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.