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Jen Sidley and a rack of VHS ready for injest
Jen and a "small" order of tapes ready for injest

At the Packard Campus: Jen and the Robots!

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At the Library of Congress, Jen Sidley manages the robots.  It may not be as “Star Wars” as it sounds but it is quite interesting.

Jen has been with the Library of Congress, and the Packard Campus for Audiovisual Conservation, for over 13 years.  She began as a Library Technician but for the past three years or so she has had the title of Robotics Transfer Operator.

It is her job to see to the digitization of videotapes i.e. the transfer of videotape from a physical source into a digital file.

But, first, some background….

Over the decades, the Library has assumed, collected, acquired hundreds of thousands of videotapes.  They have arrived at the LC on a variety of videotape formats—VHS, ¾” U-matic, Betacam and Digital Betacam.

As you probably know, VHS and, in fact, all video tape is becoming a pretty much extinct type of media.  Hence, the LC needs to transfer these items into a digital form not only for long-term preservation but also for easy sharing and viewing.

Four SAMMA robots in the Video Preservation. They don’t look like much, but they get a lot done.

There are four robots at the Library of Congress designated for this task, for the task of mass digitization.  There are two robots for VHS tapes, one for U-matic tapes and one for Betacam tapes.  Jen oversees two of the robots; a colleague of hers handles the other two.

Before they come to Jen, the Curator of the Moving Image Division picks the items to digitize and then sends those orders up to Jen.  Each order could include anywhere from 300 to 400 tapes.  She then pulls the tapes from the vaults and then preps each tape for the transfer process.  This includes putting barcodes on all items so that that item can be linked back to their cataloging record.  After this step, she’ll put them into the robot.

Tapes loaded into a 4-sided carousel inside the robot

During the digitization process, two files are created for each videotape.  One is a  JPEG2000 for preservation; the other is an MPEG-4 for access.  The latter MPEG-4 is the one that can watched at the LC by researchers so that, that way, the actual physical artifact of the tape does not have to be handled by person or player.

After the digitization is complete, Jen then has to do a quality control check on each of the new files.  She has to make sure that the new file will play and that the transfer is clean and complete.  Additionally, an automated QC process checks file headers, and creates check-sums to ensure the long term viability of the file in the archive.

How many tapes are digitized per day depends, logically enough, on how long a tape might be.  Tapes are transferred in real time so a 60-minute program needs 60 minutes to be transferred.

In a perfect world, of course, all the tapes would transfer perfectly and smoothly.  But that is not always the case—after all, we are working with very dated formats. Hence, within that the hundreds of robotic digitizations that happen per day, there are probably going to be a few that, as Jen puts it, require “some TLC, some one-on-one attention.”  This might require an adjustment in the tracking
or cleaning of the deck.  The robots are equipped to transfer NTSC (US broadcast standard) only, so PAL or SECAM (common overseas standards) tapes need a different playback machine. Sometimes, again because the technology is outdated, did the tape break? Is it deteriorating? Then a an engineer will be assigned to resolve the issue and attempt another transfer, although not through the robots. There are very few tapes that the video lab can’t digitized and create usable files from!

Ultimately, another attempt will be made, although not through the robots, for that tape to be transferred/digitized and a usable file to be generated.

Back of the robot. The black box to the right holds a mechanical arm and barcode scanner. The four heavy-duty VHS decks sit under the carousel. The silver box on the right is the computer that runs the whole thing. And I’ll let you guess what the big red button is for.

Right now, Jen is working her way through the various incarnations of the “CSI” show (delivered on Betacam SP).  As she handles a lot of VHS tapes (the former go-to format for the home market), she sees a lot of educational videos and instructional videos come across her desk.  She’s become quite familiar with the programming from both the Discovery Channel and Nat Geo.

Due to the vastness of the material that she handles, Jen never knows what she’s going to get.  Some of her more unique “finds” include an occupational safety videotapes featuring William Shatner and installments of the 1990s Nickelodeon (via Canada) series “Fifteen” that starred a very young Ryan Reynolds.

One of her favorite tasks was when she saw to the preservation of Ellen’s 1997 coming out episode from the “Ellen” show.  She says, “It’s hard to find a single episode of television that has had such a cultural impact. I’m proud and honored to have preserved it for the Library.”

Except for the occasional technical hiccup, the robots work.  (And work, and work….)  Thousands of hours of programming are digitized every year.  They are made to endure.  But they endure, in fact, exist at all, only because of the efforts of the creative people at the start and dedicated Library staff they encounter along the way.


For more information related to this blog or any Library of Congress holdings, please see Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.





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