Monday, March 12, 2012

Play It Forward: The Great Digital Migration

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Do you have VHS tapes?  Or Beta?  How about some 8mm film?  Now, here’s the tricky question…how many of you can actually play those back? 

Technology marches on.  New formats come, old equipment breaks and we’re left with valuable information trapped on deteriorating mediums that we can’t watch.  So, this year we are embarking on phase 1 of our digitization project.  The ultimate goal of this project is to produce digital versions of all of our videos and films so that we can watch and share them once again.

Here at the Chemung County Historical Society we have a dozen rolls of 16mm film, 30 or so rolls of 8mm film, over 200 video cassettes in various formats, and nearly 400 audio cassette tapes.  Converting these items into digital format costs money, a lot of money, so phase 1 of our digitization project is to establish conversion priorities. 

What are our priorities?  Our first priority is to save information which is in danger of being lost.  Take, for example, a series of oral histories on VHS tape done in the 1990s of Asian immigrants in Chemung County.  VHS is a magnetic film format inside a hard shell with a series of moving parts.  Both the film itself and the mechanical bits that make it play back can be damaged over time making it hard to view the information on the tape.  In the case of the oral histories, some mechanical difficulty makes it so the tape can’t be fully rewound, thus making it a priority for digital conversion.

Once we’ve rescued the information in immediate danger of being lost, our next priority is usefulness.  We have a number of exhibits and projects planned on a range of topics including floods in Chemung County and growing up in Chemung County.  Our second priority, then, is to convert the material associated with those topics so we can use them in our exhibits and programs.

Of course, just converting stuff to digital format doesn’t mean that all the work is done.  After all, technology marches on and DVDs are on their way out while BlueRays are on their way in.  In order to ensure that the information we’ve just paid to have converted lasts, we have to make sure to save the digital information not only on its new DVD, but also on our servers and to keep updating it as new stuff comes along.  It will be a lot of work, but, in the end, it should be worth it.

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