Journalist and author Sarah Wildman searches archives, history books and European capitals for her grandfather's "true love" -- a young doctor he left behind when he fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938.
Photo albums, home movies, handwritten letters, an unused old computer with important family documents still stored on it: as precious as these items may be, they’ll last only as long as the paper, videotape or hard drive they’re on. To make matters worse, they’re often stored in attics and basements — the worst possible environments for preservation. We explore high and low tech ways to protect and store family memorabilia, and the smartest way to migrate different materials to digital formats.
- George Blood Owner, George Blood LP Audio Visual Preservation, Philadelphia, PA
- Bergis Jules University Archivist, George Washington University
- Bert Lyons Folklife Specialist and Digital Assets Manager at American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Deteriorating Audio, Video And Film
Examples of some of the deteriorated material that preservationists like George Blood LP Audio Visual Preservation in Philadelphia encounter as they work to restore and archive VHS tapes, cassettes and multitrack reels.
Preservation And Archiving Events
Preservation Week is an initiative of the American Library Association’s Preservation and Reformatting Section. Libraries across the U.S. hold events and activities that highlight what we can do, individually and together, to preserve our personal and shared collections. This past Preservation Week focused on the preservation needs of military families, with articles and resources specifically for this community.
Currently under construction, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has been hosting “Save Our African American Treasures” events around the country since 2008. The events are in the same vein as Antiques Road Show. The public is invited to bring in three personal family heirlooms. Conservators are on site to provide advice and make protective enclosures such as boxes, envelopes and tissue to wrap textiles.
October 19, 2013, is Home Movie Day, an opportunity for families to share their own home movies with their community and learn how best to care for them.
Preservation And Archiving Resources###
Several nonprofit regional preservation centers provide workshops and conservation treatment. Many also provide 24/7 emergency hotlines for disaster response advice after events like a flooded basement or fire damage. An appropriate initial response can make a difference in successfully saving family heirlooms. The following two centers serve our region: Center for Conservation of Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelpha and Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass. Find a center by geographic location at the Regional Alliance for Preservation.
Another option for finding someone to treat or repair your artifacts is the American Institute for Conservation of Art and Historic Artifacts “Find A Conservator” guide. It lists professional conservators who do independent work, listed by specialty and geographic area. A “Caring For Your Treasures” guide is dividuded by formats, including architecture, textiles, books and photos.
For audio-visual resources, Film Forever has simple steps for preserving motion picture film materials with a focus on at-home storage. The National Film Preservation Foundation was created by the Congress to help save America’s film heritage. The National Recording Preservation Plan at The Library of Congress is described as a blueprint for saving America’s recorded sound heritage for future generations.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. If your house were on fire, what would you save? At the top of most people's list: family photos. But while you know your old letters, home videos and photos are precious, preserving your family's history can be a challenge, especially as documents age and become fragile.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd with technology constantly changing, you've got to figure out how to transfer all those home movies on VHS tape or even old-fashioned film, and modern technology can be part of the problem, given the thousands of digital photos many of us are amassing. There are things you can do to preserve and manage it all, whether you've got five minutes to spare or several hours. And here to advise us on how to do that is Bert Lyons.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a folklife specialist and digital assets manager with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. He's also the editor of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives. That's an international organization that shares best practices in the management or audiovisual materials for you. Bert Lyons, thank you for joining us.
MR. BERT LYONSThanks, Kojo. Happy to be here.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Bergis Jules. He is the university archivist at the George Washington University. Bergis Jules, thank you for joining us.
MR. BERGIS JULESThank you.
NNAMDIAnd George Blood is the owner of George Blood, L.P. audiovisual preservation in Philadelphia. George Blood, thank you for joining us.
MR. GEORGE BLOODThank you.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can start calling now at 800-433-8850. What kinds of family history, documents, photos, movies do you have? What format are they in, and how are you preserving them? 800-433-8850. Bert, one of the biggest issues with preserving our family's history is that technology is simply moving so fast, making obsolescence a real problem, isn't it?
LYONSIt is, yeah. It's something that you find more and more today with the digital formats that we use, and people like to create video. Video is a very complicated format that, you know, we found over the past 20, 25 years has had an extraordinary rate of obsolescence. And...
NNAMDIWe thought CDs and DVDs will be around forever -- apparently not necessarily so.
NNAMDIGeorge, you own a firm in Philadelphia focused on digitizing materials. Tell us a little bit about what you do.
BLOODWe specialize in preserving mostly analog, but we do some digital formats. And we specialize in taking the very oldest formats. Video starts in 1956, so we have machines that'll play that, and we go all the way back in audio recordings to before electricity.
NNAMDITo before electricity?
BLOODMm hmm. The earliest recordings on cylinders or on flat discs were entirely acoustic recordings with -- made without any amplification at all.
