What Would You Do If 40 Tons of Records Arrived on Your Doorstep?

Mission Preservation!

Technical Assessment of the Films of the Defense Visual Information Center in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab

In 2006, the National Archives accessioned over 2700 titles from the Defense Visual Information Center (DVIC). By the time the 51 pallets (coming to 40 tons!) of motion picture and video records arrived at Archives II in College Park, a staff member with the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video branch had already reviewed over 5000 titles offered to the National Archives. About half were determined to be of value as permanent records.

DVIC films in the stacks

The resulting group of records is comprised entirely of films and videos produced by the military for instructional purposes. That means, for example, that we received films that were used to train military personnel in the use of a particular piece of equipment, such as the “AH-1G Huey Cobra Main Rotor System”, or in the somewhat more general topics of “Bayonet Fighting” or “Living Off the Land”. This is distinct from the large chunk of our motion picture holdings that were produced in order to document events as they were happening, such as military ceremonies or soldiers on active duty in conflict zones. In addition to providing a wealth of information about the specific topics they cover, the DVIC films give us insight into how military personnel were prepared for their jobs, and can be viewed as a record of those activities.

So, what happens after the archival unit receives the records before they can be made available for public research? More specifically, what’s so different about film as a format that means we have to go through a second process, or technical assessment, before we can make them available?

First, to further understand the sheer massiveness of the DVIC accession, some more numbers: About 2000 of the titles were motion picture film and the rest were video productions (for more information about film and video formats, check out our post that explains the difference between the two). In the 2000 titles, there were over 13,000 separate film elements, or reels.  This could be anything from an original camera negative or soundtrack, to a final film print, and everything in between. The film elements came to over 10 million feet of film, which laid end to end, would reach from our building in College Park to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The staff of NARA’s  motion picture preservation lab evaluated every one of the 13,000 reels in a process we call technical assessment, or film inspection. Proper film inspection is the foundation that allows us to accomplish our first and most important goal, protecting the most original elements and ensuring that we can extend the life of the record through proper storage and handling. When a set of films comes to the lab, we organize them so that the best, most original copies are given the highest level of protection, both in terms of cold storage, and in terms of more limited handling.  Secondary copies are used as reproduction masters, and extra prints are served as reference copies in the research room. Sometimes we only have one copy, and it is a straightforward process; sometimes we have dozens of elements.

Lab staff also prepare films for long-term storage with appropriate cans, proper labeling, and by winding them in an ideal manner so that they will not suffer unnecessary damage. We identify any potential preservation issues such as high shrinkage or chemical deterioration, and reformat to new film stock as necessary in order to preserve the record. All of the information we collect about the films is saved in a database so that we can track the condition of the reels over time.

It seems like a long process, but what we’re trying to avoid is simple. We don’t want the most original copy of a film, or even our reproduction master, to accidentally end up in the research room, leaving us with a poor quality duplicate when the original is degraded through repeated use. Our aim is for the original to exist long into the future. Expectations for digitization quality are increasing exponentially; soon enough everyone will have 8K holographic televisions and we’ll need those film elements for new transfers to satisfy the need for content. More importantly, the films inspected by the motion picture preservation lab are records of the activities of the United States government and need to remain intact as such. Something as seemingly simple as a scratch on the image is actually the removal of information from the frame.

So how can the public find out more about these 2,700 DVIC titles now that the motion picture lab has ensured their preservation? The catalog records for 330-DVIC provide a researcher with a good deal of information about the titles. All are now available for viewing. About a third of the titles have reference prints already and can be viewed in the research room at Archives II in College Park.  For the rest, a researcher can request that we digitize to create an access file.

If you want to know more about how moving image collections are processed and what happens in the motion picture preservation lab, check our our video, Out of the Dark: Bringing Films to Light at the National Archives.


2 thoughts on “What Would You Do If 40 Tons of Records Arrived on Your Doorstep?

  1. Thank you for posting this valuable info.
    I hope this archive becomes accessible soon. I am especially interested to know all the areas covered. For instance, could there be material from the uss mobile’s commission during wwll or oceanliner passengers during this time.
    I look forward to the timely success of this project.
    Thanks again.

    1. Dear Ms. Viverito,
      Thank you for your comment.

      NARA’s holdings of US military films date from the World War I era. Currently, DVIC holdings include films created from the World War II era through the early 1990s.

      I did not see any specific references to films about the USS Mobile (CL-63) in our catalog, although we do have films regarding shipbuilding at Newport News from the WW II era. Please feel feel to contact me directly at carol.swain@nara.gov, and I can assist you in your research.

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