A map of Alaska with the Statewide region highlighted.
Organization: University of Alaska Fairbanks - Alaska Film Archives
City: Fairbanks
Region: Statewide
Program Area: Arts, Culture, Humanities \ Media \ Film
Grants Received:
2000: $497,049

Preserving Alaska's heritage one format at a time

Mission Statement
University of Alaska Fairbanks - Alaska Film Archives

To locate and collect film and videotape pertaining to Alaska through donation. To document the region date and activities of each film. To catalog each film or tape and make them available for viewing. To store original materials in controlled environmental conditions.

Where some interview subjects have been wowed by my apparently state-of-the-art recorder, archivist Dirk Tordoff immediately knows my secret: The sleek, silver machine isn't the next big thing; it's obsolete — and it has been since the day I bought it.

When I chose to record to Minidisks, I was wowed by the format's low price and high quality. As it turns out, I chose the losing side—the Betamax of the audio world.

"It's a good idea of where all formats will go," Tordoff says.

He should know. As the man responsible for the Alaska Film Archives at the University of Alaska
Fairbanks — the largest in-state collection of archival film about Alaska — Dirk Tordoff is a master of misfit media.

A film archive excerpt of grass basket weaving.Spacer Image

Though officially his job title is "film archivist," Tordoff is seeing less of celluloid these days. (Already, the collection contains one and a half times as much video as film.) He spends most of his time keeping pace with rapidly changing media formats, from video to virtual. His goal: to pluck potentially valuable glimpses of Alaska from the jaws of technological obsolescence.

Hangers-on like me are only part of the problem. Another is that agencies and schools, among the first to use video, tend to dispose of their outdated players the same way they purchased them — in bulk. And that presents a dilemma: big collections, with no way to play them.

Recordings of Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act hearings, for example, were made on ½-inch open reel, one of the first commercial video formats. It's black and white, looks like old reel-to-reel, and is virtually unplayable today. But on it are hundreds of hours of testimony from across the state, including from Alaska's legendary "Bush Rat" Governor Jay Hammond — back when he was mayor of Bristol Bay. "The stuff was locked in this format," Tordoff says.

A photo of an Alaska Fim Archives staff member at work.Spacer Image

Unlocking such outdated video involves converting old masters to Betamax, and then to VHS, and then finally to digital. (To the Fairbanks folks who sold their Betamax video player at a yard sale for $20: Tordoff is the guy who happily paid full price.)

Media migration is an endless chase, he says. "The bottom line is, there's no end in sight. Every time you turn on the news and they say here's this great, groovy new format we've got going on, it's almost discouraging. On and on the process will go."

Fortunately, where others see oddly sized, unplayable tapes, Tordoff sees pieces of Alaska history, possibly precious ones, awaiting release. So tapes not yet converted wait — literally in cold storage — in one of two temperature-controlled, humidity-controlled vaults at UAF's Elmer E. Rasmuson Library.

Within the unplayable, he and others have found gems: a blanket toss and high-kick in Nome, circa 1960; a parade to celebrate statehood; early whalers; a 44-second silent clip of men building a fishwheel in 1959.

Still locked in mystery is the content of a large reel of 2-inch wide magnetic tape, weighing more than 60 pounds. At most, it might contain a single hour of video. But Tordoff knows better than to discard it.

Through Alaska's Virtual Library and Digital Archives (VILDA: http://vilda.alaska.edu), Tordoff has been putting old video clips online, making the collection available over the Web to be shared by Alaskans and others. This, he says, has been the most rewarding part of the process. "People are discovering it and discovering it all over the place."

Ironically, Tordoff's work could mean the Video and Emerging Media collection will never outgrow its current vault, even as it grows, because he doesn't need to save unwieldy masters once they have been converted. "In a lot of traditional archiving, it's the artifact that's the more important thing," he acknowledges. "But, in this case, it's the content."

Sonya Senkowsky is a freelance science writer, writing coach and Web developer. She has written award-winning science stories on a range of subjects - from a dinosaur discovery on the North Slope, to sea otter studies in Prince William Sound, to submersible exploration beneath Alaska seas.