Mainely Magnificent: The Little Things


The numbers swirl in my head. The numbers are enough to drive one mad.

It’s a basic rule of cataloging: every individual object entered into a database, be it animal, vegetable, or mineral, should be assigned a unique identifier. This (hopefully) simple code permanently links your digital smattering of information – title, content description, format, NSA security classification, etc. – to the actual, physical item. In the fanciest of modern data management systems, such identifiers play a critical role, keeping the identity and source of a digital file clear and traceable even as it is thrown into staggeringly complex – and from a user standpoint, staggeringly useful – webs of interconnected data. It is thanks to unique identifiers that you can watch Herk Harvey’s unfathomably amazing heavy machinery training video “Shake Hands with Danger” on the Internet Archive, and from that same page either download the clip for your own personal use, check out some equally staggering lost gems of cinematic history, or peruse Harvey’s batshit personal biography. This is the future, as prophesied to us by the computer wizards of yesteryear, made possible by little things like unique identifiers: a wealth of information, compiled from sources all over the globe, connected by a grid that both anticipates and expands on our every whim, all at our fingertips.

The numbers make sense again, for a moment, allowing me to punch an eight-digit code into a label-maker that was probably a favorite of computer wizards some fifteen or twenty years ago. I hit the “Print” button and, after it dutifully ponders the weight of the task ahead of it for a moment, the label-maker whirs and whirs and spits out a concoction of paper and adhesive with, thank God, the correct eight-digit string imprinted on it. I peel off the thin strip of plastic backing, stabbing myself under the fingernail for approximately the 73rd time, and slap the label on the case of a Betacam SX tape.

Betacam SX. Not Betacam SP. The more I stare at it, the more definitely that latter letter is an X, not, as I had originally thought, a P.

Different tape formats require different codes.

I sigh and peel off the fresh label. It’s time to consult the numbers again.

Cataloging is not for the faint of heart, nor the easily bored. It requires one to be, to put it generously, meticulous and detail-oriented – to put it less generously, anal and obsessive. A single out-of-place digit can throw an entire sequence, which in this case includes several hundred videotapes, out of whack, with dozens of unique identifiers erroneously pointing to the wrong object and location.

I could attempt to make such a mistake sound egregious and dire (“HOWEVER WILL ANYONE FIND THIS FIFTH COPY OF JIMMY SMITH’S SECOND-GRADE CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER AGAIN???”); but the reality is that the fate of the world does not rest in the balance of a correctly-aligned spreadsheet (at least I hope to God it doesn’t). The worst that could happen is that some future cataloger – perhaps even Future Ethan – will be mildly inconvenienced for a few minutes.

But at the moment it is only Present Ethan who is troubled. The surge of adrenaline that I received from discovering the errant X (you get your thrills where you can find them in the archiving world) has resulted in a bout of increased and intense concentration – which in turn has revealed that I accidentally skipped a tape several minutes ago while affixing labels. A chain reaction of minor errors, easily if irritatingly fixed.

Whenever I have to complete such a cataloging or inventory job, I think about the advice they – the mysterious “they” – always gave you for writing the essay questions on those standardized tests in grade school: that setting aside five or ten minutes at the outset for planning and organization can create exponential benefits later, when you’ve only got two reasons why lowering the speed limit in a residential area of Ashtabula, Ohio by 5 mph would be a good idea, and you can’t for the life of you think of a third. Honestly, I always found the advice kind of dubious and just rushed in, dealing with the Ashtabula Conundrum when it arose, if necessary. But I see the value in it now, when it comes to cataloging: it’s one thing to imagine a scenario where 5 mph could spell the difference between life and death for the neighborhood’s beloved cocker spaniel Fido; quite another to make it to item #1000 with a naming convention that only allowed for 999.

At Northeast Historic Film, someone else has already taken care of most of the planning for me, probably years ago. I am simply executing a system, a finely tuned but flexible paradigm that was designed to handle whatever later problems might appear. And yet, not all the planning in the world could prepare for an intern, in a moment of stupidity, just passing over one tape in a series of hundreds.

Archiving is full of these pitfalls. A few days after struggling with the numbers, I had the entire collection of videotapes, the collected product of a decade of a public television producer’s work, properly inventoried, labeled and shelved in the cold storage vault. Arriving at work the following Monday, my supervisor informed me that the donor had dropped off some “additional” tapes for the collection – an addendum that pretty much doubled the total number of items.

