Digitizing Motion Picture Films in the Collection

Film Room 12
Dawn Roberts, Senior Director of Collections
August 30, 2023

Work in the Collections Department is very much “behind the scenes” and ongoing. Our Collections staff diligently catalogues and preserves the objects and information in our diverse collection and works to make it available to a range of users including scholars, artists, students, teachers, museum professionals, wildlife organizations, government agencies, and community scientists.

Some of the collections remain hidden until we can apply specialized methods of making them usable. Motion picture film collections are one of these types of collections. Motion picture films are fragile and the physical films are not usable through standard projectors. To make their content viewable, the fragile media must be digitally copied with specialized equipment and by those with particular expertise with the film medium.

The Chicago Academy of Sciences’ audiovisual collection contains over 1,300 original motion picture films documenting nature in the Midwest and across North America between 1925 to 1988.

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Film canisters in the collection.

Although our staff has catalogued the collection and the films have been preservationally rehoused to ensure they are in stable condition, the films remain unusable until they are digitized.

In August, we were awarded grant funding from the Council of Library and Information Resources to help digitize 279 of the films in our collection! Our project, “Preserving History, Conserving Nature: The Value of Digitizing the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Audiovisual Collection”, will result in the digitization of films depicting ecological habitats, plants, and animals in Illinois and other sensitive habitats. These films were created by Academy staff during field work between 1934 and 1975, including several prominent ornithologists such as Earl Wright, Alfred Bailey, and William Beecher. This first-hand source material is valuable as a visual record of habitats and species, many of which have been heavily impacted by human activity.

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Image from the motion film collection of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, William Beecher film collection.

The Academy is pleased to work with the Chicago Film Archives (CFA) for the digitization of the films. At the end of the project, the films will be shared online. Stay tuned!

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