A man sits at a computer setting parameters for a digitzation program.

Living Content: Digitizing Magnetic Media at NLM

By Sarah Eilers ~

Infographic indicating 350digitzed titles, 70%cataloged titles and 30%uncataloged titles in the NLM Historical Audiovisual Collection.“A whole collection of medical films, that sounds pretty interesting…and all the material is digitized?” Nearly every archivist has been asked a question of this sort, and most of us would like to be able to say “Sure,” or “Almost all of it.” That’s rarely the answer, though, and most collections are considerably larger than their online presence.

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has been adding film and video titles to the NLM Digital Collections database for about seven years. The more material NLM is able to place online, the easier it is for people to find and view our rare collection no matter where they are on the globe. Whether it’s a DVD that you can pop in a player derived from a 16mm film that you can’t, or a compressed streaming file that you can view without crashing your machine, generating access copies provides researchers with a format they can use.  It was, and is, challenging to design and maintain a workflow using economical in-house equipment that produces good-quality digital access copies with transcription and captioning. We began working with what we had, deploying free or low-cost software to rip digital files from DVDs (our on-site viewing copy format) and format them. (Note: these are digital copies compressed for streaming access. Preservation-level digitization is another job entirely—more about that later.)

A CRT screen and a flat screen showing the same image as electronic equipment converts the magnetic tape data to digital files.

Over the last year, in order to produce higher-quality access copies, the audiovisual program at NLM has invested in equipment and software that allows us to digitize directly from our large collection of BetacamSP tapes.  BetacamSP (sometimes called BetaSP) is a stable, high-quality analog format by Sony, and was the industry standard for most TV stations and high-end production houses until the late 1990s. It remained common in standard definition video post-production into the 2000s. Many NLM film originals were duplicated to this format years ago. Vendors specializing in film duplication handled those transfers, and the tapes are maintained in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment onsite at NLM.

Close view of a BetacamSP cassette which resembles a larger version of a VHS tape.By digitizing this BetacamSP content, we’re able to produce high-quality access copies of most of our collection titles with a few clicks of the mouse and some watchful waiting. The tape-to-digital transfer station is powered by a Mac Pro and includes a BetacamSP tape player, CRT (cathode ray tube) broadcast monitor, analog-to-digital converter, and a slew of cables and connectors to allow the pieces to talk to one another.  Adobe Premiere software digitizes the content according to the specs set by our transfer station designer, Josh Harris, who oversees media preservation for the University of Illinois libraries. Station operators include Trey Bunn and Tina Habash of our Preservation and Collection Management section, and me.

A man sits at a computer setting parameters for a digitzation program.Using the in-house transfer station, we’re digitizing titles new to NLM Digital Collections, providing high-quality copies to researchers, and beginning to replace selected titles already in Digital Collections with higher-resolution versions. The first two titles produced on the new transfer station were Know for Sure (new addition) and To the People of the United States (a replacement of an older copy).  Since then, we’ve also added Army Nurse and Nurse-Patient Interaction.

Coming this summer: a second in-house transfer station that will digitize Umatic tape originals to preservation specifications. Umatics (also by Sony) were one of the earliest types of videocassettes on the market, and were chiefly used for commercial, educational, and instructional productions. All magnetic tape degrades faster than film, and Umatics are particularly at-risk. The Smithsonian Institution’s Audiovisual Preservation Readiness Assessment 2019 Report ranks them at Level 1/Highest Risk for deterioration, and urges immediate action to transfer and preserve the content. The National Library of Medicine has thousands of Umatic titles, most between 40 and 50 years old. Come summer 2020, we’ll be operating that transfer station nonstop.

On a related topic: Five years ago this week, Circulating Now published Winter Wounds, Paper Dressing about our VHS access copy of a rare film showing military medicine as practiced by the Finnish Defense Forces around the time of Finland’s Winter War with the Soviet Union (1939–40). Since then, we located and digitized the original 16mm film reels and shared the files with KAVI, the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland. Read it again now for the updated story and a look at the new improved digital access file.

An informal portrait of Sarah Eilers.Sarah Eilers is the Manager of Historical Audiovisuals in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.


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