Mar 21

Reports from MIRC: What Do Film Archivists Do All Day? What Are These Strange Terms They Use?

This post was written by UofSC graduate student Chris Fite. It is the second in a series of reports about his Spring 2016 internship at MIRC, originally posted on the author’s website. It has been reproduced here with his permission. You can read more about Chris’ experiences in the archive, including his inaugural post, here

So, what does one do all day in moving image archives? Well, the short answer is, a lot of things. Like other special collections professionals, the staff at MIRC have myriad responsibilities, ranging from archival and curatorial to administrative and technical. Maybe a better questions is, “What is a typical day for the intern writing this blog post?”

My primary task at MIRC is film processing. In archival parlance, “processing” encompasses a variety of tasks that incorporate materials into a repository’s collections. Archivists talk about establishing “intellectual control” over materials. Basically, we want to know what we have, know how these items and collections are related to one another, and have that information available in a catalog or database of some sort. If we have physical control, that means the stuff is in our possession. If we also have intellectual control, that stuff in our possession can be of use to people. In my case, I’m dealing with WIS-TV News outtakes from the 1970s. These film reels contain footage that camera operators shot on location and brought back to the station for editing. For the most part, we don’t know which segments were used in broadcasts, but that’s not a problem. All of that footage is still a boon for researchers.

rewinds

Film processing workstation. The two black gadgets with yellow handles make up the vertical film winder. Unprocessed film on the left is winding onto reel on the right.

When I sit down at my work station, I select an unprocessed reel and put it on a vertical film winder. This device allows me to go through the film manually. I inspect the film for physical condition, technical information, and content. My notes will become part of the internal database record and the public catalog record. Yes, it is indeed ironic that I spend all that time in a film repository without “watching” any films. However, we have to inspect film this way before putting it on a scanner or other machine that works at high-speed. There are two main reasons for this policy. First, the film must be in good condition for playback. Manual inspection allows us to repair weak splices, torn sprockets, and other defects. Second, time is short, and we can get the information needed for cataloging without watching the film. There’s already a massive amount of film to inspect, and screening each item would unnecessarily lengthen our processing time.

rolls

The finished product. Inspected film is wound onto a polypropylene core. Pertinent information is written on white polyester leader. The gray disc underneath is the storage can.

At the beginning and end of each reel, I add several feet of white polyester “leader.” I write whether it is the head or tail of the film, add the WIS story number, and put some technical information (color or B&W, type of film stock, and type of soundtrack). I wind the film around an inert polypropylene core that will not hasten film deterioration and put it in a film can for storage. It sounds straightforward, and it is (for the most part). As with other types of archival processing, it just takes a lot of time and attention to detail. The procedure might sound mind-numbing, and it can be after too much time at the work station. However, procedure is also comforting. It provides a way of dealing with both the shared properties of these films and the unique features of the individual items. I find all of the films to be interesting in one way or another, but celebrity appearances are always a nice surprise.

shatner

A little hard to see, but that’s William Shatner as Captain Kirk in the 1968 Columbia Christmas Parade.

~Written by UofSC graduate student and MIRC intern Chris Fite

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