Among its vast array of artifacts, the Royal B.C. Museum holds the Webster! broadcast collection.
It’s now in cold storage. And the museum wants to make sure this invaluable peephole into social history doesn’t disintegrate.
The collection consists of videotapes of Jack Webster’s television show, in which the irascible Scottish-born journalist interviewed Canada’s movers and shakers. The Webster! collection was donated to the museum in 1987.
Originally broadcast from 1978 to 1987, Webster! boasts a whopping 1,150 episodes. The late Webster interviewed politicians, business titans, labour honchos, writers and entertainers.
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“He had everyone on his show. He had celebrities. Pierre Trudeau. First Nations leaders. He had people talking about pipelines on the show,” said David Alexander, head of the museum’s digital preservation department.
The problem is, videotape is fragile. It deteriorates over time. You can slow down the process by putting it in cold storage, but you can’t stop it.
With such fragile collections in mind, the museum’s new archives and digital preservation department was founded a year ago. It’s now digitizing the Webster! collection so it can be preserved and viewed by future generations.
Such a dedicated digital preservation department is likely unique in Canada, says museum CEO Jack Lohman, who founded the department. In his new book of essays, Museum at the Crossroads?, Lohman references the urgent need for digital preservation, that is, preserving information in formats that can be accessed by computers.
“We need to digitize, not only so that we can speak to the world, but so the world can speak to us,” he writes.
Digital preservation is an immense, complex issue for museums worldwide, especially ones such as the RBCM, which has a dual function: it’s an archive as well as a museum.
The RBCM’s immediate list of digitization projects includes:
- Hundreds of letters from First World War soldiers, many scribbled in pencil from the front lines
- A 480-image collection of photographs by Frederick Dally, who photographed the Caribou gold rush in the mid-1800s
- A collection of 22,000 scans, negatives and prints from the Beautiful British Columbia magazine from 1966 to 1982.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Consider that the museum also holds: 22,500 linear metres of textual materials, 178,405 maps, plans and drawings, more then five million photographs, 10,253 artworks, 30,000 hours of audio, almost 8,000 reels of film (both onsite and off) and 15,000 hours of video.
Not everything can or will be digitized. But clearly, the museum’s seven-member digitization team has its work cut out.
Lohman says a top priority is preserving a vast collection of audio tapes created by Ida Halpern. A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, the ethnomusicologist was active in the 1940s, recording the music and ceremonies of First Nations people throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s absolutely unique in the world,” says Lohman, who has put forward the Halpern collection as a UNESCO Memory of the World applicant.
Digital preservation is also about saving more contemporay collections already in digital format. For instance, says Alexander, a photographer might donate a lifetime’s worth of images, some of which are digital. Or there might be a collection of songs in MP3 or MP4 format. These must be secured and stored safely, so no one but museum staff can have access to the originals.
Museums ignore this aspect of preservation at their own peril, Lohman says.
“This is an absolute must for an institution like us that holds so much information. [My perceived need for such preservation] came out of my belief there’s a real risk of a black hole in history.”
Ease of access is one happy result of digital preservation. Make something computer accessible and anyone can potentially reap the benefits. The museum is now creating a provincewide Learning Portal to make its museum and archive content available to teachers and students throughout the province. The Learning Portal will be launched in August.
Lohman, meanwhile, is looking to create something he calls the Atlas of British Columbia. The new project will connect access to the digital collections of such provincial institutions as universities and museums.
The overreaching goal for the museum, he says, is to make its contents available to the world.
“I’m creating a world-class institution where its collection and archives are known globally. … What this museum carries inside is so important, it’s on the global list of the key stuff of the world.”