Saved from Extinction: An Adventure in Archiving

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions

 

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Thirty heavy cans of film, each 24 inches in diameter, over 1200 feet of film in each can. Blues musicians captured in their homes, in the basement of a barbecue place in Memphis, Tennessee, and a juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi. For 40 years, my partner had been carting them from apartment to apartment, house to studio, knowing they contained precious slices of musical history, but unable to find a way to bring them to light.  

 

In December, we finally opened them, determined to find a way to rescue the footage. An unmistakable vinegary smell escaped the can on opening, a sure sign that the films were deteriorating. We consulted with our expert media preservation specialist, Paul Adams of Mass Productions (CLICK HERE to listen to our interview with him on our December episode of the podcast), who warned us that we didn’t have long before the films would be beyond repair.

 

We knew we had to do something about it immediately.  

 

The machine we needed to screen, edit, and organize the footage was a Steenbeck flatbed editor. Though still in use in some archival settings, they are very difficult to locate, as virtually all editing since the late 90’s has been done on digital systems, and, even if one could be found, renting it would be prohibitive for a self-funded project.

 

Through a lucky connection, we were able to locate a Steenbeck at an archival house in the Greater Boston area.  The curator told us that the machine hadn’t been used in 30 years, but if we were able to get it up and running, we would be welcome to use it to screen and edit the footage.

 

Would it work?

 

We went to the location on a gloomy afternoon, took the elevator up to the 5th floor, and were taken to the back corner of the archives, where the Steenbeck sat under a white sheet.

 

Watching Rob as he looked at it was like watching two old friends connect after a long absence. He sat down and turned it on.

 

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Could he remember how to operate it?

 

After a couple of fumbles, his muscle memory returned, he threaded the two separate tracks—one for sound and one for picture—synced them up, and…there we were, looking at Delta blues singer Houston Stackhouse, playing a song that was recorded in the Mississippi Delta in 1978.

 

Here is that moment:

 

Aging Treasures – sharing history through older media from Verissima Productions on Vimeo.

 

 

Stay tuned as we organize, screen and archive more of this blues footage over the next few months.

Do you have old cans of film or VHS tapes or slides lying around? Please find a way to rescue them and share your stories with us.

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 9 – An interview about the history, legacy, and struggle for civil rights.

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This is Part 1 of a 2 part interview with Dr. Robert Luckett, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University in Jackson, MS. In addition to a book and  several publications and presentations at numerous academic conferences, he has appeared in documentaries, including the Independent Lens film “Spies of Mississippi “as well as “An Ordinary Hero” about the life of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland. 

 

Here are some links to expanded histories of some of the people Dr. Luckett mentions in Part 1 of our interview with him. We hope you will enjoy pursuing some of these avenues to learn more about the struggle for civil rights, both in the past and currently:

 

People

Hezekiah Watkins, now 68 years old

http://www.jacksonfreepress.com/news/2011/jan/17/hezekiah-watkins/

 

Hollis Watkins: Continues to be active in civil rights activities at age 75

http://freedom50.org/watkins/

 

Medgar Evers: One of the best-known civil rights activists

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medgar_Evers

 

Susan Glisson: White civil rights activist, conversations about race

http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/09/15/494127926/mississippi-woman-fosters-candid-conversations-about-race

 

Museums and Organizations

 

Mississippi Museums: Opening in December, 2017, the MS Museum of Civil Rights and the Museum of the State of Mississippi will be a magnet for citizens who want to discover the complexity behind the accepted narrative: http://give2mississippimuseums.com/

 

Architect Phillip Freelon (who also designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

http://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/phil-freelon-architect-leading-smithsonians-african-american-museum-n435291

 

Mississippi Center for Justice: “No Hate in My State”

http://www.mscenterforjustice.org/

 

LISTEN NOW

SUBSCRIBE ON ITUNES

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Life Preservers Podcast – Episode 8: Audio Extras!

