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Five Things Chicago's Media Archivists Want You To Know

Feb. 27, 2018|by Jessica Pupovac

A cadre of Chicagoans who are hard at work salvaging our recorded history -- on film, video and audio tape -- recently swapped stories. They told tales of diving into dumpsters to rescue footage, of preserving and cataloging their spoils, of tiptoeing around copyright laws, and of collaborating  -- with filmmakers, podcasters, artists, students, teachers, and musicians interested in exploring or using their work to create something new.

They recently gathered at the Museum of Broadcast Communications for a discussion sponsored by the Chicago/Midwest chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Panelists included:

  • Tom Weinberg and Sara Chapman of  Media Burn Archive, which collects, restores and distributes documentary video and television created by artists, activists and community groups in Chicago and beyond.
  • Michelle Puetz of the Chicago Film Archive, a regional film archive dedicated to identifying, collecting, preserving and providing access to a diverse array of public and private films that represent the Midwest.
  • And, Tony Macaluso and Allison Schein Holmes of  Studs Terkel Radio Archive, a public archive of more than 5,000 conversations Studs conducted over the course of his career, launching in May.
  • John Owens of the Decades Network moderated the event.

Below are just five key takeaways from their two-hour long conversation, which kicked off with some of their favorite finds and is available in full here.

1. We should all be taking extra special care of all of our personal and professional archives -- and transfer those tapes (like, yesterday).

If you produced work on VHS or other types of tape or have home movies, Sara Chapman, executive director of Media Burn, suggests taking immediate steps to preserve them.

“Videotapes are at the end of [their] lifespan now,” she said. “There have been estimates as dire as starting around 2023 it will be pretty impossible to get your tapes transferred. The tapes themselves deteriorate very quickly and they’re unrecoverable once they deteriorate. You can’t really bring back with a photochemical process like film. There’s nothing you can do.”

So move that to the top of your to-do list.

In the meantime, be careful how you store that tape.

Different types of media require different storage methods, but in general, the panelists recommend keeping personal archives in a cool, dark place with as stable a temperature and as low humidity as possible.

If you are digitizing video files on your own for safe storage, Chapman recommends keeping video files uncompressed, with an avi or mov wrapper.

2. The idea that everything that has ever been created is available in the cloud is “really very, very dangerous.”

It takes a lot of time, effort and money to get all of the footage and audio from old tapes into the collective interwebs, and there is much work left to be done.

That’s why Michelle Puetz of the Chicago Film Archive says that everything they do has an underlying educational mission: to raise awareness about the value of caring for and storing old film and preserving their contents.

3. Television stations tend to be pretty awful about archiving their footage (and it drives archivists crazy).

Tom Weinberg, who was also the creator of “Image Union,” told tales of diving into the trash outside of WGN studios to rescue the discarded tapes.

“I was producing a show and they were wheeling these videotapes… out the door,” he said, headed for the dumpster. “We dove in and got it. And that’s symbolic, at the very least, of why we do what we do… We have a different sensibility of what to save and what matters in the long haul."

More recently, said Chapman, an unnamed local television station called Media Burn looking for footage of Jane Byrne.

“That was while she was still alive and this local station was calling because they wanted to put together her advanced obit and they hadn’t saved any footage of the person who was mayor for four years of the city of Chicago,” she said.

“Oftentimes companies don’t… understand their cultural heritage and what they’re throwing away and it’s up to us to [salvage] that,” said Allison Schein Holmes of STRA.

4. Luckily, there is a growing community of people -- in Chicago and elsewhere -- working tirelessly to preserve our cultural heritage.

In addition to the organizations who were at the event, panelists gave shout-outs and suggested attendees support:  

  • South Side Home Movie Project, which collects 16mm, 8mm and Super-8 home movies from residents of the South Side of Chicago, and
  • Center for Black Music Research, an independent research unit of Columbia College Chicago devoted to documentation, research, preservation, and dissemination of information about the history and current expressions of black music on a global scale.
  • Black Metropolis Research Consortium, a Chicago-based membership association of libraries, universities, and other archival institutions.
  • Chicago Area Archivists;, which provides opportunities for local archivists, historians, librarians and others in the Chicago metro area to meet together for discussion, social interaction, and education.

5. And there are many opportunities to support, explore and take advantage of our local archives -- online and in person. A few upcoming in-person events include: