George Eastman House – preserving film history

From the Democrat & Chronicle:

A behind-the-scenes look at how George Eastman House (in Rochester, NY) is doing all it can to preserve film treasures.

Photos and films are frail pieces of art, no stronger than the paper or celluloid they’re made of.

George Eastman House helps preserve and repair these tattered objects, often more than a century old. Its six film technicians restore up to 200 films annually. Their quiet rescue mission reaches Hollywood studios and film archives around the world.

“Last year, we could have circled the Earth with that footage,” says Edward Stratmann, associate curator of motion pictures.

The museum revives many films at their last gasp. An estimated 90 percent of silent-era movies already have vanished. Others are dying “the death of 1,000 cuts” with tears, stains and fading.

“It we don’t act, sometimes it might be too late,” says Caroline Frick Page, curator for the motion picture department.

When they do act — on rare screen tests for Gone With the Wind (1939), for example, or the first full-length movie of Huckleberry Finn (1920) — a part of film or art history is saved both for posterity and practical use. The Eastman House gets constant inquiries from studios looking to make DVDs from restored prints.

Read more here.

Does anyone know shorthand anymore, offhand?

My mother knew shorthand. She’d first learned it in the 1950s, in high school, and refreshed her skills when she went to secretarial school, later in life. Her proficiency with shorthand was a big part of why she got the job she spent most of her life in: the big boss there was old school (and this was back around 1990) and liked to dictate his correspondance to a person, not a machine.

The textbook from her shorthand class sat right on a bookshelf in the living room, but scouring its pages made no difference; Mom could leave a Christmas shopping list in the middle of the kitchen table, bold as anything, and all I could make out was “Toni — squiggle, squiggle, curly-q, dash dash loop”.

The Wall Street Journal has an article today about a recent rise in the demand for shorthand translators. (Remember, the article will only be available online to non-WSJ subscribers for seven days.)

American girls and some boys used to make sense of it on their own. They took it in school—or secretarial school—and then took letters in offices or transcripts in court. Some went on to keep diaries in shorthand and write shorthand wills. But most schools stopped teaching it, and for today’s untutored, shorthand might as well be hieroglyphics… As generations of shorthand writers fade away, only a few of the shorthand-fluent remain to untangle their squiggles.

Shorthand in modern use has nearly disappeared. It kind of reminds me of those stories you hear about obscure languages going dead for lack of anyone left alive speaking them. According to UNESCO, there are only 3 speakers of Tuscarora remaining, right here in the Niagara Falls area. Children aren’t being taught it anymore, and eventually those three remaining speakers will be gone and the language will die.

Edited to add, from Gail: terrific article on endangered languages, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/29/nyregion/29lost.html.

I wonder what this all means for documentation and archives? How many of us have artifacts written in languages that may one day be dead?

That old book smell

Scientists have created a way to test the degradation level of paper books and documents, based on that “old book smell” we’re all familiar with.

Old books (ACS)

The test could help to preserve treasured books and documents

Sniff test to preserve old books

By Victoria Gill
Science reporter, BBC News

The key to preserving the old, degrading paper of treasured, ageing books is contained in the smell of their pages, say scientists.

Researchers report in the journal Analytical Chemistry that a new “sniff test” can measure degradation of old books and historical documents.

The test picks up and identifies the chemicals that the pages release as they degrade. This could help libraries and museums preserve a range of precious books. The test is based on detecting the levels of volatile organic compounds. These are released by paper as it ages and produce the familiar “old book smell”.

Entire article

Houston, We Erased the Apollo 11 Tapes

Houston, We Erased The Apollo 11 Tapes
by Nell Greenfieldboyce

Morning Edition, July 16, 2009 · An exhaustive, three-year search for some tapes that contained the original footage of the Apollo 11 moonwalk has concluded that they were probably destroyed during a period when NASA was erasing old magnetic tapes and reusing them to record satellite data.

“We’re all saddened that they’re not there. We all wish we had 20-20 hindsight,” says Dick Nafzger, a TV specialist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who helped lead the search team.

“I don’t think anyone in the NASA organization did anything wrong,” Nafzger says. “I think it slipped through the cracks, and nobody’s happy about it.”

NASA has, however, offered up a consolation prize for the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission — the agency has taken the best available broadcast television footage and contracted with a digital restoration firm to enhance it, so that the public can see the first moonwalk in more detail than ever before.

Read the rest of the story here