Like opening a Christmas gift
by Jan Schlain
"It's like opening a Christmas gift," says Rob Hoffman.
Recently, Mitch Rosenwasser, executive director of the U-M's Camp Michigania, handed Hoffman a box of 16 mm movies taken at Michigan's summer retreat at Walloon Lake. Rosenwasser wanted Hoffman's company, Priceless Photo Preservation, to digitize the movies for use in an online exhibit. "They've never been seen," says Hoffman. "They don't have a 16 mm projector."
Bringing analog images into the digital era is PPP's mission. "We see ourselves as archivists for hire," says Hoffman, who founded the company last year with help from fellow U-M School of Information grads Hanna Stelman and Eric Hansen.
It's a new career path for Hoffman, forty-seven. He started life as a journalist, most recently as a sports reporter for the Ann Arbor News, but took a buyout as the paper shed its old hands. He did some soul searching, couldn't find work, and took classes at WCC, then at SI. Two years ago, he spent a summer digitizing old records in the basement of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, turning, as he put it, "boxes and boxes of crap into foie gras." Then fate stepped in.
Chuck Newman, founder of Dexter phone recycler ReCellular, called SI prof Victor Rosenberg, to ask if he knew of anyone who could archive and digitize all of his family slides, photos, and tapes. Rosenberg suggested posting the project on the school's job board. "By luck, I saw it, and sent [Newman] some things," Hoffman recalls. "He called me within three hours."
Hoffman dove into the project as soon as he finished his SI degree, and continued on and off for "six or seven months," working out of his home. "I started the company as I was doing it," he says. Newman had "photos, slides, movies--basically the whole gamut. I learned as I went along."
While he was archiving Newman's collection, Hoffman says, he realized "this could be a service a lot of people would love to have." He also
realized that "I can't do it alone. Since the job market is pretty bad for librarians and archivists, he had no problem finding two unemployed SI grads and turning them into partners--Stelman and Hansen, a generation younger than Hoffman, work from their homes, too (Stelman in Ann Arbor, Hansen in Grand Rapids).
The charges are pretty much a la carte--a little like a car wash, in that the basic slide scan, for example, is 75c per slide, for a little more attention and cleanup it's $1.05, and for the spit-shine clean, the premier package, it's $1.95. Scrapbooks are about a dollar a page to scan, and VHS-to-DVD is $35 for the first two hours and $15 per hour after that. Hoffman watches each tape as it runs, to make sure there isn't an episode of Taxi or an old scratchy Jane Fonda workout in the middle--if there is, they can cut it out, for an additional fee.
"I never went to library school to learn to launch a business," says Hoffman. "We used the money from our initial jobs to basically start the company. We did a lot of things on the cheap initially. University Property Disposition has absolutely amazing stuff. We happened to find a collection of the best scanners available, dirt cheap."
One woman gave Hoffman about three or four hundred slides she wanted digitized for her sons as a birthday present. "I was dreading it--dreading it," says Hoffman, "because it was obvious she had one of those really cheap 35 mm cameras. Remember those? They have no real focus, so you had blurry photos, you had photos without people. They want the cream of the cream, and we want them to be happy."
He scanned the slides, and brought the DVD to her house. "We put it on and started watching it. The words started pouring out of her. 'Oh I remember this!' she said. Listening to her [he realized] how much it all meant to her. They might have been the crappiest photos in the world, but they were moments in time that she remembered very vividly and cherished enormously.
"It made me realize that no matter the [visual] quality, these are all precious parts of people's lives," says Hoffman. "We often hear stories about people who have fires in their homes. What do they save first? It ain't their plasma TV. It ain't their laptop. It's all their photos."
[Originally published in December, 2012.]