NNAMDIWell, Bergis, let's start with the basics. Where should you be storing your precious family history, whether photos, home movies, newspaper clippings, what have you?
JULESWell, that's a good question. The first thing you want to do is not have them in your attic or in the basement. These are places where temperatures are not consistent with, you know, what we would consider ideal environments for paper materials. So these are places that are really damp, like the basements or extreme heat in the attics. So you want a really -- what I try to tell people is you want to have the papers, you know, really on the same floor you live, you know, where if it's comfortable for you, then it's probably a good temperature, good environment for the papers.
JULESYou know, professionals say a good temperature should be about 68 to 72 degrees, and it's really hard to sort of maintain that in a home. So what we try to tell people is if it's comfortable for you. So maybe there's a sort of linen closet or something in the center of the house where it's darker and the temperature sort of stays more constant. But what you really want is a consistent temperature, you know, and that's what helps sort of keep the fibers in papers more stable.
NNAMDIAnything you can add, Bert Lyons?
LYONSYeah, I agree. And as Bergis mentioned with the basement, you have a lot -- a huge risk for flooding.
LYONSAnd that's something that we always talk about, keep things off the floor if possible. Six inches will save a lot of materials from any typical flood.
NNAMDIGeorge, talk about the heat in the attic. What does that high temperature do to materials?
BLOODIt makes it break down faster. So all the materials, whether they're audiovisual materials or paper-based materials, are subject to basic laws of physics that they just deteriorate over time, and the higher the temperature, the faster those natural chemical reactions happen. So if you can get it to a cooler environment, you'll really slow down the rate of decay.
NNAMDIGeorge has a simple rule that you already stated, Bergis. If you won't be comfortable in that space, then your stuff won't either.
LYONSYeah, exactly, exactly.
NNAMDIGeorge, CDs and DVDs are interesting. For those of us old enough to remember when they first came out, we were essentially promised it lasts forever.
BLOODPerfect sound forever, Sony marketing in 1984.
NNAMDIWhat -- what's the reality?
BLOODOh, the reality is that the media turns out to be more fragile than we expected -- you can scratch a disc and it won't be playable -- that we're facing machine obsolescence. It's harder and harder to find the machines to play these formats. And in the recordable formats, the organic dyes and the reflective layers that the discs are manufactured from decay fairly rapidly.
NNAMDIAnd so they're not forever. Let's go to the telephones. You all have your headphones on, so you can listen to Joan in Washington, D.C. Joan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANYes. Hello. Thank you for taking my call. My question is about, you know, these become precious items. The -- for those of us old enough to remember, I have cassette tapes of my father that include his journey across country without us, but he recorded it for us. And to hand them over is the tough part. How do you find a reputable, responsible company to transfer these items? 'Cause the hardest thing really is going in and placing them down when they're the last thing you have of, you know, your father or your loved one's voice -- really irreplaceable recordings.
NNAMDII'll give all of our guests a stab at that one. I'll start with you, Bergis.
JULESWell, what I would say is, you know, professionals in our field -- archivists, preservationists -- there was a time when I think we kept a lot of sort of that professional knowledge away from the public, but I think that's changing now. And I think, you know, what I would do if I were you is I would contact your local library archives, the local university archives that's near you, community organizations that sort of offer this service and just talk to someone.
JULESTalk to an archivist, talk to a preservationist about what you should do, and they work with companies all the time who do this conversion. And that's the first thing I would say is there are a lot of resources out there that are available to you.
LYONSYeah, agree 100 percent, Bergis. There's also -- if you want to even go beyond that, if you want to take a little time to do research online, there are some organizations. The Association of Recorded Sound Collections -- that's ARSC -- that hosts a reputable list of vendors who are part of that organization, who do good work and follow certain ethical principles with their work.
NNAMDIOr you can call George Blood. George?
BLOODThe thing that I would advise anyone who has audio cassette specifically is to open the box up and along the spine, not where the tape is, but the opposite side. There are two little tabs that prevent accidental erasure. And the materials sent to us, more than 50 percent of the materials -- these are coming from major research institutions, as well as individuals -- will not have done that very basic task of protecting the medium. So to cooler and drier and dark, I would add pop those record tabs. Up on Kojo's website, there's a list of...
BLOOD...places that you can go. It includes ARSC and the ASA and other -- for moving image collections. And there's a link to the site for Preservation Week, which is a national initiative from the American Library Association for research institutions to reach out into the community and make the resources known.
NNAMDIAnd you can go to our website at kojoshow.org to find that. George shouldn't have been the one telling you that. I should have been the one telling you that, but thank you very much, George, for the help. You can call us at 800-433-8850. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation on preserving family history. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the hashtag #TechTuesday, or email to email@example.com. George, some materials, however, do last longer than others. What are examples of things that do, in fact, hold up over time and things that haven't?
