Carolyn Faber of the John M. Flaxman Library at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Carolyn Faber, Film and Media Technician at the John M. Flaxman Library for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)
Carolyn Faber, Media Collections Manager at the John M. Flaxman Library for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)

Carolyn Faber is the Media Collections Manager at the John M. Flaxman Library for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Located in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks away from the Art Institute, Carolyn maintains a circulating collection of 16mm film prints, with access restricted to faculty and students. Carolyn had been a part of the field for several years after having studied filmmaking in college and working a variety of production jobs around the Chicago area before landing in a film archive. She has worked with film and moving image collections for 16 years due to her knowledge of 16mm film, including how to safely handle and repair it (meaning inspection, cleaning, and splicing), her familiarity with assessment and minor repair work of videotape, and her knowledge of digitization technologies and workflows. A few years ago, Carolyn decided to return to school for a master’s in Library Science. About this decision, she says, “It was mostly to expand on my existing skills and learn more about library environments – where I think some audio/visual collections can get kind of stuck in Special Collections ‘purgatory.’ But it was also practical – I wanted to get into higher-level jobs and saw that I was being passed over for lack of an advanced degree – I needed to be more competitive.”

At SAIC, Carolyn’s role is to keep fragile and damaged film prints in projectable condition, a tough job as commercial support for 16mm film continues to erode, she says. Replacing films with better quality projections can only be done once or twice a year, if at all, due to the challenge of cost and availability. When it comes to projecting the film, Carolyn has students and faculty trained and authorized by the Technical Managers in the Film, Video, New Media, and Animation (FVNMA) department’s certification program. The school also has numerous projectors available in several classrooms, but the main building where much of the requests come from has a media center available for students and faculty to check out projectors for viewings in empty classrooms – equipment never leaves the building; only the film cans travel. In the library, the film collection is kept on a separate floor from the book collection, on top of storage shelves in the staff work area. Lining the perimeter are several library staff offices, including Carolyn’s. Inside her office, Carolyn has a desk, film projector, screen, film inspection bench, various video decks, and a monitor. Every film is inspected before going out in circulation. Up until this past August, Carolyn’s job was primarily a part-time student-worker position. With her role expanding, the position has been bumped to a full-time management job with one student assistant working eight to ten hours a week. Thanks to her assistant, Carolyn has been able to catalog the backlog of DVDs in the library’s collection, assess the 16mm film collection, work more closely with the media held in special collections, and foster relationships with frequent users of the collections, like the FVNMA department. Her assistant, meanwhile, handles the film print inspections and projection request schedule. Assessing the collection has been important for determining short- and long-term goals. About developing the collection, Carolyn says, “Space is at a premium so we have to consider acquisitions very carefully. I do handle purchasing of new prints but as to the curatorial aspect of developing the collection – that is done in collaboration with senior staff.”

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Films in the John M. Flaxman Library stacks.

Even though Carolyn and her assistant do all of the conservation work, she says there is not much more they can do to prevent damage from happening each time a film is checked out. Carolyn believes creating access to the collection for use in teaching includes keeping some damaged prints for use in preservation, media genealogies, and material studies classes. About the collection, Carolyn says, “Many prints in the collection have been so battered from their years in circulation that all we can do is make sure they project without breaking.” While she has all of the typical tools of a film archivist – a shrinkage gauge, splicer, film cleaner and cloths, Moviscope viewer, perfix tape, and white gloves – work is not extensive on the films due to time and the possibility of better prints being available elsewhere. When a print is red, she will tell the instructor and “nine out of ten times they won’t show it.” These are cases when Carolyn has to borrow from other collections, like Canyon Cinema, to maintain access. With the intent to make the most of the film collection at SAIC, Carolyn plans to conduct an overall evaluation of the collection to determine which prints the library could consider replacing, if they are in fact replaceable, and which newer 16mm film works they can consider purchasing and entering into the circulation collection, all in the name of access.

~Erin McCall

Lauren Sorensen: Analog Video Hero

I recently spoke with Lauren Sorensen, Preservation Project Manager at the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco. Lauren graduated from the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at New York University and has since worked for the National Digitization Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), Canyon Cinema, San Francisco Cinematheque and now BAVC. Below she discusses preservation of analog videotape, working with artists and non-profits, and the future of moving image preservation.

Lauren Sorensen of the Bay Area Video Coalition
Lauren Sorensen of the Bay Area Video Coalition

What are your main job responsibilities as Preservation Project Manager?

