Archival Ingenuity Saves Mold-Ridden Testimonies from Oblivion

Tue, 08/18/2020 - 2:47pm

Alan Auyeung pulled on a pair of latex gloves and a N95 face mask. For good measure, he placed a pair of protective goggles over his eyes too. A trip to the supermarket? In these Covid-19 times, it could have been but, in fact, Auyeung was preparing for a task of quite a different nature: saving the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, whose eye witness accounts of Nazi atrocities were at risk of being eaten away by mold.

While the pandemic has caused so much work around the world to come to a standstill, Auyeung--a video archivist and post-production specialist at USC Shoah Foundation’s Information Technology Services (ITS)—hasn’t let it interrupt his quest to ensure that survivors’ stories are not lost. Complying with recommended safety procedures for mold removal, Auyeung donned personal protective gear and dove in.

The testimonies, which were originally produced in the 1980s by an outside organization and brought to USC Shoah Foundation for digitization, were recorded on U-matic tapes. “This format is long obsolete so not only are the tapes decaying but the machines that play them back are decaying as well,” says Ryan Fenton-Strauss, USC Shoah Foundation ITS’s video archive and post production manager. “The window for digitizing them is closing.”

When Auyeung opened the first box of 16 testimonies (there are close to 300 in total), it was clear he had his work cut out for him. As the housings were opened, they revealed white patches of mold lying on top of the reels. “The mold has the potential to cause the tapes to deteriorate and it’s a health hazard,” says Auyeung. “If we were to run the tapes through the machines in our office without removing it first, the mold could disperse into the air where people could breathe it in.”

Cleaning the testimonies requires many steps, a process that goes something like this:

Donning his protective gear and using a toothbrush dipped in a cleaning solution of 60 percent bleach and 40 percent water, Auyeung gently scrubs the outside of the tape while it’s still wound around the reel. “It sounds harsh but we found that as long as we don’t apply too much bleach solution, it doesn’t damage the tape,” he says. After the first round of cleaning, the tape is placed in a tape player, fast forwarded and rewound, then the heads of the machine are cleaned to get rid of any mold and dirt they caught during the process. Next, Auyeung runs the tape through the machine again, this time lightly holding a solution-soaked wipe against the tape as it moves to manually remove debris. Depending on the result, he may repeat the procedure once or twice.

And there’s more. The cleaning also includes disinfecting every crevice in the tape housing with the bleach solution, then packing it with silica gel packets (like the kinds used to keep foods like seaweed fresh) to remove all trace of moisture. Finally, the tape is placed in a UV light box for 4 to 6 hours, which functions as a germicide, killing any remaining mold.

Once a tape has been cleaned, it’s ready for migration to a digital format, ensuring that what might have been lost will now be available to help further our understanding of genocide. “A lot of that is thanks to Alan,” says Fenton-Strauss, “who stepped up to do this dirty work in the middle of pandemic.”

Daryn Eller