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From Pop-Tarts and MTV to Federal Employment

This is part of a series of posts from Smithsonian Libraries and Archives’ spotlighting Audiovisual Media Preservation Initiative’s (AVMPI) new staff members. You can also read about their Audio Preservation Specialist Dan Hockstein and Initiative Coordinator Siobhan Hagan! Brianna Toth currently serves as AVMPI’s Video Preservation Specialist.

In some ways it is ironic that I ended up at a huge, federally-funded institution like the Smithsonian, since my pathway into the field came from deciding I wasn’t happy working for conventional museum and gallery spaces — even though I knew I wanted to work with artists or with cultural heritage in some way. So, here goes trying to make a long circuitous story short-ish: After graduating with a B.A in Art History I moved to the Bay Area, where I became interested in film and video through performance art and experimental music at local organizations like Canyon Cinema, Artist Television Access and The Lab. While living there, I also dabbled in curation and helped program all-ages music shows, but still felt stumped on where to focus my energy in terms of a job that made sense with all my interests. Luckily for me, some mutual friends introduced me to Michelle Silva, who manages the Estate of Bruce Conner’s films, and my career path started to make a bit more sense. What Michelle did seemed like an application of my interests I didn’t know was an option before, and I eventually came to work for her. While working under her tutelage, I gained a deep commitment to retaining the integrity of analog media through conservation techniques and digital remediation. But despite everything I learned, all the jobs I saw required graduate degrees. This is how I ended up attending the California Rare Books School (CalRBS) and getting my MLIS from UCLA shortly thereafter. In retrospect, it really feels like a full-circle moment, since the Smithsonian is now collaborating with CalRBS to offer a range of courses, including an AV preservation workshop my AVMPI colleagues Siobhan Hagan and Walter Forsberg are teaching!

For me, helping preserve the cultural record as a moving image archivist connects all the dots and allows me to weave my personal interests into my work. Over the years, the collections I have worked on have been incredibly formative. In fact, the unexpected opportunities to preserve the video collections for the Sequoia King’s Canyon National Park and Bob Baker Marionette Theater are what sparked my love of analog video! I have also been able to take on many AV archival roles with these various collections: being responsible for managing large scale digitization initiatives, facilities moves, preservation and restoration projects, as well as collection management for community archives. In addition, I owe a lot to professional communities like No Time To Wait! (NTTW), Los Angeles Archivist Collective and the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), who all provided crucial support and inspiration to me over the years. What can I say? I really feel that when I discovered the AV archiving community that I found my people.

Bob Baker Marionette Theater Library and Archives
Bob Baker Marionette Theater Library and Archives at their previous 1345 W. 1st Street location; Photo: Ian Byers-Gamber

On that note, let’s talk about AVMPI! On a practical level, my role as the Video Preservation Specialist is primarily responsible for digitizing video. I also assist our team with developing digitization workflows, standards, documentation and building out our video digitization racks. This all reflects a really exciting aspect of AVMPI, which is that we get to develop how we work from the ground up! For instance, we just demolished an old counter to fit in more shelving and rack space. We have also been busy getting new and refurbished items to update and expand upon the equipment already available.

Transitioning from contract and project-based work is another huge shift for me in taking this position — which I am incredibly grateful for. The archives profession in general has experienced its own version of “the gig economy,” with many new positions being posted as short-term contracts or temporary, project-based roles. This kind of contingency is not only stressful to experience when you’re trying to pay off your student loans and make ends meet, it’s also fundamentally incompatible with the long-term focus of most archival work. Being a part of AVMPI allows me to dig deeper and make long-term plans for myself and my partner, as well as for the collections I’m working with. This big picture thinking is one of the things that makes AVMPI stand out to me as truly unique. This initiative has been a long time coming to fruition: it evolved from a pan-institutional survey, to a collections assessment, then a Task Force, and now we have a full complement of staff to make it all happen. AVMPI’s pan-institutional structure is another way this initiative differs from other large digitization projects. Our team serves assists units across the Smithsonian with the digitization of their media collections. Although there are other folks at the Smithsonian with AV experience, not every unit has an AV specialist on their permanent staff. There are also units which have the required equipment but need an outside vendor to service it. This is where AVMPI comes in! In addition to digitization, we help with basic repair and maintenance of AV equipment at the Smithsonian, advise on best practices for digitization workflows, and will eventually lead training to support sustainable collections care.

Brianna Toth holds a Video8 tape in front of a rack of av equipment.
Me with the first Video8 tape we transferred for AVMPI!; iPhone photo: Brianna Toth

It also should be mentioned that a huge draw for me was the collections themselves. The video holdings across the collections at the Smithsonian comprise an incredible variety of formats and contents — taken as a whole, they document the history of video itself. Even though home video formats like VHS have come and gone, video is still a nostalgic touchstone for multiple generations. Like many others, I grew up watching music videos on MTV while eating my pop-tart in the morning, and had to beg for rides to my local video store before I could drive. But in part because video is obsolete, it is easy for people to forget what an impact it made historically and culturally. Sure, my parents’ excitement about my job probably stems more from me snagging a federal position (with a steady income and a retirement plan) than understanding what I heck I do. But, like a lot of people, they may also not realize that video is a medium in urgent need of preservation, just like motion picture film and audiotape. The vast majority of late twentieth and early twenty-first century history and events have been recorded on magnetic tape—a medium used by early television, artists, activists, and later made accessible to the general public for home viewing and personal memory-keeping. These tapes are historical documents and records of our collective memory.

AVMPI offers the opportunity to assess the Smithsonian’s video collections holistically, evaluate their current status, and create new workflows to support digitization, description, access, and use of these amazing resources. Our most recent streamcast, which featured videos from the National Air and Space Museum’s Sally K. Ride Papers, is a perfect example of this. Helping to educate the public further about the importance of preserving video and the equipment required to decode and access the content embedded within it is a necessary and important endeavor I am thrilled to be a part of with AVMPI.

Video still of trees
Still from the Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park Videotape Collection, “SEQU/KICA #8550 Split Screen (Tape 12 of 13),” VHS, color, silent, undated

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