Background and History

Why Video Preservation - The Basics

This guide is aimed at arts and cultural organizations that are relatively new to the field of moving image preservation and conservation. Since the early 1990s, there has been a growing national effort to save independent electronic media, including collections of video art, audio art, and technology-based installation art; independent documentary and narratives; community media; and documentation of arts and culture.

As a participant in this effort, the Experimental Television Center recognizes that many important tapes exist outside of major institutions, in artist spaces, libraries, community organizations and with individuals. Many groups have become de facto archives of independent media; many don't have staff trained to deal with archival issues. Even larger organizations, among them many public television stations, lack the resources to begin to protect their holdings in any formal way. Individuals, focusing on production, may have even less experience with and knowledge of preservation efforts. Until recently, members of the independent media communities have had little contact with professional organizations dedicated to this work, and the voice of independent media was rarely heard in national forums on preservation.

We hope this guide serves to give media groups and media-makers the information useful to them in efforts to save their collections, connect with others with similar concerns, and bring the concerns of independents to the field of electronic media preservation.

Video Preservation - The Basics is an activity of the Video History Project organized by the Experimental Television Center.

The Video History Project

The Video History Project is an on-going research initiative documenting the early historical development of video art and community television, with particular focus on upstate New York during the period 1968-1980. The project has been conceived and executed by the Experimental Television Center. The project involves an interrelated set of activities combining research, the collection of oral histories, a World Wide Web site, and Video History: Making Connections, a conference concerning the links between the early history and contemporary practice, and held at Syracuse University in the Fall 1998. The project goals are to identify and make accessible information which describes and locates resources concerning independently created media; to facilitate partnerships for preservation of the works; to encourage the exhibition and study of these materials among curators, educators, and scholars; and to increase public awareness of and appreciation for media history throughout the State and nationally.

New York State has played a unique role in the historical development of the field. Some of the earliest video art and community television media activity in the nation occurred here. The preservation area on the Media Alliance  website provides descriptions of a few of these important groups. Media Alliance provided the media arts field with comprehensive information and technical assistance on all aspects of preservation, and is nationally recognized for its collaborative projects, including a Regional Cataloging Project coordinated by cataloger Jim Hubbard, and a series of preservation surveys conducted by conservator Paul Messier. Media Alliance also published Video Preservation: Securing the Future of the Past, by Deirdre Boyle, and the Magnetic Media Preservation Sourcebook, edited by Mona Jimenez and Liss Platt.

Independent Media Arts Preservation

Independent Media Arts Preservation
A service, education, and advocacy consortium, IMAP was organized in 1999 to ensure the preservation of independent electronic media for cultural and educational use by future generations. These works are found throughout the country in museums, arts centers, artists' spaces, dance and theater companies, libraries, university departments, non-profit distributors, public television stations, and with individual artists or producers. IMAP is especially interested in supporting the preservation of works reflecting the early history of independent media, when producers first expanded the options for media production and distribution beyond commercial applications of electronic tools and traditional forms of broadcast television. IMAP is the only art service organization focused solely on issues of electronic media preservation.

IMAP's primary interest is to support the preservation of works reflecting the early history of independent media, and focuses on the preservation of non-commercial productions such as video art, audio art, and technology-based installation art; independent documentary and narratives; community media; and documentation of arts and culture.

IMAP was formed in part to continue the leadership formerly undertaken by the New York-based organization Media Alliance.

IMAP consortium members represent a wide range of organizations and individuals including the Museum of Modern Art, the Donnell Media Center, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum, the Experimental Television Center, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, Paper Tiger Television, Third World Newsreel, Syracuse University, Bay Area Video Coalition, Wexner Center for the Arts, and the Video Data Bank as well as artists, curators, and educators concerned with the preservation of the independent media arts.

Role of an Archivist

If you have a collection of videotapes, it is important that you or your organization become involved in preservation. Videotape is not an archival medium. Because of many factors, including storage conditions, and technical problems in the original manufacturing, the tapes themselves can deteriorate. In addition, many of the early formats and the equipment on which to play them are now obsolete.

Jim Wheeler has outlined the functions of an archivist. His recommendations are available in Television and Video Preservation 1997: A Report on the Current State of American Television and Video Preservation, Volume 5, by William T. Murphy. Report of the Librarian of Congress. Government Printing Office Superintendent of Documents.

