Written by: Mathieu Debic, CSWR Graduate Fellow
Earlier this year the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) released the New Mexico Public Media (NMPM) Collection. This collection preserves, brings together, and makes available over 8000 programming items dating from 1963 to 2020 from public broadcasting stations across New Mexico, including Albuquerque’s KUNM and KANW, KENW-TV in Portales, and KRWG-TV in Las Cruces. Funded by a 2020 Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, the NMPM collection digitizes and preserves not only programs as they were aired, but also raw footage shot to be included in programs. Some 6000 or so of these items are available to stream, with another 2000 available on-site at the Library of Congress and at GBH in Boston.
Materials from New Mexico PBS before being cataloged.
The CLIR grant helped to digitize decades of footage currently stored on obsolete, deteriorating, and fragile physical media. Migrating content from physical media to digital formats not only helps to keep the original materials in good shape, it also makes preserving and sharing information easier over the internet. But this isn’t easy work. Depending on the original formats involved, their age and general state of preservation, and how recently formats have been rendered obsolete, migrating material from physical magnetic media to a digital format can present quite a challenge.
What, you thought that sort of stuff just got thrown away?! Think again! The footage preserved as part of the New Mexico Public Media collection plays an important role in documenting and preserving the historical past, but it takes up space and digitization takes time, money, and special equipment. Many of the items in the newly digitized collections were squirreled away long ago in closets, unused corners of offices, and even a men’s restroom (not an ideal storage space – just a bit of free advice there). Not only was there a mountain of material, but the material came in a wide variety of formats, some easier to deal with than others.
KENW-TV film archives prior to cataloging
The digitizing project began in July of 2020. It took archivist Megan Rose Kalidjian seven months to inventory, organize, and pack materials to send them off to specialized vendors for digitizing. (And you thought cleaning out the garage over a long weekend was a big job…) After being digitized, the materials had to be organized, described, and checked and flagged for harmful or offensive content. In some cases, there was even the need to flag items for potential violations of laws whose interpretations have changed since some of the footage was shot, recorded, or aired. Here’s where two Archival Fellows, Dr. Rachel Snow and Daid P. Saiz, come in. Snow and Saiz were both students in UNM’s museum studies program and, along with Jessica Cummins and Angelica Bernaert, worked to catalog over 8,000 items after the original media had been digitized.
In blog posts describing their experiences working with the collection, Saiz and Snow mention the contemporary relevance of many of the newly digitized materials, as well as some of the challenges involved in describing them and making them available. They also identify some of the materials and collections that came to have particular importance for them. For example, Snow writes about the variety of content in the ¡Colores! Series, while Saiz describes the importance of KUNM’s longest-running program, Espejos de Aztlán (“Mirrors of Aztlán”), to ongoing struggles for Chicana/o and Latina/o visibility and equality. Both Archival Fellows worked together to produced “Witnessing New Mexico,” a StoryMaps presentation that, as its creators put it, “provides a critical look at often obscured perspectives, stories, and peoples.”
The materials discussed by Snow and Saiz are important and fascinating, but they barely scratch the surface of the full breadth of the collection. The NMPM collection brings together a wide variety of material, including public service announcements from the National Indian Council on Aging in Navajo, Zuni, and other Native languages; the Peabody Award-winning KNME documentary Surviving Columbus; Doing Time, the Emmy Award-winning 1979 documentary on the New Mexico State Penitentiary completed just before a deadly prison riot; student-filmed footage of protests against the Vietnam War in May 1970; and more.
Large-scale digitization projects like this one demonstrate that evidence of the past cannot simply be allowed to sit there under the assumption that it will always be available. I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but without active care and maintenance, the documents, media, and other objects that help us understand the past simply won’t last. And efforts like the one I’ve just described take coordination, skills and resources: money, computing power, connections, muscle to carry heavy boxes, eye drops for when you’ve stared at the project spreadsheet for too long, even the emotional resilience to watch and describe difficult footage. It might sound a bit hyperbolic, but the efforts to digitize and make available the New Mexico Public Media collection seem to me nothing short of herculean. The NMPB collection will no doubt join other resources at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting and the Center for Southwest Research as an important tool for scholars and researchers interested in the popular culture of New Mexico in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
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