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AACA Library aims to preserve its old films with new tech

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Still from AACA Library film.

With hundreds of deteriorating old films in its collection, the folks at the Antique Automobile Club of America’s library started to investigate how to digitize and preserve those old films, but quickly found their options limited by stratospheric costs. So, instead, they did what any old car enthusiast would do: They found a cheaper DIY method, though one that will still require some fundraising.

As explained in a pitch for the crowdfunding effort, the library discovered that the cost to contract out the digitization of the 300-plus films started at $50,000. Buying a commercial film scanner of their own would have set them back four times that amount.

However, building a Kinograph – an open-source film digitizer designed by Matthew Epler and capable of scanning multiple film formats – should only set the library back by about $3,500, most of which is the cost of the digital camera robust enough for a project of this size.

“We’re all tinkerers here at the library,” said Mike Reilly, a cataloger for the AACA Library. “And the possibility is there to get pretty high quality out of the Kinograph. We could even get 4K out of it. The more money we raise, the better the camera we can get.”

The library’s film collection, which Reilly said is about as old as the library itself, includes Jam Handy films, dealership training films, publicity films and footage from old AACA meets in a variety of formats, from 16mm and 35mm to VHS and laserdisc. Some AACA chapters used to borrow the films from time to time to show at their gatherings, but that practice has largely fallen by the wayside as people have gotten rid of their old film projectors.

Reilly said he did digitize a few of the films using a rather rudimentary method – he projected the films onto a screen and aimed a video camera at the screen – and uploaded them to the library’s YouTube channel, but in terms of quality “they were nothing to get excited about,” he said.

While the films have largely remained in good shape in the library’s climate controlled storage room, library officials want to preserve the films now, before they deteriorate past the point of preservation. To that end, the library has set up an Indiegogo fundraising campaign for the supplies and the camera necessary to build the Kinograph with a goal of raising $3,500 by the end of March. Contributors have already chipped in more than $1,600. Reilly also said that he and Chris Ritter, the head librarian, plan to travel to Brooklyn later this week to meet with Epler to discuss their particular needs.

Once the library has its Kinograph up and running – sometime before this year’s AACA Hershey meet – Reilly said library staff will start adding the digitized films to the library’s YouTube channel, where they will be available free of charge.