highly valuable resource.
Preserving Original Documents with Conservation Treatments Many of the military rolls are extremely fragile. The more the paper is handled, the more likely it is to tear or curl. In addition, inks, like iron-gall ink, eat through paper and can make the rolls illegible, while also destroying the stability of the paper. In the early-to-mid 1900s many of these rolls underwent a common conservation treatment of the time called “silking.” Silking was a process of adhering a thin piece of silk to the front and back of the paper to support it. Despite best intentions, archivists and conservators now know that the silks’ acidity causes the paper to become more brittle and discolored over time. Between 2010 and 2019, TSLAC Conservation tackled this collection and addressed these issues in the military rolls. The oversized Confederate military rolls were conserved by removing the silk, deacidifying the paper, stabilizing the iron gall ink, and mending tears. This extensive project has allowed for more access to the physical rolls and prepared them for the digitization process.
Enhancing Access through Digitization These Civil War military rolls are currently being digitized to preserve the original records while still making them available to the public. Digitized military rolls are available online through our Texas Digital Archive (TDA) at: https://tsl.access.preservica.com/tda/texas-state-agencies-homepage/tmd/#civilWarRolls Researchers can view and download watermarked versions of these military rolls on the TDA.
Prior to the conservation and digitization of these military rolls, their information was only accessible through transcriptions. In the early 1900s almost all of the Civil War military rolls were transcribed onto three by five inch index cards. These cards provided researchers with a way to find the information included within the military rolls without having to pull the rolls out of archival storage. There are three different sets of index cards: “Abstracts of Muster Rolls,” “Captains,” and “Units.” The largest of these is the “Abstracts of Muster Rolls” which fills 65 drawers of the card catalog in the Archives Reading Room. An example of a typical abstract card is shown below.
This abstract card is for 2nd Sergeant Isaac Stewart of Company C, 15th Brigade, Cavalry, Texas State Troops. Below is a closer look at the Texas State Troops muster roll from Figure 1, showing Stewart’s rank, age, and enlistment information.
Not only do these transcriptions help preserve the original rolls, they allow researchers to search by name without needing to know what unit an individual served in. These cards are regularly consulted instead of pulling the original military rolls. This has helped to preserve these documents for future generations of researchers. For those unable to visit our location in Austin, there has always been an option to contact our Reference team to have up to five names searched in the card index.
The Civil War military rolls index cards became accessible online through Ancestry.com within the database “Texas, Muster Roll Index Cards, 1838-1900.” The digitization of these cards not only preserves these heavily used reference materials for future use but allows for greater access to them. The database gives researchers the opportunity to browse the cards as well as search by name, date, location, or keyword. This database is accessible to all Texas residents through our website at: https://www.tsl.texas.gov/arc/ancestry
TSLAC continues to fulfill its mission to preserve archival records while maintaining public access to them. As shown by the history of our Civil War military rolls, methods of preservation and access evolve as new technologies become widely available.
In 2007, Texas House of Representatives’ Media Services transferred to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) about 350 reels of audiotape. Most of the recordings dated between 1975 and 1984 and covered the House floor debates from the entire 63rd through 68th Legislative sessions. Many House committee recordings were included as well. At the time the tapes were transferred to TSLAC, the majority of the reels were described by House media staff as “unplayable.” Having been marked as damaged and unplayable, the audiotapes were stored in TSLAC’s climate-controlled stacks awaiting deaccessioning.
State Archives staff revisited this collection in 2017 after digitizing recordings from the House Textbook Committee and others from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Digital Asset Coordinator Steven Kantner, with a background in recording engineering along with a graduate school focus on the preservation of audiovisual materials, recognized the primary issue facing these tapes.
The bulk of the audiotape used in the House recordings from this time period was Ampex 407. Ampex was once a well-known manufacturer of recording devices and produced their own brand of audiotape.