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Our interview with Paul Adams from Mass Productions in Tewksbury, MA was so informative and fun that we wanted to share a bit more of it with you. Listen in to this quick four minute extra to hear two great stories from the field of audio preservation. One tells the tale of preserving recordings produced by the Yiddish Book Center and another shares his experience collaborating with UMass Boston & Boston Public Library archiving recordings from the first rap/hip-hop radio station. Both of these projects resulted in digital archives that are now available to the public.

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Gabe’s: A Story of Mystery and Possibility

by Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions Incorporated

 

It was a small haberdashery store in Hyde Park, nestled in the shopping center where everyone in our small community shopped for groceries, went to the Optometrist and filled their prescriptions at the drugstore. I did the same, walking the several blocks from our house to help my grandmother do the weekly shopping at the Coop grocery store.

 

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But I never set foot in Gabe’s, a mere 200 feet away. I knew that my grandfather, my mother’s real father, worked there, but — as if there were some shield or veil around my curiosity, I never asked to go in or to see himand he never asked about me.  It was entirely a mystery to me. I knew my mother visited him occasionally, but all she would ever say is, “I stopped in to see your grandfather the other day.”  The veil would descend, and I would listen, but ask no questions.

 

When I left home, the veil lifted somewhat, and, pre-computer and pre-internet, I began an exploration to learn more about my blood family, working from the snippets of information my mother had given me. I knew he had a second wife and at least one child, but were there more?  

 

One source might have been Gabe’s, but, but by the time I began my explorations, it was long closed. I knew his last name, but it was common, and also had alternate spellings, so I would get lost in the white pages, trying to imagine where he might have lived, and who on that long list of Mac’s and Mc’s I might call, hoping that I might strike gold.

 

Over the years, I was able to discover when he had died, of what and where he had lived — but he was gone. His second wife had also disappeared, and the one child I knew about (only a few months older than I) had disappeared, as well.

 

Then, when we started our film business, and I became a personal historian sixteen years ago, using the rudimentary skills I had been learning for genealogical exploration and the power of the internet, I began a deeper, more focused search.

 

About 3 years ago, I found my way to his obituary, which had been placed online when The Chicago Sun Times finally digitized their records. I knew it was Charles, because the obit gave the names of my mother, as well his three other children.

 

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I found out that one of them, an actress in New York, had passed away, but was able to connect with the other two and arrange for a family “union” in Chicago so my mother, who had lived for eighty-eight years as an only child could finally meet her half-brother and half-sister.

 

Of course, there had been strife and family secrets and family divisions to sort through, but everyone felt somehow more settled, and delighted that our small family had suddenly become larger and better connected.   

Last year, they all came back (from quite a distance) to attend mother’s 90th birthday party in Chicago…and this year, on her 91st birthday, my mother received a beautiful card from her half-brother, now 81, that said, simply, “I’m so glad to have you as my sister.”

 

Search out your history, and preserve it this holiday season and all year long. It’s worth it.

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Life Preservers Podcast Episode 8: Preserving your Audio, Video, and film for the future

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Tales of media lost and rescued, plus many ideas for digitizing your files from Paul Adams, archiving engineer, and owner of Mass Productions in Tewksbury, MA.

 

Show Notes:

Where can you go to get your files digitized?

Digital transfers of media and many rare formats, also archival restoration

http://www.massproductions.net/

Digital transfers of media Eclipse Video Cambridge: http://www.eclipsevid.com/

 

Where can you listen to archived media?

There are many places, but  https://archive.org/ provides thousands of hours of recordings of radio shows, interviews, and library archives.  

 

Where can you store your media?

