University Libraries receive their largest grant to preserve documentary series

| News Editors

Washington University Libraries received a $550,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—the largest grant it has ever received.

University Libraries will soon use the grant money to preserve Henry Hampton’s award-winning Civil Rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965.”

Shirley Baker, dean of the University Libraries and vice chancellor for scholarly resources, said that the project is extremely valuable.

“The film archive that we have is absolutely critical for the history of America in the 21st century, and we need to preserve both the actual film and all the interviews that go into it. The Civil Rights struggle was one of the three major events in American history. By preserving the film we are making it available for the coming centuries,” Baker said.

The original footage was donated to University Libraries in 2001 in six one-hour segments, along with the unedited interviews conducted for the documentary.

The film includes a series of interviews on the civil rights movement. PBS stations nationwide originally aired it in 1987.

According to Baker, the University possesses enough materials associated with the film that it had to be delivered to the University in semitrailers.

The film was shot on acetate-based film and will be transferred to the more durable and longer-lasting polyester film in hopes of making the content more accessible.

“Because film deteriorates, this is absolutely important that we preserve this—both for teaching here on campus and for teaching and research around the world. It is important worldwide,” Baker said.

According to University archivist Nadia Ghasedi, the principal investigator for the project, the materials will be sent to a lab in Maryland where they will be copied on polyester-based film stock. The polyester copies can theoretically last up to 500 years.

Ghasedi said that while most of the documentary is in fairly good shape, certain segments show signs of chemical decay, known as vinegar syndrome.

Copying the original film onto polyester copies will allow University Libraries to later convert the footage to a digital format.

“It’s kind of positioning us for really making these materials freely and widely accessible in the future. It’s the first step we have to take to get to that point,” Ghasedi said.

The Mellon Foundation is a not-for-profit foundation that makes grants in higher education and scholarship, scholarly communications and information technology, museums and art conservation, performing arts, and conservation and the environment.

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