Daily Archives: October 27, 2020

A Dive into the Archive: Inspecting Farmers of the Sea

Post by Valeria Dávila

When I rejoined OSUL as a Library Diversity Scholar in October 2019, the Valley Library was in the midst of moving collections stored at an off-site storage facility, set for demolition, to a new one. Some Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) collections, however, had been moved to the library first for a reassessment, and in that context, I was tasked with reassessing the 16 mm film production elements of Farmers of the Sea, a 1984 film documenting aquaculture practices in the US and abroad produced by Jim Larison for the OSU Oregon Sea Grant Communications Program.

Having no prior experience reassessing films, this opportunity was as frightening as it was unique. Until then, I had worked with films at SCARC only twice.

The first reassessing the Gerald W. Williams Moving Image and Sound Recordings Collection’s condition to craft a Salvage and Recovery Plan for a course, and second, inspecting, repairing, and rehousing the In Our Care series’ films in the KOAC TV Films Collection. I had also improved my skills by interning at the Yale Film Study Center that summer.

These experiences prepared me well for the task, but the project was still the most challenging I have ever had, not only in terms of size (311 film rolls for Farmers vs. 34 for the In Our Care series) but of the responsibility of determining which elements should be retained and which should be deselected. But these big challenges were also what made this project an opportunity to grow, and so, later that year, 11 boxes and 7 canisters containing these 16 mm films made their way to my office. Now ­I’ve completed the films’ inspection, I’m excited to share about this process in celebration of the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage!

Preparing for the inspection

Previous to inspecting the films, I reunited all the tools and equipment needed for the task. Available at SCARC were the inspection bench and lightbox, as were the loupe, split reels, gloves, splicer, and blank leader. Thinking about the inspection tools I had used at my summer internship, I ordered a film measuring stick for documenting the length of the film rolls and proposed to upgrade our lightbox with a LED light pad I had used at YFSC. The LED pad was not only smaller and lighter, fitting better in the inspection bench, but the lightning was even, unlike that of the fluorescent tubes in our lightbox. SCARC liked the idea so much that it purchased two, the second for patrons to use at the SCARC commons.

While I waited for the supplies to arrive, I watched the digital copy of Farmers of the Sea, which had been recently made available online. Farmers of the Sea had been broadcast by WGBH-Boston as part of their PBS NOVA series in 1984, and this was the version used for that broadcast. Taking screenshots of each scene of the video, I made a storyboard for visual reference, that way I would be able to check the scenes and editing without having to rewatch the video over and over. I also created a film inspection report using that on the Film Preservation Guide (National Film Preservation Foundation, 2004, p.94) as a reference. The report had fields for documenting the distinctive characteristics of the film elements (gauge, length, support material, color, positive/negative/reversal; magtrack/optical track; variable area/density, generation, etc.) as well as their current condition (mechanical, biological, and chemical damage and decay).

Inspecting Farmers of the Sea and the COVID-19 pandemic

Maintained as two accessions, 2000:100 and 2003:083, accession 2000:100 contained the fewest number of film rolls but they were the longest, with an average length of 1,000 feet. This accession was also the most diverse in terms of the film elements type and generation (A&B cut negatives, workprints, release prints, internegative, interpositive, master, etc.). Accession 2003:083, in contrast, was much bigger in quantity of film rolls, but also more straightforward, consisting mainly of camera originals trims and outtakes.

I started with accession 2000:100 in February 2020, after all ordered supplies arrived. I printed blank reports and filled them by hand as I was inspecting the films, with the idea of transferring the data to a spreadsheet on the cloud at the end, once the inspection process of all films was completed.

I also produced photographic documentation using my cellphone. For each element, I photographed the box or canister the element had come in, as well as the labels and inscriptions on them. While inspecting the films, I photographed the information written on the leaders and film frames, making sure I captured the edge codes. These photos were valuable documents in themselves, but they also served as visual reference, allowing for rechecking the elements without the need of taking the films out again. For storing the photos, I maintained a Google Drive folder on the cloud.

As for the inspection goals, the first was verifying that each element had been correctly identified as per the preliminary inventory list. The second was furthering the identification and description of the elements, and the third, reassessing their condition. All elements were color acetate, so I paid special attention to vinegar syndrome and color fading. In the video below, I go through the inspection process step by step.

Step by step of the Farmers of the Sea inspection process.

By mid-March, I had managed to inspect 20 film rolls, 55% of the total 37 in this accession, but around this time, the COVID-19 outbreak occurred here in Oregon. My transition to remote work was rather sudden, and the films and equipment remained at the library. Permission had to be granted to go back in, and we decided to wait and see how the situation evolved, thinking that the onsite activities would resume sooner rather than later. But as time passed, and recommendations to quarantine continued, I asked for permission to bring the films and equipment home to resume work. This was May, so the project had been paused for two months.

Moving the tiny film archive home

Moving the tiny film archive to my house was not complicated, but adjustments had to be made, such as preparing the space I had been using as a home office to accommodate the 9 boxes and the inspection table. In addition to this, having no printer at home, I had to switch to entering the inspection information to the spreadsheet on the cloud much earlier than planned.

But perhaps the biggest challenge was catching up with the inspection after the two months pause and completing the inspection of the remaining 17 films in accession 2000:100, and the 274 in accession 2003:083, in a two-month timeframe, since I had my holidays starting in early August. Completing the task would not be possible on a part-time schedule, so I worked fewer weeks but on a full-time schedule instead. This way, I was able to return the films and equipment back to the library by August 1, and the fact that the majority of the elements in accession 2003:083 were smaller film rolls of camera original trims and outtakes also helped me achieve this.

Not all of it was inspection

Parallel to the inspection, I researched about the traditional film duplication process and the production elements often considered for retention and deselection at other archives. This process also involved consulting other film archivists in this last regard to compare against my preliminary thoughts. I also maintained conversation with the producer of Farmers to gain an insight on the production process of the film, which was helpful for clarifying one thing of two about some of the elements. Carrying out this project has been an incredibly rich learning opportunity for me, and I can hardly wait to see what I’ll be learning in the subsequent stages!