Dropbox, GoogleDrive, and others

Here is a recent article comparing different platforms:

https://www.cloudwards.net/5-best-cloud-storage-for-families/

If you want a more complete service for curating and storing your family history, here are two services that can help you ( there are others—this is not an endorsement):

Family Arc: https://www.familyarc.com

LegacyShare: https://www.legacyshare.com/

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The Secret of the Silver Cup: Opening the Door to Personal History

By Pam Pacelli Cooper

President, Verissima Productions

 

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The ornate silver cup had been given to my husband at his birth, inscribed with his name and birthdate. When our child was born, the same cup was inscribed again with the name and birthdate of our son. We had always been puzzled by the original inscription on the cup: etched in old-fashioned script, it appeared to say “ELKOI” and the birthdate May 5, 1901. We asked my mother-in-law who that was, and she couldn’t say. “It’s just an old family heirloom. I thought it would make nice birth cup for my son.”

 

The name “ELKOI” haunted me for years. I would open the china cabinet and look at it, and wonder at the strange name and think about who that person might have been, where they lived, what his or her life was like, and how he/she was related to our family. I had forgotten about the cup as I began to explore my husband’s family history of Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Germany, who came to American via Baltimore and New Orleans, and settled in the Deep South. From the raw dates and pages his great great uncles and aunts gradually began to emerge as personalities like a photo in an old darkroom.

 

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I went to historical societies, talked to people online, and incorporated facts from the stories my mother and law had left with us to uncover a family of entrepreneurs and lawyers, farmers and Confederate soldiers. One of them was the owner of a successful confection operation. Uncle Hiram (nee Hyman) had started his confectionery company in one city and then moved to another in the early 1900’s. I wondered why he had moved, as he was so successful in the first location. Had he married? Did he have children? What became of them?

 

I kept digging. With the help of Family Search and a local historian, I discovered that Hiram had married later in life and had married a much younger woman. They had a baby, in May of 1901 and named her Elka.

 

So, that was the name on the silver cup! What I had always read as ELKOI, was actually “ELKA 01.”

 

Now I needed to know what happened to Elka, and Hiram, and Hiram’s wife. My further research revealed that Hiram’s wife had died unexpectedly when Elka was only 9 months old. Hiram left her in care of her aunt, closed his store in that city and moved his operation to another city. 

 

I’m now looking to fill in other details of Elka’s story: how long she lived, if she had a relationship with her father, what her life was like, and what Hiram’s life was like after he uprooted his comfortable life and moved to another city.

 

Two months ago, I wrote about the plastic bins I carried back from Chicago to Boston containing all sorts of items and papers that have both answered, and raised, questions about my family. This month, we see how something as small as a name engraved on an old, dented silver cup, can lead to a richer understanding of a whole other chapter of our shared family history.

 

In this Thanksgiving season, I am especially grateful to be a personal historian. I continue to hone the skills of inquiry, research, recording interviews and writing which combine to help me put together the scattered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle into a coherent, informative and enlightening, picture.

Our clients, and in this case, my husband, are now able to feel more complete knowing where they came from — and who they came from.

 

As the holidays approach, think what “silver cups” might be in your cabinet.  Are there artifacts that have always intrigued you? Fragments of stories you would like to flesh out? Please share any stories you have in a comment here, and help inspire others to “preserve their lives.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 7 – Keeping History Alive: Jan Turnquist, Louisa May Alcott, and Orchard House

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Jan Turnquist is a portrayer of Louisa May Alcott and the Executive Director of Orchard House, the Alcott’s home in Concord, MA. She brings both to life in our interview with her for this episode of the podcast.

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Small Moments, Lasting Impact

By Pamela Pacelli Cooper

with guest blogger Sharon Carey

 

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When my colleague Mary-Anne taught a lunchtime class on Gingkoes a few weeks ago, she was surprised at all the memories that the trees elicited from her students.

I am sharing one of those memories here. It is a magical moment that remains luminous and meaningful even years after it happened.

 

Please enjoy this moment, written by Sharon Carey taught English at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington Connecticut, and now lends her talents to the Board of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UMass Boston.

