Project Digitizing Decades of Local News Footage

Story by Kris Ketonen, Photos by Kelly Saxberg

A treasure trove of local history is being preserved through a unique Thunder Bay project. Reel Memories of the Lakehead—a partnership between the Thunder Bay Museum and the Friends of the Finnish Labour Temple—is digitizing decades’ worth of regional news footage, says Kelly Saxberg, a Thunder Bay filmmaker who’s part of the team working on the project.

The initiative, Saxberg says, came about through her work on one of her own films, Long Walk Home: The Incredible Journey of Sheila Burnford. “Just because of all my film work, I’m always on the lookout for archival [footage] for local stories that I’m making,” Saxberg says. “We heard that Dougall Media had donated […] all of their 16 mm news footage from [the mid-1950s] to 1978 to the museum.” Saxberg visited the museum’s storage area, and was able to find news footage of Burnford among the donated film; it was cleaned up, digitized, and used in Saxberg’s final film. “Our film is the best example of how incredibly important that archival news footage was,” Saxberg says.

In the interest of digitizing more of the footage, funding was secured from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation that allowed the hiring of two interns (Tom Peotto and Katie Green), who have spent about the last year cleaning and logging the footage, which is then digitized. “Some of the footage was in really rough shape,” Saxberg says. “The tin cans they were stored in were rusty. There had been a few boxes that had been stored in a shed before they went to the museum, and they had water damage. So we used these special cleaning apparatus […] and then we cleaned all of those with gas masks on, basically.”

The goal is to make the footage—which includes everything from sporting events to business grand openings to the launch of the Alexander Henry—available to researchers, says Michael deJong, curator and archivist with the Thunder Bay Museum. “Most of what the archival material that we make available is either textual or photographic,” he says. “So, doing a lot of video is sort of new territory for us, apart from a few small collections.”

“We really think it could benefit a lot of different groups.”

For more information, visit @LakeheadReelmemories on Facebook. Donations to support Reel Memories of the Lakehead can also be made through the museum.