Union Station Archive Keeps Progress From Burying The Past

I ran into Lee Witten, Union Station’s chief archivist, wading through stacks of old 8mm movie film the other day.


Lee Witten shopping for high tech equipment

Someone donated his life-time collection of home movies shot while working for the railroad, and Lee said there’s some amazing stuff there, engines and other rolling stock on runs throughout the West.


Problem is, this is 8mm film. To look at it you need an 8mm film projector, an item no longer made. Lee has one, but even with that he was going nuts. To properly view and index the films he had to go through them slowly, almost frame-by-frame, looking to see what is being shown, stopping the film to write down what he sees, and then start it up again.


“What I need is one of those film editing things that let you look at it frame by frame,” he said. He was referring to a device that runs the film through a simpler light box device with a lens and light source that projects the film onto a small screen. You wound the film through by hand and stopped to make cuts and splices.


This is also a device no longer made. “Lemme see what I can find,” I told Lee.


I was riding my bicycle up to the Deseret Industries that morning anyway, and when I got there, lo and behold, there were two of those editors sitting in the display case. One was $20, the other $30, so I called Lee who came up and bought the cheaper of the two.


As it turns out, the light in the editor is pretty dim, so Maurice Greeson, another volunteer, is trying to clean it up and boost it’s output.


A 1960s film editor

This is the way it is in this business. History was recorded using old technology, so it takes old technology to see it. Eventually Lee would like to get the cream of those old movies digitized and put on DVD so they can be used by the public, but here’s the kicker: How long will DVDs be viewable?


Don’t laugh. Twenty five  years ago nobody questioned that VHS tapes were a good way to archive family memories. Now we know VHS tapes shrink with age and eventually quit working. Plus, nobody makes a VHS player anywhere on the planet.


The pace of technological change is quickening, too, and along with that the pace of change of the software/tools needed to view what that technology records. Diaries kept on old computer floppy discs are going to be unreadable, if not already. Do you have a floppy drive laying around? Modern computers, increasingly, don’t even have a disc drive — everything’s in the cloud.


For archivists, this is a huge problem.  They have to haunt junk stores and thrift shops, and get darn good at tinkering, just to revive the memories of the 1950s and 1960s. Stuff from the 70s and 80s, recorded in now-dead computer language and text systems, is going to be a nightmare in another 20 years, if not already.


In a way, those old 8mm movies are still the best archival video system around. Kodachrome has amazing staying powers, the film is a physical object that you can hold up to the light and look at, the technology to do that is pretty simple as these things go, relatively easy to reinvent; all you need is a lens and a light source.


Bottom line: If you have memories stored on your family computer, such as journals, diaries, pictures and other things, give some serious thought to making high-waulity DVD transfers now, while it is still possible. All text and images should be printed on paper. Paper lasts centuries and only takes looking at to view.


Your museum archivist of the future will thank you.