Uncovering the Past

With digitization, libraries bring treasures to light

January 2, 2020

Above, a Congolese immigrant waves to the camera in a screenshot from a home movie archived by Home Made Visible. Below, metadata is collected for a photo submitted to Los Angeles Public Library's Mobile Memory Lab. Screenshot: Home Made Visible; Photo: Los Angeles Public Library
Above, a Congolese immigrant waves to the camera in a screenshot from a home movie archived by Home Made Visible. Below, metadata is collected for a photo submitted to Los Angeles Public Library's Mobile Memory Lab. Screenshot: Home Made Visible; Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

A young Congolese immigrant waves excitedly at the camera before playing the piano at her elementary school Christmas concert. A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer steps outside a church with his new bride. A Khmer-Krom baby sleeps swaddled in his carrier, oblivious to his own one-month birthday celebration.

Caught on old home movies, each image offers an intriguing glimpse of a specific community. But if those movies stay trapped on dusty VHS tapes or forgotten reels of 8-millimeter film, their stories—and those of the populations they belong to—stay hidden.

That’s why some libraries in the United States and Canada are offering patrons the opportunity to digitize, and sometimes publicly archive, personal history items such as photographs, VHS tapes, and other ephemera. Whether they’re turned into MP3s, MP4s, or some other file type entirely, precious relics of the past are coming into their full glory. Along the way, they’re adding to the historical record stories that have too often been overlooked or dismissed.

“I feel it’s empowering, because in the past there were only select people who were involved in what is represented and preserved as part of history,” says Suzanne Im, an archivist and metadata librarian who works in digitization and special collections at Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). “And in the past, that has not been very diverse.”

Seeking community stories

Thanks to an Institute for Museum and Library Services grant, LAPL’s DIY Memory Lab allows patrons to convert the contents of legacy media such as slides, reel-to-reel audio tape, and floppy disks into digital files to take home. But not everyone in the community, of course, is aware of this opportunity or even has a library card.

That’s why LAPL offers the Mobile Memory Lab, a pop-up program that brings digitization equipment to the community “as a way to democratize cultural heritage,” Im says. On “scanning days,” community members are invited to bring photographs, letters, and other keepsakes to be digitized and archived in LAPL’s digital collections portal, Tessa, as well as the Digital Public Library of America (a free, large-scale digital library that aggregates metadata and thumbnail images from libraries, archives, and museums throughout the country).

“We will add anything that’s related to a person or family’s experience living in Los Angeles,” says Im. Participants also receive their digitized items on a flash drive to keep.

Funded by a mini-grant from the Los Angeles Library Foundation, the Mobile Memory Lab travels to LAPL branches and does not require participants to have a library card. “We try to target specific demographics,” Im says. For example, “the Jefferson Park branch library held its [scanning day during] African-American Heritage Month, while Echo Park had more Latinx people attending.” The Mobile Memory Lab also has an oral history component, with staffers interviewing up to four members of the specific community who have interesting stories or are active politically. Those oral histories are also given to participants and archived.

Im sees the DIY Memory Lab as a response to a national need for information on preserving the past, as well as public access to the necessary tools. “The average person is not necessarily knowledgeable about how to care for … heirlooms of varying formats,” she says. “Personal items like photographs, letters, and diaries are not only important to future generations but might also become national treasures.”

Visitors to the California African American Museum used Los Angeles Public Library’s Mobile Memory Lab to digitize family photos and documents at an August 2019 event at the museum. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.
Visitors to the California African American Museum used Los Angeles Public Library’s Mobile Memory Lab to digitize family photos and documents at an August 2019 event at the museum. Photo: Los Angeles Public Library.

As for the Mobile Memory Lab pop-up program, Im says, the goal is to “democratize the archive” and illuminate the history of Los Angeles’ diverse populations. “What makes this program powerful is that Angelenos of every stripe can help determine what should be preserved and made accessible as part of our city’s cultural heritage.”