As years pass, audiotape is known to suffer from binder degradation, also known as “sticky-shed” or “sticky-binder” syndrome. Post-1970 audiotape construction has multiple layers that keeps magnetic and carbon particles attached to the support tape. Over time, these chemical bonds break down from exposure to humidity. Ampex 407 is no exception.
Tapes with this condition will squeal upon playback and can lock up the tape player altogether. This can damage the tape and the players too. While there have been various methods applied to attempt remediation of this degradation, the most successful and widely used is a heat treatment. A pilot test consisting of a random sample of the tapes was conducted to prove salvaging these recordings was possible.
Soon after the first project meeting in April 2018, the effort was underway. Using a scientific lab oven in the State Archives, a dozen reels of tape at a time were carefully heated at 130F/54C for a total of 24 hours. The tapes were cooled down for at least 24 hours before they would be played.
The original Studer ReVox and Sony recorders used to create the tapes were not available. TSLAC bought a brand new Otari MX-5050 reel to reel player in 2014, about one year before Otari ended manufacture of these last modern reel-to-reel players. The original recorders had a tape speed option to slow the tape down to audio-cassette speed (1.875” per second). The Otari does not have that option and only uses faster consumer and production tape speeds.
Since no new reel players are on the market today, and working old ones are hard to come by, the recordings were captured at double their original speed, but at a very high digital resolution. This high resolution was to compensate for time duration adjustments after the digitization of the tape. This provided quality better than compact discs and kept audio transfers within digitization guidelines and standards from organizations such as the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives.
While the bulk of the tapes just required heat treatment, some tapes exhibited other damage that occurred during the original recording or subsequent handling.
Some tape had strange white residues that formed around old fingerprints left on the tapes. It was determined after viewing under a microscope that it was not mold and was safe to handle.
Nearly all tapes were missing leader tape at the head or tail of the reels.
Log books of the recordings were part of the original accession and contain useful metadata about the activities captured in the recordings. These were handwritten notes that included the “counter” information on the original recorder, which unfortunately is information only helpful with the original playback equipment and doesn’t equate to an accurate “time stamp.” However, representatives speaking and bill number information is useful to narrow down what was happening on any given day. These log books were digitized and are provided as a PDF file to browse through to look for names, bill numbers, and any other information a researcher may need. Each page of the PDF is bookmarked with Tape and Side where the audio resides and can be cross-referenced with the recordings.
The original project plan was to provide these to the public as MP3 files along with the PDF log books as an index. However, after some testing, it was found that using artificial intelligence for Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) could be a powerful discovery tool for this collection. For over 1,000 hours recordings, it could cost the State thousands of dollars to send off to a vendor to perform. To hire people to manually write transcriptions would cost even more. Instead, an open source video software tool called ffmpeg was used to convert MP3 audio files into an MP4 video file using a placeholder “frame” for the video image. Then the MP4 was uploaded into a private channel on YouTube. Many of the recordings were just under the time limit set by YouTube, and YouTube (owned by Google and likely using a light version of Google’s ASR) would provide captions within about 24 hours after upload.
The captions are not perfect as there are heavy accents, people speaking simultaneously, and other background chatter on the tapes that confuses the AI – but a large majority of the captioning is accurate. The caption files were downloaded and placed with the recordings. When topics are mentioned or House bill numbers are mentioned, this text is now searchable across the entire Texas Digital Archive – a text search will lead you to the captions – once the caption file is open, then use the FIND feature in your browser to search through the text in the record. A time stamp is included with each line of captioning to help the user pinpoint the audio in the recording. Using ffmpeg, captions were also permanently burned into the video frames so whole recordings are available not only as MP3 audio files, but also as video files with the captions.
The last audiotapes were captured about 15 months after the project kick-off, and within a couple of months all metadata and files were ready for ingest into the Texas Digital Archive. The collection, much of which was inaccessible for many years due to the tape condition, was now available to the public online.
