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Rolls of archival material at the CBC headquarters in Toronto.Christopher Katsarov/Globe and Mail

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation no longer airs live dance performances, but there’s a mesmerizing ballet unfolding hundreds of times a day on the basement level of its Toronto headquarters. There, inside a floor-to-ceiling black cage locked inside a windowless room, four robotic devices conduct an intricate improvised choreographic routine, surrounded by a history of Canada told in zeroes and ones.

Hanging from a U-shaped track in the ceiling, the contraptions – similar to sleek metal breadboxes turned on their side – glide swiftly up and down among racks of high-density magnetic storage tapes, extending a metal arm to pluck cassettes and jack them briefly into ports from which producers, perhaps thousands of miles away, can pull snippets of video and audio.

In a few years’ time, this secret fortress will hold virtually everything created or aired by CBC since its first radio broadcast in 1936 (TV launched in 1952): From The Wayne & Shuster Hour to Take 30, Mr. Dressup to Morningside to Maamuitaau, As It Happens to the 1967 Stanley Cup Finals.

It will be transferred to LTO-7 digital tape (capacity: 6 terabytes) from more than 850,000 individual storage units that span about 15 different formats: including DAT (digital audio tapes), 2-inch, 1-inch and ¼-inch audio tapes, VHS, and Betacam tapes (both professional and consumer grade).

But though a mammoth more than $15-million digitization project promises to increase access to CBC archives for in-house producers and curious members of the public, some critics are upset with the broadcaster’s intention to then destroy the current versions it has of the material.

“We’re doing what [ISIS] is doing in the Middle East. We’re destroying cultural treasures,” charged Kealy Wilkinson, the executive director of the Canadian Broadcast Museum Foundation (CBMF), in an interview with The Globe and Mail. The not-for-profit organization hopes to find a way to save the storage units known as carriers. Last year, it suggested that an old NORAD bunker in North Bay could be refitted to house the CBC archives and other audio-visual material at risk of being junked.

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Magnetic tapes, historically used to hold recorded information, are seen behind a projector at the CBC archives in Toronto.Christopher Katsarov/Globe and Mail

Wilkinson said that, while making digital copies is a laudable way to increase accessibility, those copies should not be seen as equivalent to the programs stored on older formats.

“You can make copies of everything. It’s kind of like saying to the chap who runs the National Gallery, ‘We could save a lot of space, why don’t we just make digital copies of all the paintings, send them around to people and close the building?’ ”

In April, the CBMF issued an alarming press release declaring that CBC had “quietly launched a systematic process that will destroy a vital component of Canada’s cultural and broadcast heritage. And the Canadian public knows virtually nothing about it.” Backed by the actors union ACTRA, and others, the organization demanded CBC adhere to the standards set by the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), which calls for the preservation of all original carriers. It cited the BBC’s Archives and the German Broadcasting Archive as examples.

“On the face of it, in the archives world, it looks really bad,” said Toby Seay, the president of the IASA and an associate professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He noted that he could not offer a comprehensive opinion of CBC’s decision since he had not spoken with the broadcaster to probe the reasons behind its move. Still, “we stand on the principle that you maintain the original carriers, and then – if you can’t, find a way to donate them so someone else can take care of them. Destruction is your absolute last choice.”

We’re doing what [ISIS] is doing in the Middle East. We’re destroying cultural treasures.

Kealy Wilkinson

In response, CBC initiated a public relations campaign, firing off a statement in late April taking aim at the CBMF and insisting, “our archives are not being destroyed. They are being transformed into digital, file-based formats to ensure preservation.”

As part of that campaign, three CBC staff recently gave a Globe and Mail reporter and photographer a 90-minute tour of its tape, film and still photography archives, a snaking walk through a series of climate-controlled vaults (with a few chilly minutes spent at 7 C in the film vault).

The tour began on the second floor of the Broadcast Centre, where a corps of workers were methodically moving through piles of tapes recently arrived from regional centres such as St. John’s, hand-entering into a database information about what was on each carrier. Their bounty overflowed: Russ McMillen, the co-ordinator of digitization and video preservation, had spent 1 1/2 weeks in Newfoundland with two other staff, packing up about 50,000 units to ship back to Toronto. Fredericton had remitted about 35,000 assets and Charlottetown about 25,000.

For the past eight years, an in-house “ingestion centre” on the basement level had been operating 24 hours a day, transferring eight channels of video simultaneously into digital formats. At that rate, it was getting through about 600 units a week. Impressive, but not enough: After 170,000 units had been processed, with another 700,000 to go, it halted its in-house project and contracted with MediaPreserve, an industrial-sized transfer operation in Pennsylvania.

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Russ McMillen of the CBC mass digitization project walks past rolls of exposed film in a temperature controlled room of the CBC archives in Toronto.Christopher Katsarov/Globe and Mail

There, about 2,500 units a week are being processed and sent back digitally via a dedicated internet pipe to the Broadcast Centre, where they are then housed in what is known as a Redundant Array of Independent Disks, or RAID: multiple copies, to ensure security. (CBC’s French-language counterpart, Radio-Canada, will undertake its own digital transfer initiative in the future.)

During the tour, Marc Lefebvre, CBC’s director of content management and preservation, revealed that they would wait three years before beginning the program to destroy the original carriers. “To make sure we didn’t miss anything,” he said.

CBC staff overseeing the project seem indignant at the suggestion they are destroying the country’s cultural heritage. They note that its film stock – 82,000 cans holding about 20,000 hours of raw news footage, movies of the week and even the Canadian segments of Sesame Street which were shot on film – is not part of the current digitization project. The projected shelf life of film is about 400 years, so there is no rush to save it.

They insist that the tapes on which the material is currently stored are degrading and the machines used to read them (and, for that matter, the technicians who fix those machines) are nearing the end of their functional life.

And it is certainly not a money-saving initiative.

“The cheapest thing, to do,” Lefebvre said, “would be to do nothing.”

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