BLOODSurprisingly, some of the earlier formats. Notoriously, 78-rpm shellacs, the commercial discs, hold up really well, whereas the discs are pretty fragile. You drop them, they'll shatter. But if you store them properly, they have a very good and long shelf life. Even LPs will last for a pretty long time.
BLOODYou know, some more recent formats, famously reel-to-reel tape, or even videotape, will often go sticky after a time as the binder, the glue that holds it all together, deteriorates. And we've already talked about optical discs, which have shown to have a very short lifespan.
NNAMDIBert, how about if you got a bunch of old home movies from that VHS camcorder that was high-end back in the '80s or early '90s, what are the options for transferring those tapes to a digital format?
LYONSI just call George usually.
JULESGeorge will tell you to pop out the little record tabs on the VHS tapes.
LYONSYeah, yeah, exactly. Pop out the record tabs, first and foremost. Very similar options for VHS. I mean, you want to follow some of the same practices you would with tape. You want to find a vendor. This is not something that is going to be very cheap to do at home if you want to do it well. The -- moving from a VHS format into digital video is going to require a lot of options.
LYONSYou have a lot of options as you transcode that -- the information. So I honestly would say that really useful for VHS would be to consult some of the same resources George was just talking about. The Association of Moving Image Archivists has some great information. There are a lot of great organizations out there who support and guide and can give information on that.
BLOODAnd let's not forget, one of those organizations is the Library of Congress...
LYONSThat is true.
BLOOD...with the digitalpreservation.gov and digitizationguidelines.gov.
NNAMDIOK. So you may use a professional service such as yours, George. But depending on how much material one has, it might get expensive. So for people who may want to try to do this themselves, what does it involve?
BLOODThe most difficult part of all with most formats is finding good, functioning machines. And whereas there may have been millions and millions of VHS or Betamax machines made, finding machines that are in good working order is a real problem. We recently went on a spending spree and bought 65 cassette decks, all the same top-level professional model, and just over 40 of them are going to come out of the shop.
BLOODYou know, we bought 65 machines, and 20 of them aren't worth repairing. And then when we went to get parts, we bought out the manufacturer's entire worldwide inventory of pin trollers. Parts are getting to be a problem. And six of the motors we bought brand-new, three of them didn't work, factory-fresh motors. This has become a huge problem. So the biggest problem that someone's going to face is finding a good machine because you put the tape into that machine and it gnarls the machine -- gnarls the tape. Then you've got much bigger problems.
NNAMDIGot a lot of callers on the line. We'll start with Scott in Washington, D.C. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SCOTTHi, Kojo. Hi, panel.
SCOTTHi. So I have been trying to digitize all of our home videos and our photos, and I want to put them on a cloud so that every one of my family can just go to this website and look at it. Do you guys know of a cheap cloud that I could do this at or something I don't have to pay a monthly fee for?
NNAMDIWe're thinking. We're thinking.
LYONSYou don't have to pay a monthly fee for free. That, I don't know of.
BLOODWell, some amount, you would be able to put on a Google drive, if you have a Gmail account.
BLOODAnd if you're into the Apple ecosystem and iCloud account...
LYONSRight. But that's going to be limited space before you have to start paying, right, for transfer of VHS.
BLOODWell, yeah. And these files get very large, very, very fast.
LYONSYeah. Scott, one thing I would definitely -- what I want to ask is: can I ask -- can I...
LYONSOK. Scott, you know, putting them on a cloud is different than preserving them long term. So I'm just curious, are you thinking about that as the only place where you store your files? Are you just thinking, I'm going to have them stored and taken care of in some -- in my home or somewhere else, but I'm also wanting to host some files online to share with my family?
SCOTTWell, I'd like to host them all on there, but I wasn't really sure how else to preserve them long term. You know, I know that you said a few options previously, but are there better ones? We have mostly VHS test -- VHS tapes...
SCOTT...and, you know, just regular photos, colored photos.
LYONSRight. Well, I mean, you're certainly right to want to get those to file -- to a file format of some sort. I was just making a suggestion that when you're thinking about sharing information -- digital content with people, that's one -- putting things online is one approach. But there's always a need to have a behind-the-scenes preservation practice.
LYONSSo, you know, if you put all of your content on the cloud and then the cloud goes under whichever one you chose and you lose everything, I'm just making a suggestion to have some hard drives at home at very, you know, simple as -- where you back those up as well as whatever you put on the cloud.
NNAMDIHere's George Blood.
BLOODWe draw a distinction within the trade between preservation and access. So for preservation, you make the best possible copy that you can. And for preservation of video, the files are 180 gigabytes an hour. But the copy that you may want to share, provide access to your family members may be only a few gig. So a very small H.264 and a B4 file...
BLOOD...may be very heavily compressed. But you want to back that up with a really high resolution, ideally, uncompressed file.
BLOODAnd so that's something you may keep locally...
