(For the first post in this series, about our discovery of nitrate films at the MSU Libraries, please see Media Preservation Librarian Sarah Mainville’s original write-up.)

In order to digitize audiovisual media of any variety, it is often necessary to conduct an inventory of the collection first. A properly conducted inventory helps you—and any potential media digitization vendors, as well as other collection stakeholders at your institution—get a sense for the size and scope of your collection, for its overall condition, for the most at-risk formats that may be present, and for any items that may warrant special or immediate attention. Additionally, it is during the inventorying process that you will assign unique identifiers to individual objects, which enables you to quickly and efficiently refer to specific items within your collection, and follow their progress through the digitization process without getting lost. 

The tools for conducting an inventory may be very simple—all you need to get started is a spreadsheet and a writing instrument such as a grease pencil, Sharpie, or pencil. But before conducting an inventory, it is important to ask: what information about this collection must be captured? Typically, during this type of inventory, it is less crucial to capture information about the content of your collection, and more pressing to capture information that will help a media digitization vendor give you a quote for digitization (such as footage for film, or time recorded on video cassettes).

Sarah Mainville (left) and Melanie Goulish (right) collaborated jointly on the inventorying stage of this project. Sometimes, it can help to have two people working on an inventory together, so that one person can mark each object with its unique identifier while the other records information about each item in the spreadsheet or database.

For the Vincent Voice Library nitrate film inventorying process, we chose the following fields of information to capture, after assigning a unique identifier to each object (written on each item and its container in grease pencil; we used the convention VVL-PNF-###, for the Vincent Voice Library “Project Nitrate Film”): 

  • Title. Although any title you can see written on an audiovisual object’s housing is purely a working title until you can actually view the content recorded on the media, it is still helpful to notate the title in case it really does match up with the recorded content. This can help collection stakeholders make decisions about whether the content on an AV object is worth preserving and digitizing, or whether the content should be deprioritized or deaccessioned.
  • Nitrate or acetate. All the films we were inventorying were 35mm film, but sometimes—quite often—35mm film is acetate rather than nitrate. Therefore, we submitted all films in the inventory to a “burn test” by snipping off small pieces of the film and setting them on fire: because nitrate is highly flammable, it will combust into cinders almost immediately, while acetate will burn at a much slower pace. Audiovisual archivist Matthew Wilcox will write next month’s blog post about the details of the “burn test.” 
  • Film footage. This is an essential field for any film digitization project, because the total length of a film collection will often be a major determinant of the quote a vendor can give you. We use Christy’s film measuring sticks for this purpose. 
  • Condition. For the nitrate film we discovered, we used a scale from 1-3 to describe the level of observable degradation, with 1 being the least level of degradation, and 3 being the worst (such as visible nitrate residue on the object, severe warping and brittleness, etc). For acetate films, we described issues such as warping, brittleness, spoking, presence of mold, and contamination of nitrate residue from the nitrate films. This field is also crucial to getting an accurate quote for digitization from any vendor, in-house or external; the worse the condition issues, the more intensive a process it will be to digitize your content.

For all other inventories, “format” would be a necessary field as well. However, for the nitrate film project, this was a moot point, given that all the items inventoried were of the same format (35mm film).

You may also be wondering: why are these people inventorying the films outside? The answer, simply put, is that it’s generally ill-advised to set films on fire in an indoor space (not to mention: the fumes put out by burning nitrate are hazardous enough that it warrants wearing masks for the duration of these tests as well). Hence, the unusual outdoor set-up of the nitrate film inventorying. For more information on the burn test, stay tuned for next month’s blog post!