by Ronda L. Sewald, Archivist, Indiana University Black Film Center/Archive
Obsolescent media generally proves to be an unpleasant obstacle when working with archival patrons. The professional equipment needed for playing back VHS, let alone formats such as open reel video, has become next to impossible for individual archives to obtain and keep operational. In addition, the limited descriptive information provided by the original creators can make it difficult to determine the content of a tape. This often results in a Catch-22: how do archivists verify what is on a tape without digitizing it and how do they know whether it’s worth the often high cost of digitization without really knowing what’s on it?
Much of this dilemma has been resolved by Indiana University’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI), and the Black Film Center/Archive’s patrons are already reaping the benefits. In January 2015, award-winning African-American broadcast journalist Belva Davis and photojournalist Bill Moore donated their footage from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame (BFHFI) Archives to the BFC/A. From 1974-2003, the BFHFI acknowledged, supported, and inspired thousands of African American filmmakers and artists and hosted hundreds of events. Its inductees and awardees included figures such as Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Spike Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., Danny Glover, Maya Angelou, Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, and many others. The U-matics, Betacams, and open reel video in Davis and Moore’s collection document nearly thirty years of the BFHFI’s Oscar Micheaux Awards Ceremony and outreach events.
Upon receipt, the tapes were quickly processed by the BFC/A staff and sent off to MDPI for digitization. The turnaround from donation to digitization used to take many years if it happened at all. When Moore and Davis paid a visit to IU in May 2016, they were delighted to find that we could already stream much of their material for them, some of which they had lacked the means to play themselves for decades. Through MDPI, we were able to demonstrate IU’s commitment to the preservation of their donation and the BFHFI’s legacy. They also were delighted by MDPI’s facilities, the Auxiliary Library Facility, the IU Media School, and listening to the Archive of African American Music and Culture’s new podcast series, the Golden Age of Black Radio.
More recently, MDPI and the recordings donated by Davis and Moore from the BFHFI Archives laid the groundwork for another magical afternoon. Filmmaker Julie Dash visited the Indiana University campus from December 8th-10th 2016 to participate in a series of events related to the premiere screening of the 25th Anniversary Restoration of her landmark film, Daughters of the Dust at the IU Cinema. On the first afternoon, Julie joined the BFC/A staff to view the footage of her receiving the BFHFI’s International Black Independent Film, Video & Screenplay Competition Best Film award for Daughters of the Dust during the 1992 Oscar Micheaux Awards Ceremony. The screening touched not only Julie, who expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to relive the memory and to reminisce about friends she hadn’t seen in many years (some now deceased), but also a number of graduate students who had been unaware of the BFHFI’s activities and its importance.
In addition to helping us strengthen our relationships with donors and visiting filmmakers, the work done by MDPI has proven valuable for supporting classroom pedagogy, providing scholars and filmmakers with research and production materials, and pitching projects by documentary filmmakers and film score composers. Given that the cataloging and user interfaces are still in the initial stages of development, it will be exciting to see what future opportunities MDPI has in store for both audiovisual archives and their patrons.