Grad Student Rescues Stories Trapped in Old Technology
How did pop star Prince get everyone talking about audiovisual preservation?
In spring 2022, a production manager at a Minnesota CBS affiliate was researching a local teachers’ strike by reviewing 1970s footage of a similar event in Minneapolis. He discovered interviews with local children, and one kid stood out: the face, smile and effervescent demeanor. The manager was convinced the child was pop icon Prince.
Using special equipment, he added sound and shared the footage with researchers, subject matter experts and the star’s childhood friends. He was then able to confirm that he had surfaced forgotten footage of an 11-year-old Prince, championing better salaries for his teachers.
“You’re talking about tapes that these institutions kept just for archival purposes, and they’re just sitting there — so many wonderful stories,” said Dr. Cecilia Salvatore, professor and coordinator of the Archives and Cultural Heritage Program at Dominican’s School of Information Studies. “The problem is, technology has advanced, so people really can’t access these old formats.”
With support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Boston-based GBH developed partnerships with library and information science and archival science graduate programs at Dominican and other universities to implement the Public Broadcasting Preservation Fellowship.
Public Broadcasting Preservation Fellowship explains on its website that the fellowship trains graduate students to inventory, digitize and catalog small audiovisual collections, which “generates technical and preservation metadata; and processes the digital files for ingest into the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.”
Each institution partners with a local public media station; for Dominican, that’s WTTW. University partners are granted audiovisual preservation equipment. These “digitization stations” enable a hands-on education. “Only a few people really master it, and they master it most of the time by really working with the materials.” Salvatore said.
Dr. Mary Minow, 2012-14 Follett Chair, cued Dominican’s fellowship involvement. An attorney, writer and former librarian, Minow is a former Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She currently serves on the board of the Newberry Library. Among other advisory roles, Minow serves on the executive advisory council of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting and is chair of the Brown University Library Council.
In 2012, Dominican presented the Minow family with an unusual joint honorary degree. Among many distinctions, her father, attorney Newton Minow, is former Federal Communications Commission chairman, former chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service, and former chair of WTTW. The Minow Family Foundation is funding the preservation fellowship at Dominican. Minow contacted Salvatore, who was working with graduate student David Sohl, an ideal fit for the program.
To support the fellowship, a faculty advisor is designated to oversee the work and a local mentor is tapped to offer training and guidance. Fellows participate in online webinars and an onsite immersion training session. Fellows also produce blog posts, preservation plans, tutorials and other deliverables. “Real television stations that are independent may have some wonderful collections, but they’re disappearing and we need to preserve them,” Salvatore said.
She is hopeful that the digitization station will seed a new offering for Dominican students, possibly leading to an audiovisual preservation course in the future. In the meantime, it offers a new way for Dominican students to excavate stories frozen in old technology. Who knows who or what students may discover.