UW News

November 17, 2005

Reel history: Library curator restoring vintage films

Deep in the bowels of Allen Library is a treasure trove in the process of being discovered. A collection of films that has, for the most part, lain dormant for years is slowly being processed and made accessible to the public.

The UW owns approximately 3,000 to 5,000 films, most of them donated, according to Nicolette Bromberg, curator of visual materials for the UW Libraries. They come in a variety of formats — 35 millimeter, 16 millimeter, 8 millimeter and Super 8 — and range from feature films to short instructional films to home movies. They have sat unused in the library largely because many were on obsolete formats that couldn’t be viewed and there was no funding to support any work on them.

There still isn’t any funding, Bromberg said, but in 2002, two years after she arrived at the library, she began writing grants, and has made some progress toward bringing the films to the public.

The project began when a student who wished to learn about working with historical films while on a practicum compiled a database of everything she could find in the film collection. Then Bromberg got a grant to begin working on the 16 millimeter films.

“We got what are called winds (pronounced with a long i),” she said. “You have two reels for the film and you wind it back and forth so that you can clean it. Then there’s a small screen called a Moviscop so it can be seen when it’s going through. That was our first ability to view these films.”

Archival processing means “cleaning, coring and canning,” Bromberg explained. The film is taken off its original reel and a new core is inserted. Then it is run through a cleaner and placed in a special, archival can that allows air flow. Finally, when funding allows, a digital master is made of each film and it’s transferred onto videotape to be viewed by patrons in the library (these films are not available for check out).

Hannah Palin, who does much of the hands-on film work, said viewing the films is “so much fun. It’s like being able to take a trip back in history, to see how people move and interact in the world. It’s so much more than a still photo.”

One of Palin’s favorite discoveries is the home movies made by Iwao Matsushita, who was a linguistics professor at the UW and taught the first Japanese language class here. Called “sweet and wonderful” by Palin, the films show family trips to Mount Rainier and shots of the professor’s cats (he called one of his films The House that Cats Built), but in a weird twist, they were confiscated by the FBI after Matsushita was sent to an internment camp during World War II.

The earliest film the library has was made in 1914 and shows about two minutes of a motorcycle race that was run in Tacoma. Bromberg said it has some importance because it was the first time a motorcycle race was run on that particular kind of track.

Other things in the collection include a 1939 tourist film called The Evergreen Empire, a film of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to Hanford, a view of the post World War II campus from a plane flying overhead, a 1944 instructional film, The Slide Rule, and a collection of film from experiments that Bromberg and Palin fondly call the Weird Science Collection.

Bromberg estimates that only 5 percent of the total collection has gone through archival processing. Her first two grants enabled her to buy equipment for 16 and 8 millimeter and Super 8 film. Another campus department passed along a Moviola, a piece of equipment which is used like the wind, but permits both viewing on a flatbed editor and hearing the sound.

In addition to transferring the fragile film to videotape for patron use, library staff have begun offering streaming video clips from the films online so that patrons can browse them while looking for materials.

Big as the task of bringing the UW’s collection up to speed is, Bromberg and her assistants are also reaching out to other institutions that have film collections, with the idea of one day creating a regional film archive. A grant a few years ago allowed Bromberg to do a survey of moving image materials in King County.

Her most recent grant is a collaborative 10-institution project under which she’ll be working on film from mostly small institutions that don’t have the capability of doing it themselves, such as the Highline Historical Society, the Sisters of Providence and the Everett Library.

“Most small institutions are just not equipped to do what we’re doing,” she said. “But as part of an earlier grant, we wrote a manual on low-cost and no-cost ways to take care of film collections. We’re also showing some of the people we’re working with now how to clean their own film.”

Palin hopes that as libraries make old films available, more people will come forward to donate what they have.

“There are amazing things that have been hidden in boxes and stuck into corners,” she said. “It’s really exciting to be able to bring those into the light and look at them.”

The UW’s film archive is located in the Special Collections division of UW Libraries. To learn more, visit online at http://www.lib.washington.edu/specialcoll/.