 

Watching the Ginkgoes

One fall morning in 1986, Kate walked into my History of Theater Class, “Look at this weird leaf,” she said. “I’ve never seen one like it… It looks like a tiny, yellow fan.”  She walked to the window and pointed, “It’s from that tree over there by the brick walk.” There were actually six identical trees standing in a row bordering the path.  Ellie joined her and said, “That’s the ginkgo – a good luck tree; supposedly it survived Hiroshima; you can make a wish on the leaf” By now everyone was at the window.  The ginkgo leaves were falling- not just fluttering down, a few at a time.  Hundreds of leaves were falling, and because the wind was barely breathing they were dropping straight down into easy mounds around their trunks, almost as if someone had choreographed the movement.

 

The class bell had sounded and I went for my notes, but as I looked at the faces of my students, held by the sight of the falling leaves, I decided to wait. I waited and watched and waited for the moment when people would lose interest, but it didn’t come.  We stood by that window for the entire class period, frozen in a spell. The only voice was a small one in my head reminding me to get back to work, but it was quickly silenced by the quiet that had overtaken the room.  

In less than an hour, the trees were stripped bare. Not one leaf was left hanging – not one. Piles and piles of golden yellow leaves lay beneath the slim, straight trunks…

 

The bell rang and the students gathered their books and went away. I imagined their lunch-table conversation: “Boy did we get away with murder today.  We didn’t do a thing in Theater Class …

 

Back then I felt guilty and hoped the academic dean wouldn’t hear about this wasted time. But now, I realize how I pulled one over on them, for, I have no memory of what profound lesson I was going to pass on that day or even that week, but I have never forgotten that beautiful morning, standing side by side with my students watching the ginkgo leaves fall. And I’ll bet a few of them remember it, too.

 

Your Magical Moment:  This Thanksgiving, when friends and family gather together, why not ask everyone to share a Magical Moment of their own? Something that stays vivid and continues to give them sustenance whenever they call it to mind.

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The Stories on Your Bookshelves

By Pam Pacelli Cooper
President, Verissima Productions

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Two weeks ago, I wrote about transporting several bins of family papers from Chicago to Boston. This week, I’m thinking about the books on my shelves, and the story they tell.

 

Soon after we arrived home, we had guests from Tennessee in our Airbnb. I walked in to find one of them cross-legged on the floor in our living room, looking at the books in the old mahogany bookcase that had belonged to my husband’s grandfather. I hadn’t even considered that anyone would look through our books, and I began to wonder what he might find and what he might think of our book selection. He pulled out Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, and purchased by me as a part of my training as a therapist. He was fascinated, having never read it before, and the contents of the book made for lively discussions during the rest of his week-long stay, particularly in light of current events.

 

That started me thinking: what is on our bookshelves, and what stories do our various book collections tell? I’ve looked through only a few of our many bookcases, but so far I’ve found: 10 years worth of book club selections, which brought back memories of spirited discussions; several shelves of therapy books which span 40 years of different trainings and illustrate my evolution as a psychotherapist; a collection of poems, which limn the outlines of various loves in my life; and the finely bound sets of Dickens and Thackeray and Shakespeare, left to us by my father-in-law, an English professor whose love of word and wit has passed down directly to our son.

 

I felt a sense of appreciation and awe that I had found yet another rich source of family history in a place I hadn’t considered before.

 

bookshelfblogphotoWhat stories are the books on your shelves telling about you? About your loves, your vocations, your friendships, your family?

 

If you have resorted to minimalism (I’m a lost cause, there), what books have you kept and why?

 

What would it be like to call your parents or your siblings or your cousins and compare collections to discover what stories their books tell?

 

Before everything resides on a Kindle, I hope you can mine your books for the themes in your life.

 

Please share your thoughts here. We’d love to know—and get ideas.

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Life Preservers Podcast: Episode 6 – Amateur Historians Pt. 2

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In Part 2 of of our series on “Amateurs”, hear the rest of our interview with Historian John Morrison as he describes how he came upon a fresh and revealing look on Ben Franklin, and his connection to Boston, while doing research as volunteer tour guide for Boston by Foot.

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