Researchers using this collection have two options: use the log books to locate topics on a given day, or try a text search across a session or the entire collection. If using a text search, it is recommended to try several varieties of how a house bill or other topic could be mentioned. For example, “house bill 131”, “HB 131”, or just “131”. As technology advances further, future discovery improvements may be implemented to make searching and discovery within this large set of recordings even better.
The Texas Historical Records Advisory Board (THRAB) serves the archival community with a range of ongoing efforts supporting the preservation of the historical record. With funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), THRAB provides free training opportunities to those working in repositories around the state. As part of the offerings for 2019, THRAB coordinated a series of educational webinars and workshops designed to help archivists combat threats from natural and other disasters by preparing collections and staff for such emergencies. Rebecca Elder, a preservation consultant who runs Elder Preservation, created and taught the Emergency Planning and Response series, which included hands-on workshops complete with wet-salvage exercises and a two-part online component.
On-site workshops were held over two days and addressed each phase of dealing with major emergency situations in an archive. Elder guided participants through processes like developing an emergency plan, assembling a team, establishing salvage priorities and purchasing appropriate supplies and disaster gear. Workshop participants performed a risk assessment exercise in the facilities in which the workshops took place and learned to identify possible threats.
Day two involved a wet-salvage project where participants learned methods of handling and recovering soaked papers, books, posters, cassette tapes, computer disks, negatives and photographs. The images above capture participants in action as they work on recovery techniques.THRAB offered the workshop at Rice University’s Fondren Library in Houston and the TSLAC’s State Records Center in North Austin.
Each year, the American Library Association (ALA) designates one week in April to recognize the preservation challenges faced by those who wish to save for future generations collections of books, historical records, photos, documents and a range of media formats. Celebrate Preservation Week with pro tips from librarians and archivists on how best to store and care for your most priceless items. Take in a webinar, download a flyer and peruse the State Archives’ Preservation Tips page for valuable information on how to protect your most precious memories.
The Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) site provides preservation information and connects visitors to useful educational resources. The State Archives maintains a Preservation Tips page with guidance on how to care for collections of books, documents and photos at home or on the job. The Preservation page covers such essential issues as environmental control, pest management and how to respond to water emergencies. In addition, the Texas Historical Records Advisory Board (THRAB) offers professional development opportunities for those tasked with caring for archival materials.
THRAB is currently coordinating an Emergency Planning workshop series for Texas archives professionals, which launched during Preservation Week with a webinar on April 23. The second part in the series takes place on “May Day” (May 1), which is when the archival community draws attention to the threats disasters pose as we strive to preserve our cultural heritage collections. Preservation Consultant, Rebecca Elder teaches the webinars and will offer hands-on workshops in June. For more about this series, visit: https://www.tsl.texas.gov/workshops.
To celebrate Preservation Week, we leave you with Preservation FAQs from the State Archives:
The Texas Historical Records Advisory Board (THRAB) is offering in 2019 a series of professional development opportunities to equip those caring for archival materials with the knowledge, skills and hands-on experience needed to prepare repositories for threats and recover damaged collections. THRAB has contracted with Cultural Heritage Preservation Consultant Rebecca Elder to teach two 90-minute webinars on emergency planning and two-day hands-on workshops in Austin and Houston. Funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), workshops are provided free of charge and available to those working in Texas repositories. Registration is now open for the webinars:
Hands-on workshops are scheduled for June 13-14 in Austin and in Houston June 27-28. Each will be a two-day event. The first day will focus on emergency preparedness, and the second day will focus on response, including a wet salvage exercise. Each workshop will be limited to 20 attendees working for a Texas repository. Registration will open in early May. Please note that THRAB may limit registration to one person per institution to allocate space equitably.
Rebecca Elder is a seasoned preservation consultant who works with the staff of cultural heritage institutions to care for their historical collections. Elder holds a Master’s in Information Science from the University of Texas and is a former field services officer for Amigos Preservation Services. She currently teaches preservation management at the University of Texas iSchool and courses online at Kent State.
Funding for THRAB workshops provided by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.