Born Digital - Video Recording in the 21st Century

Blogs across the Smithsonian will be giving an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Videohistory interview at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, 1990.

Analog, or magnetic videotape, is going the way of the horse and buggy—soon analog tape will not be available for sale and playback machines will be museum artifacts. Oral history programs are now recording digitally, and this new approach offers many opportunities and challenges. The Smithsonian Institution Archives Oral History Program is carrying out a Digital Preservation Initiative to ensure that our audiotape and videotape interviews will be accessible in the 21st century, and is now recording all new interviews in digital format.

Inci Bowman preparing to interview George Venable at NMNH.

In earlier blog posts, I discussed how we converted our analog audio and videotapes to digital format, as well as our typewritten and word-processed transcripts. We followed many of the same principles when we began to record “born digital” audio and video interviews. We prefer equipment that records in “open source” formats that don’t use proprietary software that an archivist might not be able to use fifty years from now, as well uncompressed formats, that produce a much higher quality recording than formats that sample and compress the data. It was easy to adhere to this standard for audio interviews. Video recordings have posed additional challenges. Borrowed equipment from other Smithsonian units may not record interviews in open source formats, although most interviews that the Archives’ has captured on this equipment have been good quality uncompressed files. It has been challenging to learn how to maneuver among a variety of formats from .mts to .mov to .wmv formats, among others, and to ensure we secure high quality preservation masters and consumer grade reference copies.

A panoramic view of Pod 4 at the Museum Support Center.

We’ve explored a variety of software options for converting video files from rendering files in video editing software such as Sony Vegas Pro to open source file conversion programs such as Prism Video File Converter. Although time-consuming, we’ve learned a great deal and now have full sets of formats for our new interviews. For the preservation masters, file size and storage remains a challenge. We will place our reference copies - in QuickTime and Windows Movie Video formats - in the Smithsonian Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) in the coming year, to facilitate access and reference services. However, the DAMS does not yet have sufficient storage space for our very large preservation files that range into terabytes. For now, these are stored on high density magnetic tapes.

Dr. Sammy Ray of Texas Tech University, with Claudia Angle and James Dean.Despite these challenges, we were recently able to record a nice set of videotaped interviews documenting the National Museum of Natural History for its 100th anniversary. We went to work with security officers, a scientific illustrator, curators, collections managers, taxidermists, a scientific photographer, and a marine biologist to record our Smithsonian family in their “natural environment,” capture their appearance and personality, work processes, and interpersonal interactions. Video interviews allowed Don Davis, an entomologist, to share his Lepidoptera (moth) collection and George Venable, a scientific illustrator, to explain how he produces illustrations of microscopic insects. Curator Emeritus Roy S. Clark took us on a tour of the meteorite collection - the oldest objects in the museum - and beloved museum photographer Roy E. “Chip” Clark demonstrated his creative genius for us a week before his untimely death. Most recently, we were able to capture the delight of 91 year old marine biologist Sammy Ray, who collected birds for the National Museum while stationed in the Pacific during World War II. He visited the museum last spring to view the specimens he donated, read his letters to Secretary Alexander Wetmore written in the heat of battle, and to share his memories of those days.

Digitizing our collection has dramatically changed how we do our work. Sending a DVD copy, or loading files on an ftp site for download by the user, greatly speeds up our reference work. To take advantage our our digital collections, we plan to place excerpts of remastered and born digital interviews for researchers and the public to view directly on our recently launched new website


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