Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History


What are Archival Records?
Archival records are vital for understanding the past, present, and future. These primary resource materials document the activities and histories of individuals, groups, institutions, and governments. The public and private archives where records are stored and the professional archivists who care for the materials are responsible for ensuring their long term preservation, as well as providing access for research and other uses such as documentary films.

Archival records include: motion picture film, video and sound recordings, still photographs, computer files, optical disks, emails, and web pages, as well as more traditional archival records such as letters, unpublished manuscripts, maps and other paper-based documents. Many families create their own archives of photographs, film, diaries, and other records and now digitize these materials so that all family members can share memories of their ancestors. Some archives have acquired these records created by ordinary people in order to understand how people lived at various times.

Does your family have archival records? Has someone located, organized and made copies to share with the family? If not, you may want to begin before memories fade and names are no longer remembered.
Film Equiptment
The Memory of the World
Documentary heritage reflects the diversity of languages, peoples and cultures. It is the mirror of the world and its memory. - UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) launched the Memory of the World Program in 1992 to assist in the preservation of and access to the world's documentary heritage. The Memory of the World Register serves to raise awareness of the importance and fragility of this heritage by recognizing archival and library holdings of exceptional value. The Register is very broad in scope, ranging from the Phoenician Alphabet to the Radio Broadcast of the Philippine People Power Revolution, from the Diary of Anne Frank to the Magna Carta.

The John Marshall Ju/'hoan Bushman Film and Video Collection, 1950-2000 was added to the Memory of the World Register in 2009. This visual documentary record will continually be reinterpreted and used to inform research and study in the fields of cultural anthropology, linguistics, dance, music, religion, indigenous rights, environmental conservation, and more. Even more importantly, the collection is an archives for the Ju/'hoansi. It is a record of their recent history that they can use to understand their past and inform their future.
Memories Fade
It is not only important to preserve and make copies of moving images for viewing but it is essential to document the history and content of the images. The who, what, where and when of images are sometimes written down on film or video cassette boxes or in film production records but most often much of this information is in an individual's memory. There are various ways to collect that information and to document and "annotate" moving images but what is most important is that this information is collected before memories fade or disappear altogether.
For information on documenting family moving images, check out our resources section of the website.

Film Collections

To learn more about Preservation of Archival Records please visit our resources section of the website.

Moving Images
Suppose three generations in one family have made home movies: the grandparents have super 8mm film; the parents have 1/2 inch videotape; the children have digital video stored on their computer.

Do you know which one is likely to last the longest?
(Roll over images for the answer.)

Hard Drive
Spool of Film


The average life span of a storage hard drive is just 3-5 years. Hard drives can crash and in time their software and hardware become obsolete. Videotapes have a life span of 5-30 years. The magnetic particles begin to break down and the image deteriorates. Machines that can play back the video become fewer and fewer, making the technology obsolete. But film can last well over 100 years, when stored in moderate room conditions - even much longer under low temperature and humidity.
Transferring a family's home movies to videotape, DVD or hard-drives is great for sharing with many family members. But keep the film; it will probably still be in good condition and can be re-transferred when the videotape and DVD copy can no longer be played. Besides, the original film is the best quality for transferring to new formats.
To learn more about safeguarding "born"digital media and videotape, check out our resources section of the website.
Crash, Shrink, and Burn
No medium is permanent; paper, film, computer files, even etched stone all have their weaknesses. It is an archivist's job to protect against the damages of time and environment for as long as possible by utilizing various methods including duplication and good storage conditions. Audio-visual collections pose some special preservation challenges and are susceptible to a wide range of deterioration.

Click on each image to read more.

Age EnvironmentColor 16mm
MoldHard Drive

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