Chicago-based video archive receives $500K grant

Media Burn Archive was created 20 years ago as one of the first ever online video archives; now it's using a massive $500,000 grant to launch a new national project with other video collections.

Video Transcript

DAN ERDMAN: The easy way to explain how a tape goes from an image on a tape to a digital file-- essentially what you do is you run the feed from a deck, like a VHS deck. You would normally run that feed into your television monitor at home. But what you do instead is you run it into a computer, essentially, that then can take that analog signal and turn it into a digital signal. That's the easy way to explain it.

SARA CHAPMAN: So this is what shows were mastered on during, like, the 1990s, mostly.

The Media Burn Archive collects, produces, and distributes documentary video produced by artists, activists, and community groups. Our collection begins with the invention of videotape, so it starts around 1967 or so, and goes through the present. The guiding rules is really that it was made by, usually a person or a small group of people with a passion for telling other people about something that's important, and mostly was produced outside of corporate context, so very independent.

DAN ERDMAN: This is where I do most of my transfers. We've got a bunch of VHS here, but then we've got different things. We got Betacam up here, we got U-matics over here.

There's a lot of, like, mechanical tinkering around, and then you've got little scopes to make sure that you're getting your color right and to make sure that the image is not too bright, not too contrasty, and the darks are just dark enough, but not-- So there's a bunch of little things you do along the way as it goes from tape over here to digital file over here.

SARA CHAPMAN: We're incredibly excited to have received a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources. What it is going to do is going to take the work that we've been doing locally in Chicago to a national level. It's a partnership with six different institutions and together we are going to be digitizing more than 1,000 videotapes produced by a whole wide variety of people around the country whose work hasn't really been seen outside of their communities. It's going to be called the Gorilla Television Network.

DAN ERDMAN: This is a 1/2 inch OpenReel video. This is the stuff we're going to be dealing with a lot, specifically for this grant.

SARA CHAPMAN: There is so much media history that is just sitting in people's attics and basements and will be imminently lost. One thing that people don't realize is that videotape is very, very short-lived. And so all of those tapes that people have-- you know, in their basements, in boxes-- those tapes are not going to be playable for much longer. Really exciting work was done on videotape. We sort of elevate film in our society as an art form and think of video as maybe something else, but so much of our culture has been captured on video and television. And it's really important to me to find that material and save it before it's totally lost.