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Northwoods Tour project helps preserve everyone’s history

December 16, 2016 By Kelsey O'Hara
At the Barnes Town Hall. UW–Madison graduate student Catherine Hannula, center, speaks with Tam Larson, of the Barnes Area Historical Association, and a local attendee.

At the Barnes Town Hall. UW–Madison graduate student Catherine Hannula, center, speaks with Tam Larson, of the Barnes Area Historical Association, and a local attendee. UW-Madison

Amy Sloper sat with two parents, reliving their now-grown child’s first trip home from the hospital as an infant. Later, Sloper was with someone who was watching their now-deceased grandmother at a family reunion.

She was there, helping preserve these video memories in a new format for the families.

“In 100 years, and even today, home movies will contain unique and precious documentation of a way of life – from the cut of fashionable clothing to the eroding contours of a beach,” says Sloper, head archivist for the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. “Home movies can offer a real-world comparison to the fictionalized versions of our history conveyed through popular films and television programs.”

Sloper, along with two graduate students, recognized the significance of preserving these personal histories in new and reliable formats. To share that expertise across the state, they launched a University of Wisconsin–Madison project called the Northwoods Tour.

The primary goals were to provide residents of northern Wisconsin with access to digitization equipment that can preserve degrading video and audio formats in digital versions, and to teach them how to preserve their materials. Sloper and the students also helped people recognize the importance of their personal histories in the larger narrative of Wisconsin.

The Northwoods Tour grew from a service learning project developed in a course called Introduction to Archives during fall 2015. Two graduate students in the School of Library and Information Studies, Jennifer Barth and Catherine Hannula, worked in a small group with other students to archive a small collection of home films from WCFTR.

Barth and Hannula expressed interest to Sloper in a Home Movie Day that would eventually evolve into a summer tour with three events in three communities. The team applied for a grant to fund most of the project, but also had the Communication Arts Instructional Media Center donate much of the digital preservation equipment needed.

After months of planning and working with local connections, Sloper, Barth and Hannula packed three digitization stations into the back of a car and travelled more than 760 miles to hold events in Bayfield, Barnes and Eau Claire July 22 to 24.

Each event was slightly different.

“We worked hard to tailor each event to the character of the town based on what we discussed with our local connections,” Hannula says. “We are really happy with the response at all three of the events, and I was especially happy about how enthusiastic (the attendees) were about it.”

In Bayfield, patrons signed up in advance for 60-minute slots at each digitization station in the Bayfield Carnegie Library, where they were given one-on-one instruction on how to operate the equipment, properly name the files and save their media onto a flash drive.

The Bayfield Carnegie Library’s Director, Blair Nelson, says the tour was a unique opportunity to spark local interest in historical preservation with new digital formats.

“It definitely wasn’t your standard program,” Nelson says. “It was highly specialized, but it was a great way for people in our small community to experience something new and be able to learn (to preserve) firsthand.”

At the Barnes Town Hall, Sloper, Barth and Hannula gave formal presentations about how to care for family materials in a variety of formats and answered questions. They moved into small groups for demonstrations in the digitizing process and trained visitors to digitize the materials they brought with them. The team also visited the local history museum for a tour and answered preservation questions.

In Eau Claire, they started with a short formal presentation, and then spent most of the afternoon providing one-on-one guidance with the visitors about the preservation process.

Sloper was pleasantly surprised by the positive response, as many attendees asked when they would return.

“The response we received made it clear that there is a need and desire for more projects like this, both for individuals and small institutions,” Sloper says. “Events like this really show that we’re all capable of coming together around common causes, like preserving the history of our state.”

Barth emphasizes the importance of preserving memorabilia from citizens all over the state, not simply from famous names or big places.

“There is history among just everyday, average people, and their stories don’t get told as often even though their photographs and home movies are just as important as everyone else’s,” Barth says, “because they don’t have access to the people and the equipment to preserve their memories.

“That’s one of the important takeaways from this project. Everyone’s material is important, and it’s just a matter of getting out there and helping them preserve it.”

As of now, the organizers hope to pilot a larger project for audiovisual preservation throughout the state, based on the success and models tested during the Northwoods Tour, and are currently writing grants for future tours and projects. Hannula says they will all continue to serve as a resource for anyone with questions about personal archiving and audiovisual digitization.

“We are here for the people. Our whole job is to be there for you, and we’re open for the public and to serve the public,” Hannula says.