“Archives—it’s where technology comes to die” is a phrase I frequently use when discussing obsolete audiovisual formats in archives. Think about it, when is the last time you shoved a VHS tape into your VCR, a Betamax into your Betamax player, or a U-Matic into its player? Have you fired up your wire recorder recently? Threaded a film into your 16mm or 8mm projector? How about a DVD? Do you watch those anymore? Listened to any audiocassette tapes or CDs recently? What about a reel-to-reel audio tape? Even if you haven’t, these formats still exist. Often the only copy of a recording is on an obsolete format, which is why archival repositories that collect these obsolete formats, also need to collect obsolete format players.
The Duke University Medical Center Archives’ (DUMCA) audiovisual equipment include a reel-to-reel audio player, a 16mm film projector, a wire recorder, 2 VCRs, a Betamax player, a DVD player, a CD player, and numerous audiocassette players. We use the previously mentioned equipment on a need basis. Often, the DUMCA receives reference requests requiring obsolete media to be played. It is often the case that the player and the media have not been used in years—even decades. We recently had a patron request to view some 16mm films, which meant having to pull out the DUMCA’s Elmo 16-CL 16mm film projector. No one knew the last time it had been used. The patron came and watched the videos he selected, and the projector worked fine. None of these videos the patron wanted to see had sound. It was afterwards, when the Archives interns were taking turns learning how to load the film into the projector that we played one with sound. As the film was playing, we noticed a sticky black sheen starting to appear on the film in the take-up reel. We immediately stopped the film, and took off the front piece of the machine to inspect it. Much to our collective horror, the black rubber rollers were gummy and sticky. Anything that touched the surface of a roller became sticky and black. The culprit was the projectors rollers. The black rubber lining on the outside of the rollers was deteriorating. When we watched a film with sound, we turned the sound drum on, which caused the film to be pushed more into the deteriorating rollers. This is what caused the roller gunk to be transferred to the film.
It is important to note that the company Elmo no longer makes 16mm film projectors or replacement parts. After doing some research, we located Urbanski Film in Orland Park, Illinois. Urbanski Film
is the only manufacturer in the world of original equipment specifications (OEM) rollers for the Elmo CL, AL, and Xenon Elmo projectors. Our Elmo CL has four standard flanged rollers. We ordered a new roller kit, and replaced the rollers.* Urbanski Film offers many resources. One of these resources is a video tutorial of how to replace the rollers, which made the replacement much easier. Because Urbanski Film uses the brass cores of the old rollers to build the new rollers on, users pay a deposit when purchasing the roller kit. Once the old rollers are out of the machine, they are sent back to Urbanski Film to be used to build new rollers on for future use.
My experience with audiovisual equipment before 1980 was nonexistent prior to becoming an archivist, but because of my chosen career, I have had the privilege of handling, listening, viewing, and working with many forms of obsolete audiovisual equipment and technologies. It is fascinating to see firsthand how much and how quickly we have transitioned from one analog format to the next: wax cylinders, records, wire recordings, films, and tapes. Upon further reflection, perhaps archives is not where technology comes to die, but rather a more apt statement is that technology comes to the archives to retire, enjoy a life of leisure, offer help when needed, and occasionally be subjected to invasive examinations and part replacements.
*a special thanks to Tom Corbitt for his help with the roller replacement!
This blog was contributed by Assistant Director and Technical Services Head Lucy Waldrop.