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College of Arts and Sciences

Dean's Blog

At the Movies

May 6, 2013

By: Mary Anne Fitzpatrick

We have a public film archive of international prominence called the Moving Image Research Collection (MIRC), housed in the University Libraries.

Every day, A&S students and faculty join major American, European and Asian filmmakers and television producers in using the archive’s 6,000 hours of diverse and exciting material.  MIRC began in the 1980s with the gift of the Fox Movietone News Collection, which experts have described as the world’s most complete record of American Culture from the 1920s.  Since that original donation, the holdings have grown dramatically and now include the recent acquisition of a major collection of fiction and documentary films from the People’s Republic of China (

Some of the films, especially the oldest and most rare, are on nitrate stock. This notoriously unstable medium requires great care and some of the sound track is barely audible.  A few years ago, the College supported a partnership between the film scholars, archivists and applied mathematicians to apply to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant on the digital reproduction of sound from optical sound tracks. This team is using the power of mathematics to analyze the image of the optical sound track, convert it to digital sound,  synchronize it with digital video, and therefore preserve the soundtrack and the films. (

I was honored to meet with the External Advisory Board for this project last week.  The Board includes prominent academics, archivists and laboratory professionals from across the country. The meeting was held at the Nickelodeon Theater, a nonprofit art house film theater in Columbia.  We were able to use the theater’s superior sound system to demonstrate to the external advisory board the software the group has created.

Thanks to this team, we will be able to preserve the university’s unique archival moving image holdings for use by future generations of students, researchers and film and media professionals.  And we will be able to hear the voices and see the interactional moves of some of the country’s  most famous 20th century leaders.

Read Previous Posts By Dean Fitzpatrick.