BLOOD...on a couple of hard drives. You make a copy of it. So you have a terabyte drive or 500-gig drive, and then you make a copy of it, and you send it to a sibling or another relative so that, you know, when that fire happens, which Kojo mentioned at the top of the show...
LYONSRight, right. And their drive burns.
BLOOD...you know, then you have that backup, and then the access copies. Those are things that you can put in the cloud.
NNAMDIMore from Bert Lyons.
LYONSRight. I was just going to say in our archives profession here, we often use the term LOCKSS, L-O-C-K-S-S, for this concept that George is talking about, which is lots of copies, keep stuff safe. So that's another concept that you can think of as you're working.
NNAMDILOCKSS. Scott, thank you very much for your call and good luck to you. We got to take a short break. But when we come back, we continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on preserving your family history, those old photos and videos. But if the lines are busy, shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you digitized your old home movies? What challenges did you have? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on preserving your family history. We're talking with Bergis Jules. He's is the university archivist at the George Washington University, George Blood is the owner of George Blood LP Audio Visual Preservation in Philadelphia and Bert Lyons is a folklife specialist and digital assets manager with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you store older documents like family photo albums, newspaper clippings, old letters in an attic or basement? Not a good idea. Give us a call if you need some suggestions or advice. You can also send us email to email@example.com. We got one such email from J.M., who says, "Many people made the mistake of converting old Super 8 over to VHS in the 1980s, then they tossed the Super 8 film.
NNAMDI"That was a mistake as the Super 8 has now outlasted VHS, and now, DVDs, which are on the way out, at the same time, make copies to whatever format, probably digital now, on a regular basis as backups," exactly what Bert was suggesting, "to the original analog versions in which in 10 to 100 years, will eventually turn to dust." On the Super 8 issue, we also have Eric in Rockville, Md. on the phone. Eric, your turn.
ERICOh, hi, Kojo. How are you?
ERICYeah, I just -- I wanted to let everyone know that don't despair if your film gets all damaged and stuff. A lot times, stuff that seems hopeless can be preserved and transferred, and you can get a nice high-definition image or standard definition image of all your films. I do preservation for a color lab up in Rockville to -- from films to video, from eight -- Super 8, 9.5, 16 millimeter, et cetera.
ERICAnd I just wanted people, you know, to understand that sometimes you can see your films, they've been deteriorated. They've been in -- we've -- been able to transfer films that have been, like, lost in floods and like totally damaged beyond repair. And you can -- we can do processes here of preserving the film, get it back to life in other places as well, just by, like, adding, you know, getting the film to be manageable.
ERICAnd then we can get it up on to the machines that transfer the film (unintelligible) and able to even run them. Even when there's no sprocket holes, we have, like, a gate that can sort of run them through (unintelligible).
NNAMDIOK, let's hear from our panel on that. First you, George.
BLOODIt was a bit different from the tape-based formats that we've been talking about that it's much more stable over time than the other formats that we've been talking about. And so that some contaminations may just wash off it because of the plastic base that it's on. It does suffer from the gelatin coating being something that bugs like to eat, and older acetate-based films suffer from that vinegar syndrome and will shrink. But of all of the formats that we've discussed, it is the longest lived.
BLOODIt's been around for a long time. And a lot of people have advocated for preservation on this old analog format. And the biggest problem we're having in -- with film is that Kodak is in bankruptcy, and Fuji isn't making film anymore, and the manufacturers of the telecines are slowly dying off. So film is, you know, going to go the way of digital like other medium. But as a storage medium, you know, Eric is right. You know, it's -- we've seen VHS die. We've seen DVD die, and film keeps trucking along. So keep the originals, particularly with film.
NNAMDIAnything to add to that, Bert?
LYONSWhat would I add? Well, one of the things I like about film and to talk to people about is that, aside from many audiovisual formats, film doesn't require a machine necessarily for you to understand it. So if you can preserve the physical object, you can keep it in a cool, dry place, dark place, keep it stored away from things that might damage it, you may find...
NNAMDIAnd if you got a magnifying glass and some light, you can actually look at it.
LYONSRight, it's all you need.
NNAMDIAnd you'll be able to see it.
LYONSRight. But also, in a more serious note, you know, that's a really good point about film is that a lot of things that we really are comfortable digitizing at this point, most every audiovisual format to prescribe, we should digitize this. But with film, there's still some back and forth. Shall we go -- shall we keep and go from film to film, from film to film? And people are coming to the opinion that we will be digitizing film in the future, but it's still because it's so durable maintains that.
NNAMDIWe're talking about family history, Bergis, but sometimes, people in the community have documents that are not just important to family but to historians, to the general public as well. That was something you focused on before coming to D.C. Back in Chicago, can you tell us a little bit about your work with the Black Metropolis Research Consortium?