  • To collect materials according to the policy and mission of your organization
  • To organize the collection
  • To safely store the materials in the collection
  • To catalog the materials so you can access information about it easily and share that information with others
  • To provide access to the works, if this is part of your organization's mission, by providing appropriate playback equipment
  • To put materials onto contemporary formats

The Society of American Archivists suggests "The primary task of the archivist is to establish and maintain physical and intellectual control over records of enduring value. The archivist selects, arranges, describes, and ensures the long-term preservation of such records, and assists researchers who wish to use them." See the FAQ section of the Society of American Archivists.

What Can Go Wrong with Your Tapes

Videotape is not an archival storage medium. Problems can arise because the tapes were not properly recorded originally or have been subsequently damaged. There are several general types of problems which are often caused by a mishandling, improper storage, malfunctioning equipment or disaster. For more information see Video Terms, Care and Handling, Storage and Insurance and Disasters areas. The National Technology Alliance Online provides access to the National Media Lab's Media Stability Studies.  Included is the report "Information on Storage Media Longevities".

  • The tape itself can be physically damaged by mishandling, or playing the tape on poorly maintained equipment. The edges of the tape are often damaged by a misaligned tape transport systems on the deck, and by excess or uneven tension when rewinding the tape. Tapes can also be stretched and creased.
  • The binder on the tape can deteriorate. This may cause the video heads to clog with debris, drop out, sticking or slipping of the tape and squealing as the tape is played. It is often caused by improper storage conditions.
  • The magnetic signals on the tape can be damaged by exposure to magnetic fields, inadvertent erasure or re-recording.
  • The original recording may be faulty because of tracking or sync problems caused by the original recording equipment.
  • The tapes can be damaged or destroyed by extremes of heat and humidity or by a physical disaster, such as flooding.

Selected Chronology of Preservation Activities

In 1965 legislation creates the National Endowment for the Arts, which establishes The American Film Institute. One of the goals of the AFI is to preserve our heritage of film and television.

Representatives of moving image archives, originally known as the Film and Television Archives Advisory Committee (F/TAAC), begin to meet.

The New York State Council on the Arts funds cataloging and library activities for film in the early 1970s.

Under the leadership of Debby Silverfine, Director of the Electronic Media and Film Program at The New York State Council on the Arts, a support category for preservation activities is established.

Electronic Arts Intermix receives one of the first grants from the New York State Council on the Arts for preservation activities.

The National Endowment for the Arts assists preservation efforts in several disciplines, including media arts, folk arts and dance.

Throughout the decade many organizations and individuals engage in efforts to preserve collections. Among them are the Andy Warhol Foundation, Anthology Film Archives, Bay Area Video Coalition, Downtown Community TV Center, Electronic Arts Intermix, Experimental TV Center, Intermedia Arts of Minnesota, The Kitchen, Museum of Modern Art, Pacific Film Archives, Video Data Bank, Tony Conrad, Bob Harris, Woody and Steina Vasulka and many others.

The National Center for Film and Video Preservation is established by the American Film Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts. Its mission includes The Film Foundation, The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and the National Moving Image Database (NAMID) project which centralizes information on the film and television holdings of American archives and producers, and has assisted many organizations with the cataloging of film and video collections.

Image Permanence Institute founded through the combined efforts of Rochester Institute for Technology and the Society for Imaging Science and Technology

Tony Conrad publishes several articles concerning methods of reel-to-reel videotape restoration through the NY Media Decentralization Institute and Hallwalls in Buffalo.

The Film and Television Archives Advisory Committee (F/TAAC), changes its name to the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA).

Symposium on Video Preservation is hosted by the Museum of Modern Art and organized by Media Alliance, under the leadership of Mary Esbjornson, and by the New York State Council on the Arts.

AMIA votes to formalize as an individual-based professional association.

The Andy Warhol Foundation begins the preservation of its media collection under the leadership of Mirra Banks Brockman, work later completed by Dara Meyers-Kingsley.

The Independent, published by the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, publishes an article by Stephen Vitiello and Leanne Mella, "Facilities for Cleaning, Restoring, and Remastering Videotape" in October 1991

Ralph Hocking proposes the "resurrection bus", a mobile service to clean and re-master old video.

The National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture established a national Video Preservation Task Force.

Publication of Deirdre Boyle's Video Preservation: Securing the Future of the Past, published by Media Alliance.

Bay Area Video Coalition receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts to establish a center for re-mastering obsolete formats of videotape, under the leadership of Sally Jo Fifer and Luke Hones.

Groundbreaking for the Film Preservation Center of the Museum of Modern Art.

