IU digitizing massive media library

  • Nov. 9, 2015

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

By Kat Carlton

Bake at 120 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 hours. That’s the recipe to fix old polyester-based tapes in a special oven at Indiana University’s Innovation Center. Baking the tapes helps repair years’ worth of damage so their contents may be digitized into a massive collection as part of IU’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, or MDPI.

“It is our connection to history,” said IU chief information officer Brad Wheeler, who is a co-chair of the project. “Otherwise, many of these things will just be gone.”

IU announced the project years ago and began physically digitizing audio, video and film this summer. Officials aim to digitize more than 280,000 recordings by IU’s bicentennial in 2020. It’s funded by the Office of the President, Office of the Provost, Office of the Vice President for Research and other gifts.

Workers in the Innovation Center digitize up to nine terabytes of data per day. They work in shifts from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Director of technical operations Mike Casey said the project is vital in preserving the media because of two main factors: degradation and obsolescence. He estimated the school has only about 10-15 years to digitize a lot of the media, especially things such lacquer discs, which are audio storage media similar to vinyl records.

“It’s leaving a narrow window of opportunity,” said Casey. “With lacquer discs, it’s literally a race against time.”

And even when recordings are in OK shape, the devices used to play them have largely become obsolete, if not extinct. Andrew Dapuzzo is the Bloomington operations manager for Memnon Archiving Services. IU partnered with Memnon to do a large portion of the digitizing. He recounted driving to Ohio to get 12 VCRs for the project.

“They were the best of the best…in the '80s,” he said.

None of the recorders worked, and Dapuzzo had to “find a guy who knew a guy who knew how to solder,” in order to replace 200 dried-out capacitors in each machine to revive them.

“It was a real wake-up call for me,” said Dapuzzo, who said the Memnon team has had to search all depths of the Internet to find working equipment for the project.

Some recordings they receive are beyond repair. Others break during the digitization process. That’s where the operation’s two sides come in. First, there’s the Memnon side. The Memnon employees work with large quantities of media, having each employee digitize multiple things at once. For example, one person could be running four turntables, simultaneously digitizing four vinyl records and performing various quality checks on each one along the way.

The other side of the operation is the IU side, which handles more delicate items such as wax cylinders. They also take items that have broken more than twice during the process on the Memnon side. All the items come from various IU libraries and collections, such as musical recordings from the Jacobs School of Music. Once an item is digitized, it is sent back to its former collection.

The group hopes to generate 6.5 petabytes of data in the next four years. It will be stored in data centers in both Bloomington and Indianapolis. Since this summer, they have successfully digitized more than 28,000 recordings, all stored in a data center that would theoretically be able to withstand an F5 tornado.

“It’s certainly my hope in time that Bloomington might become an economic hub where this kind of media digitization could grow,” said Wheeler.

Some of the already digitized materials can be viewed at mdpi.iu.edu, along with more information about the project.