All posts by Susan Mvungi

Film students and the Digital archive

By Susan Mvungi

Susan Mvungi is an archivist in the Primary Collections Department in Special Collections, UCT Libraries

Susan Harris showing film students how to use the Cintel scanner (Scans 16mm and 35mm film)

The Audio-visual archive was water damaged from the Jagger Library fire in April 2021, as it was housed in the basement. In an attempt to preserve and restore the archive, the digitisation project was born. UCT Libraries has been working with VRTV to digitise these fragile holdings for preservation and access by researchers, film makers and heritage practitioners.

Learn more about VRTV and our work in the archives to digitise the AV Archives.

This blog outlines the potential learning and working opportunities for postgraduate Film students through engagement with the ongoing work of the UCT Libraries Special Collections Audio-Visual Archives to support the recovery and preservation of these collections. This includes involvement in processes related to the auditing and digitisation of audio-visual material taking place at UCT Libraries COLC (Chancellor Oppenheimer Library Complex) in Immelman 4. This audit is important so as to ensure that information about the physical assets/items is accurate, and that each asset/item is given a unique identifier. Having Film students assist with the audit will ensure that the audit is streamlined and completed more quickly, and in turn Film students will get an understanding of the audio-visual archiving process and gain a new skill. This blog was written to commemorate the World Day for Audio-visual heritage celebrated globally by Audio-visual archives annually on the 27th of October. The Audio-visual heritage day is celebrated to highlight the work that archivists do and to raise awareness of the importance of archiving and preserving audio-visual resources.

Collection overview

                                                                             (Image Courtesy: Andrea Walker)

The audio-visual collection consists of the above-mentioned 44 collections. These are all kept because of their relevance to South African cultural heritage, social history and struggle history, and range from film reels dating back to the 1930s, multiple generations of cassettes and tapes popular in the 1980s and 1990s, to mini-DV’s from the 2000s.

Learn more about the AV collections by searching the Guide to AV Archives in UCT Libraries Special Collections.

The BVF44 – Orphans collection consists of audio-visual material that does not fit in other collections, and also material that was accidentally separated from its original collection during the Library salvage phase after the Jagger Library fire. The audio-visual collections can be largely categorized into the following types of footage: Amateur footage, Community organisations, Film festivals, Filmmakers, News footage and Research projects. They are in varying degrees of ageing and are considered extremely vulnerable.

Learn more about At-Risk Material in UCT Libraries Special Collections.

Digitisation Unit

VRTV set up a digitisation unit that consists of machines able to handle the different file formats of audio-visual material (e.g Betacam, DVD, MiniDV, Umatic etc). VRTV would ingest audio-visual material into a digital format. They used open-source software such as audio city for audio, and Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) for video digitising.

Audio-Visual Archives (AVA) Audit

The MA Film students (Hein De Vries, Zoe Hanslo, Oyisa Nkukwana, Tara Osborne, Mamodibe Ramodibe, Nomandla Vilakazi, and Amy Zaaiman) have assisted with the Audio-visual archives audit. This involves creating ‘basic metadata’ to ensure that every digital object is numbered in accordance with the physical object – a tape, or film reel, or CD. This is referred to as a ‘persistent identifier’ – as follows:

collection number (BVF01) _ item number (456)

The metadata is enhanced to include the title, description of content, and format of the physical object.

Giant inventory of inventories

Giant inventory of inventories

The above google spreadsheet is a shared spreadsheet used by archivists, digitisation technicians, and film students to maintain the AVA audit. A unique identifier is given. A tick denotes that the audio-visual item is physically available/present. The title/description is filled out as well as the physical format of the audio-visual item. If VRTV has digitised the item it will be denoted with a yes in the column. If the item has undergone quality control, it will get a tick.

Film students watching Kelly Nunes use the 8mm film converter

Abdul Kareem showing students the workings of a tape machine

Students inside the cold room where film reels are stored

Films students smelling the decay of the film

Acetate film base degradation also known as Vinegar syndrome is a condition that results from the deterioration of cellulose acetate over the lifetime of a film. This then causes the film to become brittle, and more prone to snapping, and to smell like vinegar (acidic odor). Temperature and humidity are the main factors that determine the deterioration of cellulose acetate and cellulose nitrate. Hence therefore the film reels are stored in the cold room.

Film students with Abdul Kareem, Susan Mvungi, Professor Alexia Smit, Andrea Arendse, and Kelly Nunes


The main aim of involving MA film students in the audio-visual audit is to streamline the process so that it may be completed quicker. In exchange, the students will gain a basic understanding of audio-visual archiving. Film students were expected to produce as an assignment, a report on audio-visual archiving and the digitisation project. Next year will see film students actually watching the digitised audio-visual material to determine what is on it, so as to better describe the material by adding metadata to the audio-visual item. The main purpose of future students watching the footage and creating additional metadata is so that we can put the metadata online and make the footage available to researchers.