JULESYeah. That was some -- we did some great work in the communities in Chicago, south side, some of the northern suburbs with the BMRC. And what we're really trying to do there was educate the community about preservation of those documents and also to connect them to resources, connect them to local resources. A lot of this was a grant-funded project from the Council on Library and Information Resources, and what we really did was go into the community.
JULESI mean, we were working with folks who are just really remarkable people, community activists I would call them, and their main cause was really archives and preserving community history. We're talking about folks like Dino Robinson at the Shorefront Legacy Center and Sherry Williams at the Bronzeville Historical Society.
JULESAnd these are folks who are literally going into dumpsters to pull out, you know, to save collections and who are getting to the house, you know, at the last minute before someone moves or when someone has passed and before something gets thrown in the trash. And a lot of times, those things come in, and they're -- you know, as you can imagine, they're not in the best shape.
JULESThey're in plastic bags. They're rolled up. They, you know, they're moldy. And a lot of the work we did was just sort of helping to educate those types of community organizations on how to preserve those documents in sort of ideal environments to keep them in.
NNAMDIThey're Chicago community activists. Next thing you know, they'll be running for president. But, Bergis...
NNAMDI...you went through 1,100 collections, some in universities and museums but others in amateur collections in communities. Can you tell us a little bit about what you found?
JULESWell, you know, there were some great things, and there really wasn't, you know, it was, really, not a long project. So we didn't have much time to really focus on content as, you know, I mean, we're really sort of going through trying to figure out what was in those collections. And you're really talking about the survey project that we did all over Chicago. We're trying to document black history in Chicago, and folks can find about that project at a website, bmrcsurveyproject.uchicago.edu. And you know...
NNAMDIYou documented the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston, right?
JULESYes, yes, the Shorefront Legacy Center.
NNAMDIIllinois. The black community of that town?
JULESExactly. Exactly. And Dino Robinson started that organization in his basement in his house, continued working and, you know, ended up finding help from the community. And now they have an actual research center. They published a journal, and they do some really great work. So, yeah, it was, you know, one of the great stories we found in, you know, Chicago with Provident Hospital, which was one of the, you know, first hospitals to, you know, have black doctors and served the black community in Chicago.
JULESThere was a doctor there by the name of Leonidas Berry. We found this collection at the DuSable Museum, and this is something I never heard about before. But, apparently, him and other doctors and nurses, you know, around the area would charter planes to fly to Cicero, Ill. to give, you know, medical attention to the black community there.
JULESAnd, you know, they call themselves the flying black medics. And that's something, you know, I've never read about, I've never heard about, and I'm sure a lot of folks haven't. But those are some of the stories, you know, that are in some of those archives and that are just waiting to be discovered. So it was...
NNAMDIThat's why it's all so important. It seems that the focus of your work with the community in Chicago was around keeping materials...
NNAMDI...in the community rather than...
NNAMDI...appraising them in a university or museum. Is that -- does that represent a kind of shift in thinking about these materials?
JULESYou know, I think it does. I think, you know, when you talk about Chicago -- and we were based out of the University of Chicago that traditionally has a contentious relationship with that community ward space in Woodlawn and, you know, folks see the university as not, you know, as maybe not a friend. So a lot of people are really starting to adopt the thinking now that keeping materials in the community is the best way to have community members get access to it. And, you know, I agree with them, and that's what we were trying to do in Chicago.
NNAMDIAnd, Bert, I guess the question here is who controls history? Who controls the history?
LYONSExactly. Exactly. I think you see a big shift these days throughout archives, libraries and museums where there's a desire to relinquish some of that authority with a capital A that has been in those institutions for so long. And I think we're seeing that throughout. And not only does it come from a natural impulse to relinquish control, but it also is related to the amount of the onslaught of digital information. And people realize that we can't save everything.
BLOODI think it also ties into a broader anthropological, sociological sense of history that although we have, culturally, the strong need to be connected with our history, with the, you know, cultural history organizations or memory organizations and museums, that we've become very aware that most of history is about the aristocracy and the rich people...
BLOOD...'cause, you know, they're the literates, or they are the ones who are being written about.
BLOODAnd we've become aware that for the -- most of history, we don't know about most of the people.
BLOODSo the importance of these collections within the communities, these items that are, you know, feels or otherwise insignificant, we get that all the time. That people will say, oh, you know, you deal with the Library Congress, you know, well, you talk to us as well. You know, absolutely. Your object is certainly as important as anything that we're dealing with there.
JULESYeah. As an example, I mean, one of the individuals we worked with in Chicago was a photographer for 50 years on the south side of Chicago, professional photographer Eric Werner and, you know, kept his stuff in the basement meticulously, kept meticulous records and, you know, thousands and thousands of photographs. We're talking about photographs of Obama before he was Obama.
JULESAnd so, you know, I -- and this stuff is in this man's, you know, in his house. And, you know, how does that stuff sort of get out to the community, and, you know, if you don't sort of trust the institutions that sort of claim to be able to represent you. So I think a lot of folks are interested in keeping those things in the community and having a community access that way.
