The C-SPAN Chronicles: Part V – Cassette Tapes, and DATS, and U-matics, Oh My! or Processing Audiovisual Materials in the C-SPAN Papers Project

Hello all! Amanda here with another edition of the C-SPAN Chronicles. This week I will be discussing the challenges of processing audiovisual materials in archival collections, and the specific challenges I have encountered when processing them in the C-SPAN papers. Let’s go!

A sampling of AV material in the C-SPAN papers.

Imagine you open a box. Inside are various analog audiovisual materials – from VHS tapes, cassette tapes, and CDS, to big bulky tapes that you’ve never seen before, and tiny tapes no bigger than a post-it note. Not only are these materials varied, some of them have labels indicating their contents, some have the remnants of labels that have fallen off, and some are completely blank. Some are formats you’ve never seen before (Why is this tape bigger than my head? See below) and some are all-too familiar (what can I say, I grew up in the ‘90s.) Regardless, as an archivist, it is your task to arrange and describe this box of materials to the best of your ability. But how do you do this with minimal professional knowledge of audiovisual materials, and nothing else to go on?


This meme accurately expresses the emotions of many archivists who face processing analog AV materials. Source: Google Images.

This scenario is the one I faced with the C-SPAN papers, and I knew it was going to be the most challenging series to arrange in the entire collection. Though I have dealt with analog AV materials before in my archival career, I am much more comfortable with the digital side of things – digital files, checksums, and the like. Some archivists specialize in Media Preservation in graduate school, but I and many an archivist have not taken this route and are left with a cursory knowledge of these materials. However, I’m never one to shy away from a challenge. I knew that I should dive straight into this AV maelstrom, and hopefully I’d gain some new skills in the process. Because I knew that I’d eventually process this portion of the collection, I sought out a Society of American Archivists workshop on AV materials in archival collections, and took away much valuable information and insight. Some misconceptions I previously held about processing these materials were slashed. I learned:

I took this photo before I became the C-SPAN Project Archivist, but I still find it relevant to the topic at hand.


  • Do not arrange AV materials by format (it is tempting to group like with like), but rather you should arrange them by content.
  • Accurately identifying AV formats is extremely important for access. For example, if you have a collection of U-matic tapes but do not have their corresponding media players, researchers cannot access these items – this information should be offered upfront, rather than after the researcher has requested these materials.
  • Identifying generations of AV materials can help you determine the uniqueness of your materials – for example, a Master copy indicates it is the final edit cut of all other copies, Dubs mean duplicates, etc.
  • Ensuring that information written on or attached to the media makes its way into description is important. This might seem obvious, but because a lot of this is handwritten, it can be an arduous task for an archivist to transcribe it. In the spirit of MPLP*, some archivists might not attempt transcribing it at all, leaving out critical information about the item.

My initial assessment of C-SPAN’s varied AV materials.

Armed with this information, and some more confidence to boot, I finally began tackling C-SPAN’s AV series. In the process I encountered 12** formats of AV materials, and felt confident in identifying them (with help from the internet), as well as other key things like generations and running times. As for arrangement, I will continue to use original order as my guide, but in the future I will have a better grasp on how to arrange other audiovisual collections/series. As a processing archivist, or an archivist in general, you can never have any tools in your tool belt (except for tape! No tape!), and I’m very happy to add “more knowledge of processing audiovisual materials” to mine.

*See Meissner and Greene’s seminal archival theory on More Product, Less Process here.

** And counting…

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