Building trust

For many people, particularly those from underrepresented communities, the idea of putting invaluable family keepsakes into someone else’s hands can be disconcerting. York University Libraries (YUL) in Toronto knows this well.

Between 2017 and 2019, YUL, by offering free home-movie digitization, helped preserve the memories of Canada’s indigenous and visible minority families. (“Visible minority” is a common Canadian term for “persons, other than aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or nonwhite in color,” per government definition.)

Through Home Made Visible, a partnership with Regent Park Film Festival and Charles Street Video, YUL solicited and digitized home movies at no cost to participants, who were asked to donate a minimum of five minutes’ footage from their home movies to the YUL archives. Building the trust that the project required entailed what media archivist Katrina Cohen-Palacios calls “a lot of talks.”

“Two years isn’t really enough time to build the gradual relationships” that projects like this often require, points out Cohen-Palacios, who spearheaded YUL’s part of the project with colleague Michael Moir, archivist at the libraries’ Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (which houses the Home Made Visible archive).

Since many participants were already familiar with the film festival and YUL, “they felt comfortable donating their home movies,” Cohen-Palacios says. Others, while enthusiastic about participating at first, became less so once questions of accessibility and transparency emerged.

“Families were like, ‘Oh, I want everyone to see [our home movie],’ and then, ‘Wait—I can Google my family name and it comes up?’” says Anna St. Onge, YUL director of digital scholarship infrastructure. She and her colleagues learned to address those concerns through clear and open explanations: “This is what we mean when we say ‘open,’ and this is what we mean when we say ‘access.’”

Each family found its own comfort level. “Some family members decided only to donate clips that did not feature their families, to maintain privacy,” says Cohen-Palacios. “There were others who wanted to show weddings, birthdays, or Christmas gifts being unwrapped. Some chose to donate an entire two-hour VHS tape.”

Footage is still being uploaded to YUL’s digital archives; in the meantime, clips are available on the Home Made Visible website. Cohen-Palacios considers the project a resounding success. “Everyone saw the importance of the project to amplify self-representation,” she says.

YUL’s next digital archiving endeavor is a partnership with the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation and the History of Indigenous Peoples Network. Led by St. Onge, YUL will build a sustainable digital preservation infrastructure, with modes of access for specific community members and groups to ensure cultural protocol and accuracy. “We want to give access that can be mediated by authorities within the community, as opposed to content that got deposited with the archives [with] the archivist as the gatekeeper,” St. Onge says.

“What we’re learning is that it’s not always our story to tell,” says YUL Dean of Libraries Joy Kirchner.

The challenges of digitization

Even when libraries focus their digitization efforts in-house, rather than in the community, the challenges of turning, say, a battered shoebox full of photographs into files on a sleek, slim flash drive can be considerable.

Patrons of Stark County (Ohio) District Library in Canton have been able to scan photographs on their own for many years. But in 2018, the library expanded its offerings by opening a full digitization lab. In addition to video, film, and audio conversion, Technology and Literacy Trainer Jesse Peek and Technology Training Coordinator Dee Rondinella offer quarterly digitization workshops and hands-on assistance.

Patrons can call or walk in to set up an appointment; from there, says Peek, “it’s a matter of figuring out exactly what they have and setting up equipment correctly.” He and Rondinella provide individual instruction and oversight so patrons can safely and accurately do their own digitizing.

The chief challenge, Peek and Rondinella agree, is time—both theirs and that of patrons. Though individual appointments can be made for Monday through Thursday, the studio is open for walk-ins only on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, so that Peek and Rondinella can ensure they devote the time each person needs. When patrons bring in large boxes of items, Rondinella says, “we panic a little bit.”

A late-1800s ledger containing handwritten copies of letters sent by H. Kempner in English and Yiddish, from University of North Texas in Denton’s Portal to Texas History. Photo: Photo: The Portal to Texas History/University of North Texas Libraries.
A late-1800s ledger containing handwritten copies of letters sent by H. Kempner in English and Yiddish, from University of North Texas in Denton’s Portal to Texas History. Photo: The Portal to Texas History/University of North Texas Libraries.

