Institute News

USC Shoah Foundation Preserves Its History in Institutional Audio-Visual Collection

As the USC Shoah Foundation has gone about the business of preserving history through video testimony, it has also been quietly preserving another facet of history on videotape: its own. Now, in an effort to safeguard a narrative that began with the 1994 creation of the Foundation—originally known as the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation—Information Technology Services (ITS) has launched the process of digitizing the USC Shoah Foundation Institutional Audio-Visual Records. Last week, ITS ran the first of the videotapes through the digitizing robots. Only about 6,950 to go.

Many members of the Foundation’s original staff—not least of all, its founder Steven Spielberg—were filmmakers. Quite naturally then, they videotaped everything, from the very first staff meeting (during which young and eager employees sat on the floor because there wasn’t enough office furniture) to the interviewer training sessions held in countries all over the world to the 2006 press conference announcing that the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation would become part of USC.

Those videos will all be preserved within the Institutional Audio-Visual Collection, accessible to all staff, along with a rich trove of videos documenting news coverage of the Foundation and its mission; behind-the-scenes footage of staff and volunteers; coverage of teacher workshops, lectures, presentations, and celebratory events; plus trailers, dailies, and other elements of the documentary films produced by or in cooperation with USC Shoah Foundation.

As USC Shoah Foundation celebrates its 20th anniversary, the digitization project couldn’t have come sooner.

“Videotape has a lifespan of about 20 years, so getting this collection digitized quickly is critical,” said Ryan Fenton-Strauss, Video Archive and Post-Production Manager.

The tapes are in several formats, ranging from VHS to miniDV and digital betacam. Digitizing them involves a workflow similar to the one that was used to convert the testimony collection from tape to bytes and bits. First, batches of tapes are inserted into two robots, each capable of digitizing 60 tapes at a time. The robots then make three copies of each tape: a high-resolution JPEG2000 for preservation, an MPEG2 for creating future viewable copies, and a low-resolution MPEG4 for Internet viewing.

Next, Fenton-Strauss and his team check the digital copies’ quality.

“We use computer software to make sure that nothing was lost in the transfer, then we double check by actually looking at the digitized copies,” Fenton-Strauss said.

Finally, the digital files are archived to a storage disk—though that’s not like consigning them to a dusty attic. ITS keeps an eye on all digital copies, migrating them before any degradation can occur and as new technology develops.

As the videotapes are being digitized, they’re also being described in library records. Those records are then uploaded to a searchable online catalog for staff that not only allows users to obtain detailed information about the videos, but lets them actually view the digitized copies. That puts USC Shoah Foundation’s past right at staff and researchers’ present-day fingertips.

Building a system to safeguard vital testimony video was the original mission of USC Shoah Foundation ITS. Now the fruits of that labor are benefitting the Foundation as well: Its history will be preserved in perpetuity, too.