Now that Home Movie Day is done, I’ve returned to testing equipment for the Memory Lab. Months ago I had picked up a box of my family’s VHS-Cs as material for testing, and I’ve been slowly working my way through the 30 tapes -or as the marketers at Maxell so cleverly put it – my “video family album”. Through this process I’ve not only smoothed out the workflow for this portion of the lab but learned first-hand the complicated emotional effects that accompany archiving a personal video collection.
According to Wikipedia, the VHS-C was introduced in 1982 with the same videotape as a VHS but much smaller and with shorter run times (the JVC and Maxell ones that we had could run in SP mode for around 30 minutes). VHS-Cs can be played on a regular VCR, but require an adapter with a battery-powered auto loading mechanism. I was able to find the camcorder in our closet but not the adapter, which I purchased on Amazon because it wasn’t available through any other vetted vendor.
This is my temporary transfer station. The tape is inserted into the adapter and played on a Panasonic AG-1980 Desk Editor. I’m using Blackmagic UltraStudio Express as my converter, but had to get a mini CV/SV to YCbCr/RGsB Format Converter to break-out the video signal (that’s the tinier gray box to the right). I capture the signal using Media Express, and then decomb and compress each video into an H264/Mpeg-4 file using Handbrake and save them on an external hard drive and Vimeo. In both locations I’ve added dates, tags of people and places, a short content description, and technical information about how the video was originally recorded and what I used for transfer.
I’m not quite finished. As of now I’ve transferred roughly 34.5 GBs with 7 tapes left to go. Only one video was damaged during the process due to user error (I loaded it incorrectly into the adapter and the tape got twisted up).
As with any personal archiving project, I knew that I was going to remember things I hadn’t in years, perhaps be embarrassed by my annoying childhood self, and maybe even be confronted by reminders of painful experiences. All of this happened, but it wasn’t the same as personal archiving acts I’ve done in the past such as reading old diaries or going through a bin of photographs. There are certain aspects of video that make these emotional recollections much more immediate and powerful.
#1 Transferring in real time. I did an interview earlier in the residency with Kara Alexander, the Digital Media Specialist who runs the Scholars Commons Digitization Lab at Indiana University Bloomington. We were discussing the risks of patrons using the lab to transfer copyrighted video collections, and she commented that users are discouraged by the time commitment. Why would you sit for two hours just to digitize one commercial movie that you could purchase online or on DVD? Home movies and other types of amateur film or rare films are really the only thing worth the wait to digitize. But then you’ve got to watch them.
And so I did. I watched them all, only about 1/3rd of which I’d ever remembered seeing before. Over the weeks of capturing tape after tape of experiences that are intimate and alien, I’ve undergone a re-framing of how I see myself and my history. The most challenging is coming to terms with how untrustworthy my own recollections are of people and events.
#2 Screen essentialism. Unlike photographs, papers, and even some film formats, you can’t see what’s on the video until you play it. My mother was our family’s archivist, and was diligent about labeling- usually putting the year and a title like “Jaime’s Birthday 1991”. Four of the tapes in our collection had no labels but were in labeled cases, and it was obvious even after the first day of transfer that family members (including myself) had hurriedly put tapes back, not matching labels to their cases and inevitably mixing them up.
Another common occurrence is tape-overs. These tape-overs can be humorous and even artful, but they can also be quite jarring.
After it happened the first time I developed a sort-of PTSD, bracing for when I would inevitably be ripped out of one memory and put into another one. Out of the 23 tapes I’ve done so far, 8 of them had tape-overs.
Is it worth it?
Other issues came up that made the process challenging. Some family members didn’t want to see certain videos of themselves, so I’ve decided to put them all up privately on Vimeo and invite loved ones to review them and choose which files they want to receive. I also found myself struggling to capture everything- not only because of the time commitment but also because some of it was really boring (like how many Christmas videos do I really need of myself?). It was hard even as an archivist to decide what’s valuable to me personally vs. what might be valuable for the cultural record or for a family member.
But is it worth it? Yup.
During his talk on The Future of Memory, Rick Prelinger argued that the “turn to digital re-valuates the analog,” and that has certainly proved true during my process. Where the box of tapes would have been forgotten in my mother’s closet, now they are valuable because (a) family, friends, and I are aware of them, (b) they’ve been properly labelled and stored, and (c) I was able to see that they look better playing in their native medium than as compressed MP4 files.
The digitized files also have added value as VHS-C surrogates. Not only do they protect the tapes from frequent use, but they allow the control of our family’s archive to be shared by everyone. Each of us will be able to access or create with them in whatever way we find meaningful and convenient.
One question remains. Will patrons doing this work in the Memory Lab come away with the same conclusions? Will they see the reciprocal relationship between the analog and digitized versions? Will the ability to view their memories make them want to steward them?