Click to search the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library Skip Navigation


Time Machine: Redacted by Time


One of my colleagues, speaking of our collection of unique recordings at the Library for the Performing Arts, has said that, “all of our recordings are made by professionals, but recording was not their profession.”  These recordists are authors, dancers, actors, musicians, vocalists, and choreographers to name a few. What they share is a need to create a record that can document works that take place in time and space.

Figure 1  Slowing Time, nitrate cold storage at Library of Congress in Culpeper, VA

When 16mm reversal film was the recording medium of its time, operation of the camera was often given to the least senior company member; this could lead to overexposure, underexposure, light leaks, fogging, rolling out of frame and occasionally unintended slow motion or unintended fast motion. Similar patterns followed as video technology advanced and gained dominance.

While some of these recordings may be technically challenged, it does not lessen the value of their content.  It our job to protect these voluntary cinematographers and videographers: to see that their message gets through, to see that they are not stuck in time.  This requires a degree of intimacy with the materials, a discreet knowledge of the inner workings of the cassette mechanism itself, and unprejudiced expectations of the playability of the tape.  Was it influenced by a bad environment, did it consort with other bad tapes as part of a bad batch? Did it wander into a threatening playback scenario?  We are not permitted to go back in time and aid the videographer or even whisper in their ear: open up the iris, close down the iris, move the mike closer, move the mike farther away, plug in the mike.  We cannot interfere with the timeline; it is a rule (in fiction) of time travel.  Instead we must remain in our own time capturing these moving mementos from times past making them accessible to the future.  Thank you for your pioneering efforts.

Figure 2  Prototype Time Machine, an early version of the Kinetta at Library of Congress in Culpeper, VA

The mechanisms we employ are a synthesis of the crude, the elegant and the expensive.  There are whirring hubs, accelerating reels, pilot lights and meters that can resemble a miniature George Pal set. This is appropriate, since each time we embark on a project we are building a customized time machine.

Figure 3  Sign of creeping obsolescence

An obsolescing videotape is like a latent silver image on film losing its viability until its detail and subtlety is faded by time. Time-based media, works that have duration, can themselves be stuck in time. Ever evolving, the technology of time-based media moves on without thought to the consequences for those left behind. Immediate-to-recent victims can be rescued with less effort, but as time passes the efforts become more heroic.  The black highlighter of obsolescence can seriously redact your moving image content.

In future posts, we will visit our efforts to tamper with the time line and forestall this pattern of obsolescence.


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Fantastic Post!

When someone makes film and video material existential, I can only applaud and standby in wonderment. Is there anything you can't do, Dr. Time Machine?

Not only informative but

Not only informative but highly poetic as well!

Your blog posts never

Your blog posts never disappoint. This is another gem. Very interesting read.

Post new comment