Look, see, this is our history

A letter from Andrew Seeder

I worked at Media Burn the past 18 months as a cataloger and digitizer. This is my last week here, so I’d like to describe to you why Media Burn is important while the experience is still fresh in my mind. There’s what we know will be important 50 years from now: Our 1992 presidential election collection, our 1982 technology collection “Wired In,” or our Cabrini Green collection, among others. We point to these and say: Look, see, this is history. Then there’s our content which preserves Chicago’s larger-than-life personalities: Studs Terkel, Bill Veeck, Vito Marzullo, among others. We point to these and say: Look, see, this is our history.

Personally, I think Media Burn is preserving the birth of social media activism (think camcorders), but it’s difficult to give you a good sense of our entire collection. We don’t know what’s really on our tapes until after they’ve been digitized. All the while, getting videotapes digitized (funded) is urgent, since videotapes disintegrate so fast, people tend not to see videotapes as primary sources, and our digitized collection is so eclectic it defies categorization. We can’t say what’s historically valuable on a videotape until after we’ve digitized the tape but we need to explain a tape’s historical value to get it digitized (funded). It’s tough to justify the work we do based solely on content.

When I tell people about Media Burn I try to find things they already know something about to pique their interest. Unfortunately, this has the opposite effect of what I’d like. Instead of realizing there’s something they don’t know but want to learn in our archive, they see us as a place which has things they already know and need not re-learn. How do we get people to browse our collection? We’ll get waves of hits to our website when another website embeds one of our videos. These bring a load of people to our site for a single one-off video and, to be sure, this kind of exposure has slowly generated more interest in our work.

Except what makes Media Burn a place of discovery isn’t necessarily what makes a video go viral. I’ve cataloged hundreds of hours of videotape. The most poignant moments are the ones that cannot be parsed from their context. Take this two and a half minute segment from one of our “Image Union” tapes, “People and Their Music.” Tiny Pruitt performs the “Lee Highway Blues” at the old time fiddler’s convention in Union Grove, North Carolina, 1978. It’s not the fiddling but Pruitt’s passion that gets me; the fact that he steels himself for the audience and then relaxes, stops mouthing the notes, and plays fluidly for a performance no one would ever likely see but those in attendance. Pruitt went on to win runner-up in the contest.

Real life recorded on tape by three Chicago independents, Victoria Hamburg, Dana Hodgdon, and John Peaslee. There’s no reason you’d ever find this video unless you were scrolling through the entire catalog or making your way through the tapes. What makes Media Burn important isn’t just the stuff relevant to everyone, like presidential races. Media Burn preserves moments that are fleeting and relevant only to a few. And these are important, too.



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