Media Alliance convenes a meeting of key New York media organizations. Cataloging was identified as an important first step, using a compatible database

Media Alliance, under the direction of Mona Jimenez, proposes to the National Endowment for the Humanities a model partnership with the NAMID program to achieve compatible cataloging among media organizations across a broad geographic area. Although never funded, the proposal provides a foundation for collaboration on cataloging. Organizations included were Anthology Film Archives, Art Media Studies Department of Syracuse University, Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Experimental Television Center, Everson Museum of Art, Hallwalls, Media Bus, Paper Tiger Television, Port Washington Public Library, Tisch School of the Arts of New York University, Visual Studies Workshop and Woodstock Public Library.

The Upstate Cataloging Project meets in Rochester in August with Margaret Byrne, Director of NAMID. Representatives of ETC, Hallwalls, Syracuse University, and Visual Studies Workshop. This results in the adopting of a NAMID-compatible template, designed to allow conversion to USMARC.

The Upstate Cataloging Project holds a training session in May, supported by Media Alliance and led by Jim Hubbard, associated with Anthology Film Archives, with assistance from Henry Mattoon, Director of NAMID.

Bay Area Video Coalition opens the first non-profit remastering facility for 1/2" open reel tape, under the direction of Luke Hones.

In March the Library of Congress holds hearings in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, DC for the Study of the Preservation of Television and Video, conducting a national needs assessment and resulting in a set of recommendations in areas such as cataloging, cleaning and remastering, education and storage.

Meeting the Challenges of Video Preservation, by Jim Hubbard, with assistance from Mona Jimenez, is published by Media Alliance.

Playback 1996: Video Preservation Roundtable, held in San Francisco on March 29-30, and organized by the Bay Area Video Coalition with assistance from Media Alliance. The international symposium, funded by the Getty Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, is the first to build alliances between the media arts and art conservation fields. Transcripts of Playback 96 conference sponsored by BAVC.

With funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, Media Alliance contracts with Paul Messier of Boston Art Conservation to conduct preservation surveys with six media arts groups in New York State. Media Alliance Preservation Survey is published.

Magnetic Media Preservation Sourcebook, edited by Mona Jimenez and Liss Platt, published by Media Alliance

Playback: A Preservation Primer for Video edited by Sally Jo Fifer, Tamara Gould, Luke Hones, Debbie Hess Norris, Paige Ramey and Karen Weiner is published by Bay Area Video Coalition.

Video History: Making Connections, a conference concerning the links between early media history and contemporary practice, was held October 16-18, 1998 at Syracuse University in conjunction with the Common Ground Conference, sponsored by the New York State Alliance for Arts Education. Bringing together over 250 media makers active in the 70s and those artists working today in new media and interactive technologies, the conference celebrated our history and established new partnerships with cultural and educational institutions across the country. The project is made possible with support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts Technology Planning Grant Program, with public funds from the Statewide Challenge Grant Program and the New York State Council on the Arts, and from the Everson Museum of Art and the Media Action Grant Program of Media Alliance, with corporate support from Dave Jones Design and VidiPax as well as individual contributors.

Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP) is established, with support from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.

With support from the New York Foundation for the Arts, IMAP conducts a needs-assessment for a web-based cataloging tutorial and union catalog of independent media collections, under the direction of Jim Hubbard.

IMAP begins a technical assistance program for NYS media arts groups.

Bay Area Video Coalition organizes TechArcheology: A Symposium on Installation Art Conservation, held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and supported by the Getty Foundation.

Preserving the Immaterial: A Conference on variable Media at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on March 30th and 31st, 2001.The focus of the conference is the museum's Variable Media Initiative, a radical new solution to the contested issues of new media preservation.

Media Preservation Salon hosted by NAMAC, facilitated by Jim Hubbard and Mona Jimenez Panelists include Sherry Miller Hocking (Experimental Television Center), Karan Sheldon (Northeast Historic Film), Toni Treadway (International Center for 8mm Film), Stepen Vitiello (The Kitchen), Heather Weaver (Bay Area Video Coalition), and others.

Looking Back/Looking Forward, May 31 and June 1, 2002, a symposium intended as a working session where artists, media arts staff, conservators, and technical experts will focus on the physical preservation of independent electronic media. The symposium is organized by the Experimental Television Center (ETC) in association with Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP), Bay Area Video Coalition and the Electronic Media Specialty Group of the AIC (American Institute for the Conservation of Artistic and Historic Works). Looking Back/Looking Forward is hosted by the Downtown Community Television Center and is made possible with public funds from the Electronic Media and Film Program of the NYS Council on the Arts, and assistance from IMAP and Dave Jones Design. The symposium is organized by Sherry Miller Hocking, Assistant Director of the Experimental Television Center, and independent consultant Mona Jimenez.