Somerville Community Access Television existed before personal computers, before digital cameras and before the internet was widely used. Our history sits on VCR tapes, Hi8 cassette tapes, film reels, Umatic tapes, and DVDs. 

For the past year we have been digitizing tapes and storing our history so that the public can view these videos. We’ve found documentaries, local politics, comedies, talk shows, dramas and more.

Everything was found in bins in the basement, some covered in mold after decades of flooding in Union Square. 

Digitizing tapes that haven’t been played since the 1990s meant finding machines that would play them. We went through two rebuilt Umatic decks for 3/4 inch tapes that needed to be constantly cleaned: Mold from the tapes would build up on the player heads, and no pictures could be pulled through our digital system. Just the process of going from analog tape to digital internet required some thinking and special equipment. 

Our summer intern, Jacob Soltysiak, spent the summer of 2021 popping in each tape, rewinding it to the end, and once color bars (once used to adjust television sets) appeared, they’d hit record on a new file. In 2022, Steve Tanner took over the process.

Most tapes unfortunately didn’t say how long they were, so digitizing meant countless hours waiting until the tape stopped and finished. This could last anywhere between 10 minutes to 2 hours. 

Unfortunately, not all tapes survived, and a lot either had no color, audio, video, or were so glitchy that you couldn’t make out anything that was being shown. Most did survive luckily, and now we have a massive collection of almost all films we have helped produce here at the Somerville Media Center.

On a non-profit budget, funding extras is a challenge. Finding funds to archive our history would have been impossible without the support of the Somerville Arts Council.