LYONSRight. Yes. Two points, one, that there is a need for -- I mean, we, George, Bergis and myself and many others have studied and worked a long time, thinking about how to preserve or manage collections for the future. We can share that information as well as collect things. So there's that ability to share capacity -- to do some capacity building and share knowledge.
LYONSAnother point is that you're starting to see on the other side collections in institutions. At the American Folklife Center, we hold historical collection, which is a massive collection. But what is it a collection of? It's a collection of citizen voices from across the United States, 47,000 times two.
LYONSVeterans History Project. You see a lot of these efforts to collect the voices of the people...
LYONS...as many people as possible, not just those at the top of the chain.
NNAMDIYou can go to our website, kojoshow.org, and you will see there's a link there to the Black Metropolis Research Consortium survey that Bergis was talking about earlier. Before we get back to the phones -- and if you call, stay on the line. If the lines are busy, go to our website, or you can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your question or comment or send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDIBut before we get back to the phones, Bergis, what if someone has photos or documents they think might be valuable not just to their grandkids but to history, to future generations? What would you advise them to consider?
JULESWell, you know, like I said earlier, I think, you know, I would advise folks to, you know, contact your local archives, do some research online about the types of repositories archives that collect that type of stuff. But I would start with your local public library archives, with your local university archives and just ask those people, you know, what you think, you know, what they think is possible for those collections.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones, Paxton in Washington D.C. Paxton, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAXTONHi, how are you doing? Good afternoon, everyone.
PAXTONYou might have answered my question already earlier, but I'm going to ask you anyway. And actually, it's a two-part question. My grandfather took a lot of pictures. He was a photographer back in, you know, the '40s, '50s, '60s. So he has tons of pictures, so all in our family do that, take pictures and save them.
PAXTONI am in an age now where all my pictures are digital on the, you know, the digital camera on -- and I'll put them on a flash drive. And I know that you guys -- everything is -- to putting everything digital. Do you suggest storing them other than a flash drive or a DVD or on your computer other than -- any other way than what I'm doing right now? And the other part of that is you -- it's hard to predict, but do you foresee maybe using flash drives becoming obsolete anytime in the, you know, next five or 10 years?
BLOODI'd say flash drives are one of the worst choices for long-term storage. They're notoriously unreliable. But the first thing you want to do is have more than one copy. So if there's another copy on your computer, if there's another copy on a laptop, if one of those copies can be sent off to a relative or a friend, these are the basic principles that we deal with in institutions, large and small.
BLOODSo you have more than one copy. Bert mentioned LOCKSS. Lots of copies keep stuff safe. And that's the thing that you want to do. So as a transitional or portable format, flash drives are fine. But the loss rate on them is very high.
LYONSSure. Paxton, this is Bert. Another interesting thing that you could think about doing or maybe you're already doing is aside from just storing your photographs, are you creating inventories? Do you have a nice index, a list or maybe even on a text document or Excel spreadsheet or something very simple that documents what your photographs are, when you took them, who you took them off? Those -- that kind of thing would be really valuable to keep with your photographs just as -- even as, like I said, a little text document, digital file.
BLOODMeaningful file names.
LYONSRight. And they can grab file names. But as George said, you know, flash drives are really useful for getting things around. But I would certainly, at the very least, have a couple of external hard drives that you make two copies of your files and always keep them up to date, synced with each other and use that as a backup. And as George even said, send one to a friend or a family member and share that, you know, as a backup. Again, hard drives fail. We've all experienced that. And when they fail, they fail totally.
NNAMDIPaxton, thank you very much for your call. We got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be continuing this conversation. If you've called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your call. But if the lines are busy, shoot us an email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using the #TechTuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation about preserving your family history or preserving history in general. We're talking with George Blood. He is owner of George Blood LP Audio Visual Preservation in Philadelphia. Bert Lyons is a folklife specialist and digital assets manager with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, also the editor of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives.
NNAMDIThat's an international organization that shares best practices in the management of audiovisual materials. And Bergis Jules is the university archivist at the George Washington University. Just before we came back from that break, George Blood, you said better digitize than -- I forgot the phrase. Better digitize than not digitize.
BLOODThere are some people in the community who'll take a stance that if it's worth preserving, it's worth preserving right. And there's only one right way to do things. And then there are others of us who think that don't let what's possible be obstacle -- or don't let perfection be the obstacle to what's possible. And, you know, if you're not going to be able to go to a professional to do it, if you can find a good working machine and, you know, get a $150 adapter that'll take the output of your VHS machine into an old USB port in some software. That really is better than loss.
BLOODAnd if that's all you can manage, if that's all you can afford, then save those memories and pass them on to your grandchildren.
