|Volunteer John Raines working with reels of magnetic audiotape at the GLBT Historical Society archives.|
The archives of the GLBT Historical Society include extensive recordings of the sights and sounds of GLBT life from the past 75 years -- yet much of this material has been inaccessible due to its fragility and the challenges involved in coverting it to digital formats. Enter John Raines, who formerly worked as a producer and on-air talent in radio and television and who later had a career in software and database design.
John now specializes in preservation and remastering of analog media at his studio in Oakland, Calif. -- and since 2009, he has devoted his volunteer time and skills to identifying, preserving and making digital conversions of the analog recordings at the Historical Society. He recently took a few minutes away from the boxes of open-reel video he's currently working on to give History Happens a peek into this little-known part of the archives.
What's the range of historic audio and video recordings have you discovered in the archives?
We have material ranging from phono records and amateur film from the 1940s to professional videocassettes from the 1990s, and on to CDs and DVDs. Casual recordings, hobbyist efforts, a lot of raw footage from pro and semi-pro productions. Some of the recordings are very personal in nature while others cover landmark events such as the Gay Games. I have encountered eight moving picture formats and six audio formats.
Have you made any particularly surprising finds?
Celebrities do turn up from time to time: Harvey Milk talking about the Castro Street Fair in 1976, raw takes of Sylvester recording a music video, Carol Channing putting together an AIDS PSA, Wayland Flowers and Madame on a gay cruise in 1987. We have the entire collection of raw footage for a documentary on the late African American filmmaker Marlon Riggs. We also have home movies of drag shows in North Beach in the 1950s and early 1960s, as well as coverage of the first International Ms. Leather contest in 1987. Some of the coolest material comes from the 1970s: a radio ad for a gay bathhouse, as well as documentaries on Gay Freedom Day and the early Metropolitan Community Church.
What is the Historical Society doing to make its audio and video holdings more widely available?
Two complete audio collections comprising about 300 hours of material can be searched and downloaded via the Gayback Machine on the Historical Society website. Video is more challenging to distribute due to much higher storage and bandwidth requirements. But every second of everything I've converted can be searched and previewed in the reading room at the archives -- and arrangements can be made for digital copies.
Why is it important to preserve these kinds of materials?
Firstly because audiovisual media do not have the longevity of paper. Much of our magnetic tape already requires special treatment before it can be played, and in a few more years, it may not be salvageable at all. Secondly our media have the unique property of bringing history to life in sound and moving pictures. This kind of impact is very useful for researchers working on film, TV, radio and multimedia projects -- and is vital to bringing our museum displays and special presentations to life.