Today's digital archives are built on creaking old machines and arcane knowledge.
Digital archives are where two very different worlds collide. In order to provide videos that stream through your fibre optic broadband in seconds, hours and even days must be spent in a windowless, climate-controlled room full of whirring machines, some obsolete for decades which require manual loading and expertise that’s becoming more arcane by the day.
But in this fast moving digital age of mov, avi, mp4, mkv, dav and dat files (to name but a few), it is worth reminding ourselves of the work needed by all media archives to ensure access to such a valuable part of our industry and social history is secured. Viewing and transferring to digital from a wide variety of formats is no mean feat.
With online access to our archives the priority, digitisation has become the (current?) solution to the obsolescence of all analogue audio and video formats. But to ensure the archive of the last century can move forward in this digital intensive environment, archives have come to rely on what are the ‘scrap yards’ of outmoded machines. Think ebay, Gumtree, sale yards, even car boot sales and of course, TV and production houses where large, clunky analogue machines lie unused as victims of the digital age.
The History of Advertising Trust, the ad industry’s archive and barometer of social history holds all manner of images, film and documents charting the world of advertising since the early 19th century right through to recent years. To keep this unique archive up to date HAT is constantly on the look out for a host of specialist machines considered ‘old fashioned’ and redundant in the fast moving hi-tech environment of TV and production studios as they seek to de-clutter and rework their space. Thankfully, these machines were built to last and designed for heavy use in editing suites with tapes freeze framed, rewound and played back again and again - many make it to HAT who, paradoxically benefit from media’s technological progress, to continue their work in ‘retirement’,
Over the last four decades, HAT have built up a working ‘museum’ of equipment of all ages, shapes and sizes in their media suite. When Anglia TV closed its production studios a few years ago, HAT were delighted to take on a host of equipment including digi beta players, monitors and a one-inch tape machine but is always on the lookout for more specialist equipment including time base correctors, Steenbecks or any other equipment – indeed, for HAT, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure!
But it’s not just the equipment that is required. People who have a specialist knowledge to understand, operate and maintain the equipment play a crucial role in the archive’s work. These skills are disappearing as new technology replaces the old and with the threat that the future of analogue transfers relies on highly skilled people, we have to acknowledge that these specialists are a breed which will slowly become extinct.
Archive Technician Tim Day at work with the 1” tape machine at HAT
One such specialist, Tim Day joined the HAT team in November 2012 as an enthusiastic volunteer with experience working in International Broadcast Facilities in London as a VT operator in the late ‘90s. HAT soon recognised the value of his specialist knowledge of early technology and understanding of all formats and in May 2013 Tim joined HAT as their replacement Archive Technician to work on the digitisation of their archive. Tim’s work involves patience, dedication and attention to detail to ensure the industry’s archive is preserved and, just as importantly, accessible to the industry. It’s a fairly unique job and one that Tim, like his HAT colleagues, feels passionate about. Transferring at ‘real time’ requires patience and constant monitoring and Tim looks on it as a labour of love.
“When I first came to HAT as a volunteer I had no idea of the extent of their archive and to be able to join the team and use my skills all these years later, working with analogue formats and machinery, which I thought I would never see - let alone use again, is fantastic.”
So are we on borrowed time to digitise our analogue formats before these wonderful machines expire and the knowledge to operate them goes with them…? As a charity, HAT is always keen to welcome volunteers to the fold who might have worked in the industry and can give even a small amount of time to assist the staff and, more importantly, educate a new generation to support HAT’s valuable work and so avoid this dilemma.