NNAMDIYou also, Bergis, did preservation workshops for the community when you were in Chicago. What kind of response did you get?
JULESOh, those were amazing workshops and really great response from the community. I mean, we're talking 70 to 100 people showing up to workshops where we invited professionals to come in to sort of educate the community on their materials and, I mean, people coming in with their bags and boxes of stuff to get advice. So those are really successful workshops. And we may have an opportunity to reproduce some of that here in D.C. at the George Washington University where...
NNAMDII was about to say I understand you're bringing a similar project here in D.C.
JULESYes. Yeah. Well, we're trying. We're trying. We've applied for a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources that would allow us to put on several of these workshops for the public where, you know, people would be able to come in and sort of get advice on taking care of the materials whether it's digital materials or paper. And, you know, hopefully that's successful, and we could bring some of that stuff here to D.C.
NNAMDIHere's Bob in Indian Head, MD. Bob, go ahead, please.
BOBYeah. I'd like to know, what's a good way of adding captions to photos? I digitized a whole bunch, and the family sat around identifying people in the photos.
NNAMDIBob, we got an email from David, who says, "One of the most difficult problems in saving photos for long term preservation is preserving the metadata for each photo and digitizing old family photos. There are often handwritten notes such as places and names of people in the photo. What are the best ways to save this type of information and make it available to search, to find pictures of Aunt Sadie?" Bob, same kind of issue you're dealing with?
BOBYes. And I found out that not all formats have comment fields, and there isn't -- and I couldn't find any good software for adding comments.
NNAMDII don't know any. Any of our panelists have any suggestions about that?
LYONSSure. Bob, we talked about this a little while ago at the very lowest level. Creating a text document, an Excel spreadsheet or something where you can -- you have all that information in some sort of data format. So Excel -- I mentioned Excel 'cause it's nice 'cause it keeps your data in fields. So you can say one column is name and one column is, you know, who to took it, and the next column is when did they take it and this, that and the other. Or if you -- or to mirror that same kind of an idea, you know, in a Word document, or a text spreadsheet, or, I mean, or text document.
LYONSAt the very basic, if you can keep that around, that's going to be useful. But that's not going to be functional, which is what you want something that you can use with some kind of a software program that's going to allow you to do searching and this, that and the order. But at the level of preservation, I would make sure at the very least that you have an external list on some kind of an electronic document that keeps that information for you. George.
BLOODVery few file formats provide for a really large area for doing this. So Bert's suggestion, you know, large institutions have digital asset management systems which is an external...
BLOOD...you know, little database of where these -- where that extra information is held. But there's the Adobe XMP tagging format that's available in Photoshop.
BLOODIt's as close to a standard or widely adopted mechanism for doing that.
BLOODBut no formats really do that quite well. You know, some higher order, things like MXF for video and TPX for film have provisions for that. But these aren't really applicable at this level.
LYONSRight. Yeah. At the home environment, I think it's hard to think of format that's going to be able to do everything for you. And you, you know, if you're using TIFF files, there are TIFF tags, and you can get free software TIFF tag editors to write data into that TIFF file. But as George said, you're going to run into some limitations on how much data you can put into it.
NNAMDIBob, thank you very much, and good luck to you. We have a lot of questions about what to do with slides. We got one emailer. Charlie and Adams Morgan said, "We went to a camera shop in town, and the equipment they rent is incompatible with 2013 computers." Email from Eric in Gaithersburg, "How do I handle slides? I have 500 slides my father took in the '60s." Bert, what about things like 35mm slides?
LYONSSlides have a similar -- I like to give similar advice with slides as to film. I mean, these aren't really just film images unless you have glass slides. But even then, what you're doing is thinking about how best you can take care of the physical object. Cool temperatures, not a lot of humidity changes and some dark environment, stored in a safe container. But then digitization of slides is relatively easy and cheap, and that's, you know, when you get away from audiovisual, which is real-time media, and you move into static things like slides or paper.
LYONSYou can afford a scanner, any consumer product can do a pretty good job. You know, you're looking to scan at least -- if you want to do a high-quality job, you want 6,000 PPI at the longest dimension. And that's going to get you -- that's not a standard, but that's going to get you a pretty high quality image. So if you have a slide that's, you know, a photograph that's five by seven, you're going to want to scan that so that at the seven inches that you're getting 6,000 PPI. So you can do the math and figure out what that is.
NNAMDIWe know the email from Eric said he has 500 slides his father took in the '60s. The problem -- other problem, Bert, is sheer volume of what many of us have and the limits on the amount of storage space. Here's an email we got from John, who says, "Preservation is cheap and easy. The problem is that 90 percent of what we save is junk.
NNAMDI"Only a couple of digital pictures from a trip are really worth keeping, but we're reluctant to chuck the rest. Will there be -- when will there be technologies to identify pictures that are out of focus or otherwise of no interest to future generations from an archivist's perspective?" How do you help people figure out what to save and what to toss? Bergis.
