Digitizing Oral Histories on VHS

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Over the last several months we have been working toward expanding the formats we are able to digitize in order to preserve and improve access to oral histories recorded on video tape. Our VHS digitization station is now up and running at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

University of Manitoba Historian David Churchill‘s oral history interviews, conducted with gay men in Toronto in 1991, are the first batch of tapes we are working on. Churchill interviewed key figures in post-war and early gay liberation-era activism in Canada, including Peter Zorzi, Charlie Dobie, David Overbee, Philip McLeod, and George Hislop. These long-form oral histories tell stories that have formed the basis of some of Churchill’s published research, but the tapes still leave much to be discovered by viewers.

Screen capture of VHS digitizing software in use at Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Digitizing David Churchill’s oral history interview with George Hislop, 1991.

Recorded more than 25 years ago, these VHS tapes have degraded quite significantly since they were made. In particular, the tapes showed many dropped frames, a state that makes digitization difficult. Here’s why: when a VCR detects a dropped frame, the machine replaces the lost visual data with a blue or green screen; however, the digitized file simply does not record the dropped frame—skipping it, as it were. As these damaged frames are dropped, the undamaged audio tracks stays consistent, and so over the course of a video, the stable, undamaged audio becomes out of sync with the video track, which is “losing time.” In order to stabilize the video signal and “fix” these dropped frames, we’re using a piece of equipment called a Time Base Corrector. This machine replaces dropped frames by duplicating adjacent frames, creating a steady video signal that stays more-or-less in sync with the audio, except in cases of very heavy damage to tape.

We’ve had a lot of help from the community archives world in developing this system, in particular, the volunteers at New York City’s XFR Collective have been really helpful in guiding us through solving the dropped-frames problem. They have several resources on their site for community archives seeking to do this kind of digitization work, and they’re very helpful if you reach out with specific questions.

In the spirit of sharing what we’ve learned, here is a list of the equipment and software that makes up our “rack”:

1) Sony SLV-N50 VCR (we could use a better machine but this will do for now and costs about $100. Better machines can be had in the $400 range–this guide on professional-grade VCRs for digitizing is helpful)

2) Black Magic Infinity Shuttle (converts analog signal from VCR to digital signal)  (about $300)

3) AVT-8710 Time Base Corrector (stabilizes video signal from VCR to shuttle) ( about $300)

4) Media Express (free software that comes bundled with Infinity Shuttle)

5) iMac (any machine fast enough for video-editing functions will work here)

5) Two RCA cables and one USB cable

Over the next few weeks we will be putting together a workflow guide on how to use this equipment, which we’ll post on the site for others to read and adapt to their own needs. We are also working on seeking permissions with Prof. Churchill and his narrators to see if it might be possible to put some of the interview online, through the CLGA’s digital collections site.