During more than two decades as a filmmaker, Michael Breeding has accumulated dozens of hours of interviews with historically significant Kentuckians.
But as always happens in film-making, most of that material ended up on the proverbial cutting-room floor — specifically, on hard drives and stacks of videotapes in Breeding’s Victorian home near downtown Lexington.
“I have something of value to Kentucky, and I want them preserved,” Breeding said. “They’re not protected on Beta tapes in my basement.”
Breeding’s interviews will soon have a new home online — digitized and searchable to the minute — thanks to the University of Kentucky’s Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History and software it developed that is now used by archives around the world.
“He has some interviews with people that are incredibly rare,” Nunn Center Director Doug Boyd said of what will be called the Michael Breeding Media Interview Collection. “I feel a sense of relief that this treasure trove is going to be preserved.”
The first 30 hours of donated material includes eight hours of interviews and footage Breeding videotaped over the years with his friend Thomas D. Clark, a longtime UK history professor who in retirement became Kentucky’s beloved historian laureate.
Clark remained an active, sharp-minded public figure until shortly before his death in 2005 at age 101. His grasp of Kentucky’s history and its impact on the modern Commonwealth remains as fresh as today’s headlines.
“He was never afraid to say what was on his mind,” Breeding said of Clark.
Breeding’s interviews with Clark include some of that wisdom, as well as gems such as Clark talking with elementary school students at the Kentucky Historical Society, traveling back to his native Mississippi and going on the Internet for the first time with help from a state archives librarian.
Clark, who wrote 24 books and edited six more on a manual typewriter, talks in one interview about how he would have flunked freshman English had it not been for the grace of a tough professor who became a lifelong friend.
He also tells the story of his part-time job while a student at Ole Miss in the 1920s, tending a golf course with his friend “Bill”, who went on to become the Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner.
Also in this first batch of donated materials are interviews from documentaries Breeding did about Blue Grass Airport, notable Kentucky women, Gov. and Sen. Wendell Ford, the governor’s mansion and the “black patch” tobacco wars of the early 1900s.
Breeding has made dozens of commercial and documentary films, including 14 now in the play rotation on Kentucky Educational Television and other Public Broadcasting Service stations.
Breeding said the hardest part of digitizing his interviews for UK was keeping his old Sony Beta videotape machine running.
“Back in the day, that was a piece of cake,” he said. “But guess how many times I had to fix the Beta machine yesterday? Three.”
Once Breeding’s interviews are posted online, they will be easy to search in detail.
Boyd and his staff developed the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer, or OHMS, an open-source software program that since 2014 has been available free to the public. It allows archivists to tag video with keywords so users can go directly to sections of interviews they want to hear without costly transcriptions.
Technology has dramatically increased public access to the center’s archive of 10,000 interviews, from 500 users a year to more than 10,000 per month, Boyd said. OHMS is now being used in 18 countries and by such archives as Yale University.
“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” Boyd said of the software. “It’s transforming what we do.”
Boyd thinks Breedings’ donation could help convince other filmmakers to give their raw materials to archivists for preservation. It also could help create new audiences and educational uses for their work.
“The documentary drives people to the raw material online, which provides an opportunity for the work the filmmakers did to take on new life in the classroom,” Boyd said.
At the very least, such donations mean this work will be preserved for the future.
“A lot of filmmakers just have this material sitting on shelves,” Boyd said. “With videotape, it’s a race against time.”