JULESI mean, that's a tough question. I mean, you know, you're the only one who knows sort of how your vacation trip, you know, affected you and how you're connected to it. But yeah, you know, people do save a lot of things and that are not necessarily, you know, should be saved. But, you know, I don't know if I can give, you know, advice on what you think would be valuable to you or your family in the future, you know?
JULESBut if you can recognize that the photograph is out of, you know, focus and may not be the best photograph, then, yeah, it might be, you know, beneficial to get rid of that because, you know, it's a lot cheaper to sort of keep, you know, physical documents when it comes to digitization and, you know, space for it to keeping these things digitally. That's when it gets a little more expensive. So, yeah, you have to make that decision. It's a hard decision.
NNAMDIThink of your friends. They may not want to see 500 slides of your vacation.
NNAMDIOn to Phil in Bethesda, Md. Phil, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PHILHi, Kojo. Fourth or fifth-time caller over all these years you've been on the air...
PHIL...but I've never had the occasion to tell you that I am publisher. And I'm a publisher because I believe in books. And I listen to your distinguished panel talking about this wonderful digital and otherwise electronic formats. And I don't think they're going to be around all that long. But books, things made on fiber like papyrus, we've got some that are five, 7,000 years old, and they can still be read if you are literate in those languages and whatnot. A book will lasts for hundreds of years if it's kept out of the rain and the rats don't eat the binding.
PHILYou can read them without an adapter, without plugging into a wall. On a bright night, you can read them by the moon. They are wonderful things in small multiple small printings, multiple copies. They're transportable. And they keep things in such a magnificent narrative form. Now, a lot of them don't have pictures, but they can be read and they can bring back whole worlds. So...
PHIL...I -- in behalf of my posterity press little company, I say, let's hear it for the book.
NNAMDIWell, Bergis Jules is university archivist at the George Washington University, so I'm sure that he has some...
NNAMDI...appreciation for books and their preservation.
JULESYeah. Well, I mean, I think books are, you know, obviously, paper is the thing that has been proven to last the longest, right, out of all these sort of new technologies that are coming out. And, you know, the things we're talking -- I mean, these are sort of biological, you know, materials, right, so they're going bad anyway. I mean, the simple measures we're talking about here can add hundreds of years of life to paper materials.
JULESYou know, keeping them away from light because UV light sort of affects, you know, discolors paper and it sorts of make the, you know, it accelerates the decomposition of paper. So keeping things, you know, away from damp -- from dampness to keep them away from mold. And, you know, I mean, these are the simple -- really simply measures that you can take at home, but they add literally hundreds of years of life to paper documents, you know?
NNAMDIPhil, thank you very much for your call. But, George, before we go, you admit to a problem that many of us have -- the sheer amount of digital information that we're all accumulating. What incentive do we have to go through our own emails, our own electronic documents to purge what we really don't need to see?
BLOODThere's this interesting tension I'm hearing between that, you know, that the hard drives are expensive, and if we keep so much stuff, you know, it's going to cost a lot and we have to buy more and more hard drives. And at the opposite extreme, we have -- storage is so cheap, we keep all of our pictures, and nobody deletes their emails. So although my wife would probably laugh at me saying this, given the stuff that I accumulate, you know, your computer, your smartphone, your camera has a delete key. Learn how to use it.
BLOODAnd at the same time, you know, in the world we're dealing with in, say, digitizing video, in 1970, storing an hour of video costs $350. And how much hard drive space can you buy today, how many -- we can buy a preservation-grade quality, store, you know, 40 hours of video at that same price. So..
JULESWell, you know, one thing I like to sort of get in here before the show ends, and this might be a little grand, but people should really think about, you know, including things that they consider family treasures in their wills. Leaving those things to someone, designate someone in your family that will be the sort of keeper of those things because when you pass on, the likelihood of it, you know, being thrown in the trash is greatly diminished.
JULESSo that's something that folks don't think about a lot. And, you know, in Chicago we saw this a lot in working with some of the community archivists trying to save these documents. So if you could designate someone, you know, put that in your will that, you know, these things are important to the family history. I think that's a really good idea.
NNAMDIYes, they'll fight over the jewelry, they'll fight over the piano...
NNAMDI...but they won't necessarily fight over who gets to keep the family records.
JULESThere you go.
NNAMDISo that's an excellent suggestion...
NNAMDI...from Bergis Jules. He is the university archivist at the George Washington University. Bergis Jules, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGeorge Blood is the owner of George Blood LP Audio Visual Preservation in Philadelphia. George, thank you for joining us.
BLOODThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Bert Lyons is a folklife specialist and digital assets manager with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Also the editor of the International Association of Sound and Audio Visual Archives. That's an international organization that shares best practices in the management of audio visual materials. Bert, thank you for joining us.
LYONSThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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