Plans in Place for Digitization of Historic Arkansas Videotapes

by Joanna Kauffmann  on Monday, Nov. 29, 2010 12:00 am  

After learning that KARK-TV, Channel 4, had gotten rid of their film archives U.S. Sen. David Pryor could looked to a different station to find a collection of the state's most important events: KATV-TV, Channel 7.

There, Pryor found a collection of videotapes that Tom Dillard, the head of special collections at the University of Arkansas Libraries, referred to as the "King Tut's tomb of Arkansas history."

Pryor and his wife, Barbara, had always been interested in Arkansas history, and in 1999 the couple donated retired campaign funds to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which led to the creation of the David & Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral & Visual History. From the beginning, the main goal of the Pryor Center has been to document the cultural history of Arkansans, and a news station's broadcast archives seemed like the perfect way to do that.

"Pryor was dismayed to find out that Channel 4 had dumped all their old film," said Kris Katrosh, the director of the Pryor Center. "He began to pursue a way to permanently save the Channel 7 archive."

Katrosh joined in that pursuit when he was brought on as director in January 2007. "I immediately began working with David and Barbara to try to find a way to get the Channel 7 archive donated to the center," he said. Katrosh and the Pryors worked with Randy Dixon, news director at KATV, and Dale Nicholson, president of KATV, to try to broker the donation.

After years of negotiations among the University of Arkansas, KATV and the station's parent company, Allbritton Communications Co. of Virginia, an agreement was reached.

In May 2009, Nicholson announced a partnership with the Pryor Center in which the station would donate its video archives, known as the KATV Master Cassette Recording Library, and the Pryor Center would be responsible for undertaking the digitization and preservation of the collection. A ceremony was hosted by Sen. Mark Pryor, David and Barbara Pryor's son, in July 2009 in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the station's donation, with members of the Pryor family and the Allbritton family in attendance. 



The formation of the KATV collection began in 1961, when Jim Pitcock, news director at the station, began to build an archive of local newscasts. Today, the collection contains literally years of film and video footage of Arkansas history, dating back five decades and including such events as Elvis Presley's haircut at Fort Chaffee and the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock.

The station has accumulated broadcasts that provide a broad and varied look at the state: sportscaster Bud Campbell interviewing Frank Broyles, Sam Walton's introduction to the Arkansas public, Bill Clinton's appearance on the political scene.

Many of the older tapes are nearing the end of their lifespan, however, making it even more important for the Pryor Center to begin conserving the content of the tapes. The center is in a good position to make such a project possible, in part because of a gift it received five years ago from a family that is very much a part of Arkansas history.

"In 2005, the Pryor Center received a donation of $2 million from the Tyson family," said Katrosh. This gift allowed the center to add to its facility much of the equipment that will be put to use in the preservation of the KATV archive. The money enabled the Pryor Center to purchase high-definition video field recording equipment, to add a digital archive and to hire additional staff.

The next step in the process of preserving the KATV archives is to build a digitization program and storage system that is designed specifically for the transfer of analog videotapes, like those in the KATV collection, to digital files. The goal of the center, Katrosh said, is to convert all the tapes to digital files so that they can be shared online.

The center is considering setting up a separate website specifically for the KATV collection, but its own website will be "the portal to [the collection] if not the direct access." Once the tapes have been digitized, Katrosh hopes that they will be viewed online, not only by those in Arkansas, but worldwide.

Most of the footage has not been available to the public since it was first collected, and many who view it online will be seeing it for the first time, which is one of the things that most excites Katrosh about the project.

"I think with any archive you think that researchers and historians will be interested," Katrosh said. "We're trying to make it much more available and useful." Katrosh said that he believes students and teachers will be interested in making use of the digitized archives, and that the center also hopes to be able to convert some of the historical material into lesson plans. "We want the public to use it," he said.


Raising Money

Currently, the Pryor Center is raising money for the digitization process, which has not yet begun. According to Katrosh, digitizing the KATV archives will cost between $3 million and $5 million, and the University of Arkansas is seeking donors to help fund the project. In a press release announcing KATV's donation, Katrosh said, "It is crucial this collection be preserved as soon as possible, before this history is lost forever."

Until the money can be raised, however, the archives are being kept in a safe place, to ensure the current quality of the tapes remains intact and that they do not continue to deteriorate.

On Aug. 25, the Pryor Center held a press conference at the Arkansas State Library to announce that the tapes would be moved from their current spot at KATV's Little Rock station to a new home within the library, in a basement storage room.

According to Katrosh, at KATV the tapes were being kept in a basement area, where they were exposed to changes in temperature and water leaks from the ceiling, which had caused deterioration. "When the air is not moving and the humidity is going up and down and there's water in there, that can really cause mold on the tapes," Katrosh said. "It was pretty bad."

The Pryor Center began looking for a new place to store the archives. "We were looking for a place to put them that was inexpensive but appropriate," Katrosh said.

Archie Schaffer, senior vice president of external relations at Tyson Foods and a member of the Pryor Center's advisory board, suggested the State Library as a better location for the tapes to be stored. "He mentioned that the State Library had just been remodeled," Katrosh said of Schaffer. "That prompted us to call over there and seek a meeting."

That meeting was with Carolyn Ashcraft, the state librarian, who said that the call from the Pryor Center was "the right call at the right time," before all of the library's basement storage shelves had been claimed.

The library facility is a controlled air environment, where the tapes will be safe from any possibility of water damage. "Unless it's the flood of the century, this room should be safe," Ashcraft said of the basement storage area.

The majority of the 24,000 videotapes are being stored in chronological order on the shelving that the library has provided, with about 1,500 being kept in boxes in the library basement. The tapes have been moved from KATV in several trips, with the final tapes being transferred to the library on Nov. 20 and 21. KATV has unlimited access to the library's basement so that it can pull tapes from the collection as needed.

The agreement between the Pryor Center and the library is for two years of free storage, in which time Katrosh hopes that the Pryor Center will be able to raise the money for digitization. "Once we do have the money to do that, then we'll pull all those out of the basement and get them digitized," he said, though he added that the Pryor Center had no firm idea of when that would be.

Katrosh hopes that the center will be able to begin digitizing all the tapes at the same time, in which case, he said, "we could get them all digitized in about a year, using multiple machines running 24/7." If that is not possible, Katrosh said, the Pryor Center would start digitizing the oldest tapes first, to have a better chance at preserving their content.



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