The National Video Preservation Center - A Brief Overview

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"While hieroglyphs on a clay tablet or an obelisk have been readable for a millennium, information on today's most prevalent media lasts but a few decades. "

Video technology has advanced with a speed unprecedented in the history of imaging art. In twenty years, the technical and aesthetic development in video equals many decades of changes in painting, photography, and even film. These changes have increased creative choices for video artists, but they have also made video art fragile and temporal. For example, open reel 1 / 2" portapaks, the equipment used to create significant video documentaries and artwork during the "handheld" revolution in the 1970s, have been out of use for fifteen years. The tape used in those machines has collected contaminants on its surface, and without cleaning, playback, much less preservation, is impossible.


All past efforts at video preservation have been implemented by archiving institutions. In this best case, that is, when there has been a well funded budget for preservation, this has meant that tapes have been cleaned transferred and at commercial facilities. These transfers are very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars an hour. In most cases however, these institutions have used the equipment of "video activists" and have relied on well-meaning, low-tech solutions with uneven, often unsatisfactory results.

BAVC's plan proposes the solution that all interested parties believe is the next appropriate step: BAVC will establish a professionally equipped nonprofit preservation unit in our facility where trained technicians will be responsible for transferring archival material to superior archival formats. The result will be a national service offering high-quality inexpensive cleaning and transferring to museums and nonprofit institutions, that also can be accessible to artists. Also important is BAVC's long history giving foundations confidence that their grant support in media arts goes a long way because of our noncommercial facility rates.

The activities of BAVC's video preservation proposal consists of two key services. First, BAVC will house, staff and equip a cleaning and transfer center that will concentrate primarily on transferring open reel 1 / 2" works to D2 or Betacam SP tape formats, while also providing cleaning and transfer capabilities for 3/4" and 1", formats that are prevalent in contemporary productions but are clearly waning in use. (Videodisc premastering will also be available.) Secondly, BAVC will act as an educator through workshops and information-sharing on the technical aspects of preserving videotape.

BAVC has sixteen years experience in noncommercial production and post-production and can accommodate a preservation program both administratively and technically. Because BAVC's mission has been to provide state-of-the art equipment to independent producers, unlike a museum, BAVC already has inhouse much of high-end equipment necessary to make the transfers for archiving. Equally importantly, as staff of a non-profit media arts center, BAVC facility engineers and technicians are sensitive to experimental video in a way commercial engineers are not. In addition, video preservation is not a traditionally commercial venture, and so commercial houses are more interested in marketing new tape formats, not cleaning and transferring obsolete tape formats.

BAVC has the staff and expertise to integrate a preservation center into its facility but will also use experts from the field when it is appropriate. For example, BAVC, working with an engineering firm, High Peak Engineering, will design and install a preservation facility. Working with High Peak, we are guaranteed of having guidance in acquiring the appropriate equipment and also a professional installation of that equipment.


Hundreds of hours of open reel 1 / 2" videotapes are stored in the great modern art museums of the world. Thousands more are being stored by video makers, media arts centers, distributors and television facilities. To restore any of these tapes takes precision cleaning equipment, open reel tape machines that work and an organization with the expertise and equipment to transfer material to an appropriate archival format. The need for preservation is immediate. Open reel 1 / 2" tape machines and parts haven't been manufactured in over ten years and are becoming difficult to find. Open reel 1 / 2" tapes will continue to deteriorate. Unless a preservation center is established now, tapes made only fifteen years ago will in five years be lost forever.

While major art and broadcast institutions are preserving what they can of broadcast news events and popular television such as 1 Love Lucy shows, countless tapes are disappearing because they are outside the realm of mainstream programming. With the media art field's current lack of preservation centers, only a few tapes at a time can be afforded the privilege of being revived and archived by institutions such as museums. These tapes, no matter how carefully selected, cannot represent the diverse artistic visions recorded on video in the last twenty years. If the tape no longer exists, the art is lost. For an artist working in a medium that does not have the shelf life of Vincent Van Gogh's canvas, reevaluation by future generations of art historians and critics will be out of the question.

Today, we are in danger of losing video art and experimental video created by the earliest makers. The challenge of preserving early video is a key issue for the art world, but the importance of this work is recognized in fields as diverse as social history, science and technology, and communication. These early video works document culture, experiment with new forms of storytelling, illuminate communities and issues often distorted or altogether ignored. They are recordings that must be saved.


There is no nonprofit facility available now that has the expertise and equipment BAVC is proposing. BAVC's preservation facility would serve a national video preservation need.


Finding the Equipment
BAVC has already researched and identified sources for all of the equipment. Recordtech, a Silicon Valley engineering firm, custom builds tape cleaning equipment for every tape format. Clients of Recordtech include all the major television networks as well as NASA and the different branches of the military.

We have released an open call in video technical magazines and media arts journals, and in our own Video Networks. Using the Book, Access, Film and Video Equipment: A Directory (AFI: 1978), we have identified access centers and individuals that still own 1 / 2" open reel equipment. Finally, we are working with the American Association of Moving Image Archivists to locate out-of-stock equipment. All other budgeted equipment is stock.