“In the case of slides, each one has to be photographed, digitized, saved, and transferred,” she says. “When we see [something] that will potentially take eight hours to convert, they’re so excited, and we have to say, ‘Are you ready to sit?’ We’ve had a couple [of projects] that were six hours long.”

Peek can recall only one flat-out failure, when he was unable to extract a tape from a patron’s camcorder, but he is always willing to troubleshoot. “We’ve had to order cables so we can connect to their media, or ask them if they have the cable at home,” he says.

Still, the gratified reactions of patrons make all the challenges worthwhile, he and Rondinella say. “Just this week, a man who played in a football game many years ago was sitting there watching himself play,” says Rondinella. “I’ve had people bring themselves to tears seeing themselves act in a play when they were 9 years old.”

To her surprise, the digitization lab has drawn interest from an unexpected quarter: young people. “With older adults it’s about the ability to preserve,” she says. “But with teens, there’s a curiosity that this even exists. I’ve had them tour the space and say, ‘I’m going to go home and see if we have something [to digitize].”

The steps behind the scenes

As at Stark County District Library, time and labor are the major digitization challenges of the University of North Texas in Denton’s Portal to Texas History, a digital gateway to historic materials from private collectors and partners such as libraries and museums. Conceived in 2002, the portal focuses on the history of small Texas communities.

First made available online in 2004 with material from 13 partners, the portal now features 1.3 million visible items from 412 partners and adds an average of 16,000 items per month, says Project Development Librarian Jacob Mangum, who sees letters, photographs, journals, and “just about anything you can imagine” come through the portal’s digital doors.

After a partner submits an item for inclusion along with an inventory form, a staff member cross-checks the form and makes notes about the item’s condition. Staff then create a wiki page for the item and enter it on a whiteboard, designating the student workers and digitizing steps that will be involved. Once the item reaches the top of the scanning queue, it undergoes two levels of quality control. The first level, Mangum says, involves a student worker comparing the physical items with the scans to make sure nothing was missed in the scanning process. During the second level, a librarian reviews digital files to make sure the scanning is up to specific standards including resolution, scale, and file format. (A rundown of specs is available on the portal’s website.)

“We make sure the images meet our standards as far as pixels per inch and dimensions,” Mangum says. “We also try to do limited processing [making sure colors are precisely depicted] because we want to create a faithful representation.” When the lab team scans a black-and-white image, for example, “we want to make sure the blacks are black and the whitest part of the image is a true white,” he says. In the name of accuracy, however, the lab does not digitally repair an item. “[I]f there is a rip, we will show it,” Mangum says. The process is conducted “with the goal of creating a faithful representation of the actual item, a digital surrogate.”

The image is then uploaded to the portal as a hidden file so metadata can be created. Once the image is visible, the staff does a file inventory and provides the partner with its own personal drive. The drive itself depends on file size, Mangum says, and ranges from a flash drive for a smaller project to a multiterabyte external hard drive for the larger projects.

How long does it all take? Depends on the item’s size and place in the digitization queue. “I usually tell people that with around 300 photographs, we’re looking about a year and a half,” he says. “Because of our desire to be as thorough and equitable as possible, it isn’t just slapping something on a scanner.”

Mangum says the wait is worth it. One of his favorite items is a ledger from Galveston’s Kempner family, who owned the well-known Imperial Sugar Company. One side of each rice-paper sheet contains a standard business letter; the other, a personal letter in phonetic Yiddish. “They created carbon copies in the 1870s and found a rabbi in Boston [a few years ago] who translated and transcribed [them],” he says. “The meaning of words changes over time, and I like to think how the rabbi had to consider the Yiddish words they were reading in current context, as well as what the words might have meant nearly 150 years ago.”


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