My main responsibilities presently are preservationist for analog videotape for non-profits, archives, museums and libraries; preservationist and project manager for Dance Heritage Coalition partner project Dance Preservation & Digitization Project (formerly Secure Media Network), a digital repository of dance-related moving images; advising clients on collection care and handling; managing our collection assessment services; and metadata specialist.

What formats do you work with the most?

At this point in my work at BAVC, I’m not doing as much on the ground digitizing work, but I am definitely seeing the urgency now for preserving 1/2″ open-reel videotape, the first “portable” format financially (and physically) accessible to artists and non-profits such as dance companies and artists. We also work with Hi-8, Umatic and VHS quite a bit. I work advising our clients and building workflow for digital preservation, and I feel that is where my role at BAVC is headed moving forward. I often work with 10-bit uncompressed in a Quicktime *.mov wrapper, which is the preservation codec and wrapper we recommend to our clients currently for digitization from an analog source.

What is the most rewarding thing about your work?

For the Dance Heritage Coalition partner project, it is mainly discovering all the amazing possibilities associated with digital preservation and open source and the movement to open access; it can be very intimidating at first, but the software tools out there are really powerful and accessible if a little time is taken to learn. I feel like learning about these tools, because the standard now for analog videotape preservation is digital file, helps our smaller clients and I’m able to advise artists and those preserving their personal collections and I feel really good about being able to assist in that process.

Another rewarding thing about working at BAVC is that artists come in wanting to work on their personal legacy and life’s work. Sometimes we are able to put them in touch with an archive but there’s a complexity around that- even though their legacy videotape might be better cared for at an archive with temperature and humidity control or access to server storage, an artist may not want to let go of their work. While this is completely understandable, many times analog videotape is so unstable that it will not last over the course of one lifetime. So we often end up discussing more around the complexities of caring for video outside of a traditional setting, a very involved but ultimately very rewarding conversation, when we can do something to come to the service of this part of our constituency.

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How does content influence your work?

One aspect of the digitization process where content matters is in monitoring the signal and identifying between what was captured in the original recording and what are artifacts in transfer. We’re a partner on the A/V Artifact Atlas project and have just recently taken over maintenance of the wiki, which we will work on updating over the next two years, thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Additionally, there are instances especially with artist-made videotapes when it is unclear if something like sync loss or artifacts are original to the intention of the work; in this case, we work closely with the archivist and sometimes the artist, to determine the intention and how that fits into the preservation process.

In the Videotape Preservation Handbook, Jim Wheeler writes:

“It is assumed that there is intrinsic value in the recorded information or content and little, or no, intrinsic value in the original physical item itself.”

Would you agree that in the field of moving image preservation, there is no intrinsic value in the physical item?

We definitely come across artists who will use tape cases as art objects, and many times there are “traces” of what was produced before, such as metadata intrinsic to the value and provenance of the piece, so I would not agree with Wheeler’s statement especially regarding the community that we serve. Recording and maintaining this kind of legacy metadata is very important for digital preservation.

I’m constantly blown away by the amount of time and money involved in moving image preservation. Are there ever times where you wonder “is this worth it”?

I definitely have moments when I question the selection of content by curators or archivists we work with, but the work we receive in our role as fee-for-service digitization provider is coming from a particular context, where I don’t necessarily have the depth of understanding that the curator might have about what the history or value of that tape might be. Additionally, one of the really exciting aspects of analog video preservation is that many times the content for selection is based on tape labeling and how consistent or well-recorded metadata was in the original production. For example, BAVC received a Hi-8 video documentation of water freezing from the science museum in San Francisco for transfer. There was some challenges in terms of patience as a technician to have one-to-one supervision in transferring, but I can definitely see the value of what they are doing in preserving a tape like that — it was the opening of a major exhibition and Hi-8 is a volatile format. I think it will get easier and less expensive as tools are developed and people actively work on making the digitization activities we pursue streamlined. It helps that as a field we’re moving into the digital world, where we can make code and scripts work for us to make tasks less expensive and time-consuming.

Any predictions about the future of your field?

For analog video digitization, the recommended preservation format is digital; and with the fate of Kodak, I think the future is that a lot of moving image archivists are going to have to add digital preservation skills and tools to their bag of tricks. Digital preservation and archives is an exciting field to move into, I think, it’s just important to not be intimidated, dive in and try out sample files. I think the digital world gives our community a great opportunity in thinking about new ways of approaching what’s being preserved.

~Leanne Mobley