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Omaha Magazine

History in the Digital Age

Apr 22, 2015 12:23PM ● By Judy Horan
Lee Simmons has a goal to see all of the film in the archives of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium digitized and preserved. “We’ve got about 100,000 feet of 16mm film of virtually every animal that came into the zoo and virtually every procedure we did in the zoo’s first seven years,” he says. “We can never duplicate these.”

His first digitizing effort last year started with film from 1971 when Simmons, then director of the world-renowned zoo, helped examine and treat 384 animals at a zoo in New Orleans. He filmed the procedures on 16mm film. Forty-four years later, he has no way to view his work.

“16 mm film projectors have become antiques. Everyone is going digital,” says Simmons, now chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation.

He asked Universal Digital Preservation to digitize the video. He then shared thumb drives of the converted film with several veterinary schools.

“We were using fairly unique immobilizing drugs back then that are no longer available,” Simmons says. “I’ve shown it in the past to veterinary interns and staff here at the zoo.”

Being able to convert assets into a usable format can represent a great source of value to institutions, says Todd Murphy, Universal’s vice president. “However, each day that passes places these documents at risk of being lost forever. Digital preservation is a process that ensures this history can remain relevant well into the future.”

A rising need for digitization persuaded Murphy last year to expand into a high-security, climate-controlled space in the historic Universal Information Services building downtown. Customers are mostly corporations, organizations, libraries, and museums.

At Omaha Central High School, alumni were concerned about the loss and deterioration of items in their archives. After more than 150 years, the school has considerable history stored away. They also wanted to share historical images on the school’s website.

Alumni Jim Wigton, 1966, and Barry Combs, 1950, volunteered to see that the priceless items were digitized. The Register student newspaper is now online starting in 1886. So are yearbooks from 1904 and on. Basketball game films from the 1950s and 1960s are now digitized.

“As time and funds permit, we hope to scan much of the Alumni Association’s archive collection,” says Wigton.

Restoration Exchange Omaha also wants to make its sizable archives available to the public. The nonprofit is the result of the merging in 2013 of Landmarks Inc., Restore Omaha, and Omaha Urban Neighborhoods.

“When we merged, we inherited from Landmarks Inc. these amazing archives accumulated over 50 years,” says Restoration Exchange Omaha executive director Kristine Gerber.

“We eventually will put all these archives on our website. It will be a great resource for the community. There now isn’t one place to go if researching the architectural history of Omaha.”

Fading photos, 16 mm films, VHS tapes and audiocassettes languishing in basements can be archived, used for presentations, and shared online when digitized.

Mitch Treu oversees the expanded service for Universal. “Documentation from the past has an invaluable place in the future and making that history relevant again is possible.”




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