I thought, when I placed the original collection into the vault, that I had left five blank shelves open at the tail end – enough that, hopefully, this new batch would be able to just slide right in.

I had not.

I had left four.

The entire collection had to be re-shelved, which meant an extra couple hours in the vault’s welcoming 40°F climate.

You can take all the time you want to organize and plan ahead of time – and don’t get me wrong, you should, especially if you’re one of the people responsible for that data management grid of magic and wonder. But you’re never going to be prepared for all the little things that are going to jump out at you in the middle of a project. Sometimes the numbers just won’t add up. But at least you have “Shake Hands with Danger” to keep you entertained while you fix it.

Mainely Magnificent: Arrivals

Editor’s Note: As part of my grad program at NYU, I am spending ten weeks this summer in the coastal town of Bucksport, Maine, for an internship at a wonderful regional film archive called Northeast Historic Film. They’ve been doing sterling preservation work in humble conditions for almost twenty years, and I will be delighted to tell you more about their work from up close, all summer. This is a slightly different kind of writing than my usual reviews and news, so I hope you enjoy these updates from the field!

You’re sitting at a table. Piled next to you, haphazardly, are 45 boxes stuffed to the brim with videotape formats you’ve never dreamed of (unless you’ve really got a fetish for DVCam and its variants). You arrived in the building about an hour ago, got a whirlwind tour of rooms and faces and a shockingly vast vault of AV material: craning your neck upward, you spy Betacams from a public broadcast station, DVDs from the University of Maine, 16mm logging films possibly FedExed straight from the 1930’s. If the quiet coastal village of Bucksport, Maine, with its riverfront park and its near 1:1 ratio of churches to residents and its picture-postcard locale, sometimes feels like something out of a storybook, then Northeast Historic Film is its bottomless Mary Poppins carpet-bag. You think that somewhere in NHF’s maze of plywood offices and obsolete projectors you have a desk – but you’re not sure.

You made the drive to Bucksport from Boston less than 24 hours ago, weaving your way from the interstate down ever-narrower coastal roads. You watched the skyscrapers and chain restaurants give way to untamed stretches of forest and something called Perry’s Nuthouse. Rest assured, this is New England, so Dunkin’ Donuts persists; but when you went for a walk down Bucksport’s one street at 8:30pm the previous night, not a single shop appeared to still be open. You are far from the land of all-night bodegas and midnight falafel.

When you arrived at the apartment you procured sight-unseen through the friend of a friend of a friend of your father, the plaque on the front of the building declared that your new residence, apparently built in the 1820’s, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. You think that’s pretty cool, although it doesn’t bode well for your chances of picking up a wifi signal. Your friendly and gracious landlord, who owns the hopping dairy bar next door with a line halfway down the block, has kindly rustled up a few odds and ends to help fill your spacious accommodations – although you might never attempt to actually sit on the rocking chair, which itself looks as if it belongs on the National Register of Historic Furnishings.

You admired the view from your third-floor “penthouse” suite. The wall is lined with windows looking out across the languid Penobscot River at 150-year-old Fort Knox – not THAT Fort Knox, of course; that would just take this gem of a lodging situation to new heights. Your internship is literally across the street – it takes longer to get your morning coffee than it does to get from your bed to your (theoretical) desk. Even if you overslept by an hour, you could probably still make it in to work on time and in relatively respectable condition. Not that oversleeping is much of a threat: those windows may be perfect for meditative contemplation of nature and all that, but damn if the sun in these Northern Lands doesn’t come streaming in on the dot at 5 am.

That brings you back to this morning, and suddenly, irreversibly, to those boxes. After introducing you to the storage rooms, the inspection tables, the recently renovated theater, the extensive and priceless collection of amateur camera equipment dating back 100 years, and the photocopier, your boss showed you the pile of boxes. They previously belonged to a former producer of public access programming, a fierce advocate and collector of local New England history. He wants an inventory done, even if it’s just as simple as writing down the notes on each label. There must be over 300 tapes in those boxes; your boss probably thinks it’ll take you at least a couple days to get through them all. You know it’s meant to be an introductory task, something that requires no training or particular familiarity with the archive’s operations. Anyone can copy a label.

You are not anyone.

You have prepared for this.

You are the Spreadsheet Master.

You open a new Google Doc and turn to the pile. You pick up Box 1. It is stuffed with 3/4” Umatic tapes with near-illegible annotations.

Time to get to work.