Cleaning the Tape
The BAVC Video Preservation Project would provide subsidized access to transfer equipment (using the same democratic structure of BAVC's current equipment access program) to all independent video artists and producers and non-profit institutions needing the service. Second, BAVC will provide producers with the latest information and training allowing them to transfer their own works, or in the case of difficult transfers, providing them with a sensitive and trained engineer/ operator.

The cleaning of the tapes will incorporate precision cleaning machines built by Recordtech. These machines adapt to a variety of cleaning needs. For tapes in good condition with only surface contaminants the device scrapes the contaminants off the tape at high speeds without removing the magnetic film. For more problematic tapes, the equipment can be adjusted for applying cleaning solvent.

Once the tapes are cleaned, they will be transferred using the reconditioned tape decks. The signal will be processed through a Prime Image Time Base Corrector. This is significant in that the engineer who designed Prime Images' TBC is an industry pioneer, and his equipment has a high tolerance for all video signals.

The archiving medium will be either Betacam SP or D2. While Betacam SP is an analog signal, it is acceptable for archiving because of its superior quality. D2, a digital format, is very stable and is currently the best format for archiving.

BAVC will act as an educator through workshops and information sharing on videotape preservation. BAVC's educational program, offering over 200 workshops per year, will feature preservation classes that will focus on the technical aspects of cleaning and transferring old format tapes. BAVC will offer seminars that can be given in conference settings, and will act as a consultant to institutions and individuals. BAVC will document its findings and publish them through our journal, Video Networks and other appropriate video magazines and newsletters. BAVC will collaborate with Pacific Film Archives (PFA) to present conferences, panels and workshops on cataloguing, archiving, storing and interarchival borrowing.

BAVC's Video Preservation Project will work with the PFA to archive and exhibit tapes. The Berkeley-based PFA has been exhibiting international film and video since 1970. Along with daily exhibitions, PFA offers a library of over 5,000 films, and research and screening facilities that are open to the public. Together, BAVC and PFA are ideal collaborators on such a project. By working hand-in-hand with the PFA, BAVC will help the producers find appropriate archiving institutions for works transferred. BAVC and PFA will cooperate as part of a national system in order to avoid redundancy of effort in the field of preservation. Building and working with a national network of archives will facilitate interarchival borrowing of works.


I. Research and Needs Identification
Since 1989 BAVC has been getting an increasing number of phone and general inquiries about the possibilities for transferring open reel 1 / 2" tapes to currents formats. Since that time BAVC staff has been researching video preservation activities. During this phase we have spoken to independent artists as well as institutions. This research has led to the identification of not only open reel 1 / 2" preservation needs, but also 3/4" and 1". While the bulk of BAVC's research and analysis has been completed before this proposal, this phase will be ongoing.
Key Personnel: Sally Fifer, Executive Director (BAVC); Luke Hones, Program Director (BAVC)

II. Outreach into Media Community
BAVC has just formally begun to advertise in Video Networks and other media publications for information and donations. These efforts have already brought responses from The Museum of Modern Art, The San Francisco Public Library, Intermedia Arts, The Association of Moving Image Archivists, the Performing Arts Museum and man individual artists. The early respondents will not only help us in getting parts but will also give us our first clients. This phase will be ongoing.
Key Personnel: Luke Hones, Program Director (BAVC)

III. Purchase and Installation of Equipment
Once this phase of BAVC's plans is funded, we will work with our contacts in the media arts field and our vendors in the video industry to assemble the equipment listed in our budget. High Peak Engineering will design and install the equipment, guaranteeing BAVC and the media arts field a profession environment in which to recover these early video documents.

Key Personnel: Kirk Schroeder, Facility Manager (BAVC); Luke Hones, Program Director (BAVC); Sam Spooner, Engineer (High Peak); Fred Bassett, Engineer (High Peak)

IV. Education of the Field
BAVC is proposing a center that will be the first of its kind in the media arts field, and so our experiences will be of interest to the field at large. Our experiences and the experiences of others who have worked on video preservation will help us design seminars and workshops which will meet specific needs. This phase will be ongoing.
Key Personnel: Leanne Lempinen, Education Coordinator (BAVC); Luke Hones, Program Director (BAVC); Steve Seid, Curator (PFA)

V. Archiving and Exhibition of Recovered Video
This phase is most appropriate for BAVC's media arts partner, the PFA. PFA will work with BAVC to use existing and proposed alliances of archival institutions to store and market the recovered tapes. The resurrection of this early video material is certain to generate great interest and will find itself in the PFA's programming.
Key Personnel: Steve Seid, Curator (PFA); Luke Hones, Program Director (BAVC)

VI. Evaluation and Correction
Throughout this process we will continually evaluate the effect of our actions and correct any errors. This process is similar to the same types of evaluations and corrections that we undergo day to day in our video facility. These include administrative, operational and financial evaluations, as well as client and user evaluations.
Key Personnel: Sally Fifer, Executive Director (BAVC)


The Preservation Facility was launched in 1993 as announced in a press release by BAVC on December 22, 1993. It was supported in part by the San Francisco Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation.

Group Name: 
Bay Area Video Coalition National Video Preservation Center
Group Dates: 
1993 - present
Group Location: 
Bay Area Video Coalition, San Francisco, CA