Digitizing Virginia Public Media: An On-the-Ground Report from PBPF Fellow Nancy Paulette

Hello, everybody! Thanks for stopping by. I’m Nancy Paulette, a Master of Library and Information Studies student at the University of Alabama, and I’ll be your Public Broadcasting Preservation Fellow for this post, where you’ll get to read all about my experience working to help VPM digitize some of their substantial collection.

VPM, “Virginia’s home for public media” (formally WCVE), has been operating for more than 50 years in central Virginia. Located in Richmond, the state’s capital, VPM’s broadcasts reach across the state, reaching near the borders of both North Carolina and West Virginia. VPM has produced a wide variety of high-quality programs over the years, and they were eager for us to on work on digitizing the best of it.

Oh, yes, I did say “us.” VPM had not one, but two Fellows working on their collection: Ben Steck and myself. (You can find Ben’s experience in another post.) Ben was a fantastic partner and made the entire process infinitely better. 10/10, A+, would recommend.

The Collection

VPM’s collection offers a variety of programs, but certain themes emerge. Politics is a major theme in the collection. There’s the series From Our Archives, which looks back on major players in the state in the 1960s and ’70s. There are also dozens of episodes of For the Record, which features one-on-one conversations with politicians, historians, and other notables in the 1990s and 2000s. There are also addresses to the Virginia General Assembly and election coverage.

Another highlight are the documentaries about Virginia in general and Richmond in particular. I particularly enjoyed the Richmond documentaries; not having grown up in the region, I got a great sense of the place and culture through the Richmond Memories programs.

There are also programs about historical figures like Thomas Jefferson or Adolf Hitler, and documentaries and programs about architecture, suburban sprawl, and even horses and their role in making the United States of America possible. It’s an interesting and occasionally eclectic mix of programs.

The Process

For our purposes, there were about 9 two-sided bays, each with twelve shelves per side, and each shelf holding a maximum of about 27 tapes. Photo by Ben Steck.

The basic process for digitizing the tapes from the VPM archives was fairly straightforward. Retrieve the tapes from the library. Capture tape content from the video player onto the computer with vrecord. Take notes for later cataloging. Return tapes to the library. Rinse and repeat.

Just because the process was basic doesn’t mean it was all smooth sailing. There were definitely hiccups along the way. For instance, sometimes the tapes would cause the video player heads to get dirty, which would create interference with the capture. By the time this happened to me, we’d already gotten a head cleaning tape to use. Which was something of a godsend, really. When it happened to me, it was just over halfway through a 90-minute tape. Once I’d stopped the first capture and cleaned the tape heads, I had a decision to make: do I start over, or do I start from about where I left off and edit the pieces together later? I decided to stitch the pieces together.

A view of our work area, with the monitor on the left, the DigiBeta tape deck on the bottom of the tower at the right, and the computer, where the magic happens, in the middle. Photo by Ben Steck.

Editing the captures together, however, was not as easy as I thought it would be. During our immersion training, they had mentioned using Adobe Premiere to edit captures together. I don’t personally have Premiere, but I have other video editing software, and I figured I could use one of those. Unfortunately, between different operating systems and having more consumer-grade than professional-grade editing programs, I couldn’t get things to work. However, in looking for a solution, I found an open-source program called LosslessCut, which I found worked… for the most part. I think it had a hard time processing the video in real time, so I couldn’t see exactly where I was cutting. That meant that I would piece together my captures in a way that I thought would work, run the program to combine them, and then check to see if the seam was invisible. It took many tries to hide the seams, but I eventually did. It just took time and patience. Lots and lots of patience, and needing to trim two or three frames off a file many, many times.

The other major complication came when I upgraded my laptop’s operating system, which broke vrecord. Needless to say, I panicked. I tried to fix it and got nowhere. I used a different, not ideal program to capture the videos anyway. I later tried to fix it and got further along, but vrecord still didn’t want to capture anything properly. I used my just-enough-to-be-dangerous coding and scripting knowledge (or awareness, really) to look at vrecord’s script and see where the error was coming in. Reader, it was all down to where a font was stored. Such a little thing to cause such suffering! I got it working, though, which is what ultimately matters.

All things considered, working on VPM’s collection was a fantastic experience. I learned about video preservation and got some hands-on experience cataloging. I’ve had a hand in preserving media, which means I’m walking the walk I’ve thought about for years. And I got to work with some really cool folks, from my PBPF partner Ben, to VPM’s Janet Campbell (who does so much), to the amazing folks at WGBH like Rebecca Fraimow and Miranda Villesvik (who weren’t scared off by all my questions). 10/10, A+, would fellowship again.

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