Digitizing WITNESS Videotapes Through a Community Partnership

WITNESS has been producing and co-producing videos to support human rights for almost 25 years. Our earliest videos from the early 1990s were recorded on VHS, miniDV, Hi8, and Betacam. Around 2009, we stopped using tape-based cameras and moved to file-based media that we could import directly into our digital post-production and archiving workflows. However, we continued to maintain our tape collection of valuable and unique audiovisual human rights documentation.


Remember formats like Hi8, miniDV, and Betacam?

Videotape formats are increasingly obsolete (i.e. unsupported by available equipment and software) and physically degrade over time, so they need to be digitized into sustainable file-based formats for the content to be preserved. For many organizations, videotape digitization can be daunting. It requires equipment like playback machines that are increasingly difficult to find and repair, and some technical know-how to perform the work. It is also a slow process, since tapes are captured in real-time (not to mention time for set-up/ calibration and post-capture processing). Working with digitization vendors is an option, but it can be costly and requires oversight.

System Failure, a 2004 co-production between the Books Not Bars project of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and WITNESS. We are currently digitizing the production’s interviews and other raw footage from miniDV for preservation and improved accessibility.

Digitized files range anywhere between 12GB (miniDV) to 100GB (analog formats) per hour of videotape when digitized at preservation quality. Once the tapes are digitized, we manage the files in the same way as the rest of our digital collection. We organize the digitized files into packages, ingest them to the archive, catalog them in our database, and monitor them over time. Check out our Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video for a more detailed explanation of these steps!

Other groups are tackling their tape collections too. Last year, our friends at Refugee Law Project in Uganda wrote about digitizing their miniDV tapes so that they can more easily use their video in their advocacy to support forced migrants.

While we do not have the resources to digitize all of our tapes en masse, we are tackling our collection one tape at a time with the help of interns and volunteers using our legacy in-house equipment, and through a partnership with a local community organization, XFR Collective.

XFR Collective (pronounced “Transfer Collective”) is a non-profit organization run by volunteer archivists (disclosure: I am one of them) that assists individuals and groups to preserve at-risk media by providing low-cost digitization services. The collective also does public outreach, education, and research in an effort to make audiovisual archiving more accessible to everyone. Through its community connections, the collective has culled together second-hand and loaned equipment to build a fully functioning digitization station for multiple video formats. The collective maintains the equipment and performs the digitization, then uploads the preservation masters they create to the Internet Archive.

XFR Collective

XFR Collective members at a temporary video digitization station, installed at the MIX Queer Experimental Film Festival, 2015. Credit: XFR Collective.

XFR Collective is currently assisting us with digitizing the raw footage related to a 2001 co-production with NYC PoliceWatch and Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Day After Diallo. This collection includes the full interviews with the activists featured in the video as well as documentation of the mass protests and organizing that took place following the acquittal of police officers who shot an unarmed man, Amadou Diallo, 19 times in front of his home on February 4, 1999. What is striking about the videos is how familiar the issues and demands for accountability seem to our contemporary situation 15 years later. It is both sad to see how little has changed, and yet inspiring to hear the voices of activists that have persisted and persevered over time. By digitizing and preserving these videos, we ensure that future generations can also look back and learn from these events, documented from an activist perspective.

While the two-year-old XFR Collective primarily serves the local New York City community, it represents a replicable model for community-based digitization that addresses shortages of equipment and expertise by combining resources normally spread across a community, and sharing it back with the community. Other examples are sprouting up in public libraries like Brooklyn Public Library and DC Public Library, where patrons can digitize their own media.

XFR station

XFR Collective’s video digitization station. Credit: XFR Collective

While digitizing videotape collections can involve a lot of work or expense, it can be made more manageable by selecting and prioritizing, doing what you can in-house, and collaborating and sharing resources within a community. WITNESS is grateful to the XFR Collective for helping to ensure that this material will be available into the future.


Featured image by Ryan Kautz.


Discover more from WITNESS Archiving

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Help WITNESS create more human rights change

Join us by subscribing to our newsletter.