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College of University Libraries and Learning Sciences News

American Archives Month: Nuts and Bolts, and Signing Off!

by Sara Velasquez on 2022-10-31T16:45:03-06:00 in CSWR | Comments

Written by: Mathieu Debic, Graduate Fellow, Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections

A photo of the entrance to the Anderson Reading Room, including the old library card catalogue that patrons still sometimes use!

As American Archives Month draws to a close, I want to focus on some of the nuts and bolts of maintaining objects in the archives. In earlier posts I’ve emphasized that you never know what you’ll find in the archives. Old books and documents, sure, but also postcards, drawings, watercolors, index cards of herbal remedies, reel-to-reel tape of college football games from the 1930s, woodblocks used to for short-run artist book illustrations. You name it, it’s in an archive somewhere. (Yes, even video games.) But the fact that you find all kinds of things in archives means that some of these things need special care and treatment to preserve their useful life for researchers. Readers may have seen photos or documentaries of people in archives wearing gloves while handling certain materials, or even noticed while perusing the New Mexico Archives Online that some collections are restricted. Sure, some things might be fragile or valuable, but shouldn’t researchers still be able to access them somehow?

First, an obvious point. Some items in the archival collections are old. Like really old. To take just one example at the CSWR, the Jack D. Rittenhouse Papers (MSS-431-BC) includes a papyrus fragment thousands of years old! It’s housed in a special sleeve and is currently on display in the gallery on the north side of Zimmerman library, across from the Frank Waters Room. As much as an archivist might want to prioritize access to this object for research (or just to look at because it’s cool!), it should be abundantly clear that something so old needs to be protected from grubby fingers. Not that any visitors to the CSWR have grubby fingers, of course!

The papyrus fragment contained in the Jack D. Rittenhouse Papers, as well as some other examples of old and fragile materials in the CSWR’s exhibit space across from the Frank Waters Room in Zimmerman Library. (Sorry for the glare!)

Ok, so some kind of restriction on seriously old or fragile objects is understandable. But why are more recent materials restricted? Materials might be restricted for a variety of reasons, including as a condition of their donation. But there are other considerations archivists take into account when making recent materials available: technology and long-term access. For example, the finding guide page for the Writers at Work Videotapes (MSS-339-BC), a series of interviews with prominent writers conducted by the UNM English department in the 1970s, says the following: “The collection consists of master videotapes which may not be viewed. DVD copies are cataloged for use by patrons under the call no. ZIM CSWR PS283 N6 W74 1978.” At this point in history even viewing a DVD might present issues on a more recent laptop. But still, why can’t patrons view the tapes? Wouldn’t that be the most authentic way to experience the material? Maybe. But here’s where things get trick.  

A still from Frank Waters’ interview in the Writers at Work collection. A prolific writer associated with New Mexico and the American Southwest, the Frank Waters Room in Zimmerman Library is named for him.

The original tapes of the Writers at Work collection, as well as the DVDs to which they were migrated.

In the early days of computers there was a saying: “data that doesn’t exist in two places, doesn’t exist.” Before cheap solid-state memory and cloud storage, all it took to lose your precious data was accidentally saving over or misplacing a floppy disc (or more than one, for big projects). Even after the days of floppy discs, I once had a professor whose laptop was stolen from his house – and along with it the only copy of a manuscript he’d been working on for years. Things have changed since then. Cloud storage makes backing up files easy, and storage space is dirt cheap. Other problems remain, but on the whole, digital materials today mostly feel secure. A newly married couple sharing their wedding photos online doesn’t worry about the digital files themselves degrading every time someone clicks on them. But a videotape is a different story.


Some of the original 3/4 inch (or U-matic tapes), as well as a VHS cassette from the Writers at Work Collection

Each time a video cassette is viewed, the strip of magnetic tape spooled inside it runs across mechanisms that read data encoded in the tape. There is physical contact made with the tape each time it is played and playing rewinding the tape puts physical strain on the material. This means that over time, the tape itself begins to disintegrate. Anyone who has tried to watch grandma and grandpa’s home movies, or old and well-loved Disney tapes from when they (or their parents!) were a kid, has likely seen the quality of the image decline as the tape’s physical integrity declines. With enough repeated use, the tape itself might break, rendering the cassette unusable without noticeable repairs. Since one of the primary goals of an archival collection is making things of potential interest available to researchers for as long as possible, it simply doesn’t make sense to allow patrons to view the original tapes if a less fragile alternative exists. Hence, a process called migration: taking materials that exist in one form or state, and converting them to another form or state to make them more easily or safely accessible to researchers. Other examples of migration might include reproducing paper newspapers on microfilm, digitizing printed photos, or ripping the files on an audio CD to a cloud storage folder to make them accessible without potentially damaging or losing the CD.

One of the original ¾” U-matic tapes next to the DVDs onto which the collection was migrated. Four DVDs in two slim cases contain over four hours of footage, compared to a limit of 60 minutes on one tape the size of a hardback book!

Migration makes materials more easily and safely available to researchers, but at a cost: money, time, expertise, or all of the above. Converting a videotape to DVD, for example, requires expensive specialized equipment and software. Not only that, but someone needs to supervise the process since the digitizing process happens in real time as the tape is played. After a DVD copy is made, it then needs to be labeled and given a call number or otherwise made accessible. Then, the finding guide needs to be updated to make a note of the newly available DVD. Finally, someone has to take the DVD to its new home on the shelf and physically put it there, making sure it’s in the right spot. Even after all that, the question remains: what to do with the original tapes? None of the steps is difficult, exactly, but the migration process still requires time, money, and effort. The upshot, though, is that researchers will have access to the content of the tapes for much longer than they would otherwise.


Inside the Anderson Reading Room. The lighting is perfect for doing research!

This example leads me to the point I’d like to leave readers with as American Archives Month ends: archives are living, changing, growing things. They take time, effort, expertise, and funding to cultivate and maintain, in a way not dissimilar to a garden. Archives have to respond to technological changes, social changes, and changes of research interests, all while trying to preserve one-of-a-kind materials from the inevitable ravages of time and making them available to scholars in a wide range of fields, and at different points in their careers. Making sure materials remain available for researchers requires substantially more effort than it might seem, especially as the pace of technological change makes adapting quickly more and more of a necessity. So, the next time you’re working through materials in the archive, take a moment to thank the archivists (and the student workers!) for their efforts. Keeping the past alive is a much bigger job than it might seem!

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