Six years ago, University of Houston archivist Dick Dickerson noted the pungent odor of vinegar as he bustled among the shelved rarities in his library. The scent, emanating from stacks of acetate motion picture film, telegraphed disaster. It was the smell of history rotting.
Jim Fisher, special projects producer at KUHT, examines a canIster of film containing one of the station's shows from the 1960s in the M.D. Anderson Memorial Library's archival vault.
The nearly 600 reels" some more than 50 years old" were the legacy of the university's television station, KUHT-TV. The station, the nation's first non-commercial educational TV broadcaster, hit the air in summer 1953, and the films, dealing with topics such as juvenile delinquency, low-cost housing and big-city nightlife, architecture and arts, chronicled Houston at a unique stage of its development.
Dickerson and his helpers promptly set about testing the reels for acidity. Then, with the most endangered put into cold storage to curb deterioration, Dickerson began searching for money for a video rescue.
Teamed with Michele Reilly, the university's digital services director, and Jim Fisher, senior producer for KUHT special projects, Dickerson is optimistic the effort's success will attract more grants to continue the work.
In compliance with grant requirements, the first films to be digitized will be those with Texas-related content. Reilly described the films as the university's "institutional memory" and insisted, "it's important that we keep these traditions alive and well-maintained."
In addition to the films, the university's special collections department owns more than 5,000 videocassettes generated by KUHT in the past three decades. That medium, Fisher said, is more vulnerable to decay than the older films. Videotape has an expected shelf-life of only about 10 years.
The state grant will fund digitizing about 25 films, which, Reilly said, should be available to Internet users by next summer. Early behind-the-scenes photographs of KUHT operations also will be posted.
Just as KUHT was a pioneer in educational broadcasting, UH is a pioneer in conserving early educational programs, Fisher said.
"Most archives are involved in preserving documents, photographs, mainly paper," Fisher said, adding that institutions often lack the know-how or the funds to preserve TV broadcasts.
Dickerson's goal is twofold: preserving the decaying films long enough to transfer them to a stable medium and making them available to researchers.
"I could put them in a freezer somewhere and preserve them for quite a long time," he said, "but unless they were made accessible, what would be the use?"
Most of the films were produced by station staffers as pre-recorded programs for use by KUHT and other educational broadcasters. Only a few were "air-checks" of live programming - essentially films of the screen of a television set tuned to a live broadcast.
A short list of films to be digitized has been drawn up, but Dickerson and his staff still are exploring the contents of hundreds of other film canisters. The planned high-tech salvage effort is reliant on the most basic technology: a 1950s-vintage Moviscop editing machine patched together with parts bought on eBay.
The UH team believes many of the canisters contain film outtakes, footage that hit the cutting room floor. But, Fisher noted, "No one who was there when some of these films were created is here."
"We don't know what's on the film, what the title is or how long it is."
Also a mystery is the content of many of the videotapes, some of which must be viewed on long-obsolete and hard-to find monitors.
Once the first programs are available on the Internet, Dickerson will return the original films to storage - just as a backup. Eventually, they will be discarded.
"No archive," Dickerson admitted, "can afford to waste space in that way."