Grant will help UI library plan how preserve audiovisual items

Grant will help UI library plan how preserve audiovisual items

In the early 1950s, anthropologist Oscar Lewis traveled to a small village in northern India to document life there.

Not only did he jot down notes and snap photographs of the residents, Lewis also sat down and talked with them about everything from their local festivals to family planning.

Throughout the course of his career, Lewis interviewed families in Mexico, Cuba and Puerto Rico exploring the concept called the culture of poverty. His conversations with people – about magic, superstition, land ownership, politics and more – have all been captured on audiotapes.

The tapes are in the basement of the University of Illinois Library. Along with films and audiotapes of Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the UI, Carl Sandburg reading his poems, the building of the Illini Union, Illini football and basketball games, archaeological digs, interviews with artists like Martha Graham, performing arts shows, WILL radio and television interviews and programs, classroom lectures and much more.

There's a lot of stuff. Even the librarians don't know exactly how many audiovisual items are there.

The items are in the form of aluminum discs, u-matic tape, Beta video, VHS, you name it. The UI even has nitrate films from the 1920s and '30s which become explosive as the films degrade.

"The problem with any audiovisual recording is it's never a permanent format. Technology changes so fast," said UI Conservation Librarian Jennifer Hain Teper.

Still got a 5.75-inch floppy disk or two around the house or office? You can't easily access the data on that anymore because technology has evolved.

It's the same thing with audiovisual equipment.

Another challenge is each format degrades at a different rate. (And some collectors aren't even sure what kind of format they have for some recordings.)

"Even digital format has its own set of problems," said Jack Brighton, director of Internet development at WILL. CDs don't last forever and hard drives are not completely immune from problems, he added.

What to do?

"We can't start preserving our materials until we know what to preserve," Hain Teper said.

With the help of a $250,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, the UI Library, with the help of several partners, will develop a computer-based program that will help libraries, historical societies and collectors assess their audio visual collections. It will help them prioritize their conservation projects, figuring out which films or tapes should be catalogued and preserved first. Hain Teper is hoping to make the program available as widely as possible, eventually accessible from the Internet.

The library is also putting up $170,000 for the project, called the Audio-Visual Self-Assessment Program.

According to University Archivist William Maher, "the university is a custodian of a significant, cultural intellectual heritage." The UI has purchased or acquired through donations countless audiovisual items which the university has a responsibility to make available to the public, he said.

But what do you when someone wants to watch a film from the 1930s? What do you do to preserve a videotape that has fallen apart? What format do you change it to? What kinds of information do you need to save old film?

These are some questions Brighton said he hopes the program will be able to answer.

"The idea of the project is to provide a tool to help people assess a bunch of different kinds of collections, to assess what's at risk of deteriorating over time," Brighton said.

In addition to WILL, other partners in the project include the UI's Spurlock Museum, UI Department of Dance, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Illinois Heritage Association and the Consortium of Academic Research Libraries in Illinois.

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