On the fourth floor of the Library of Virginia, a scraggly bearded man is ironing old newspapers spread out on a large desk.
"Kind of unglamorous," says Silver Persinger, looking down at a browned and brittle newspaper from 1931. "This paper is from Montgomery County in Christiansburg — see the Ku Klux Klan ad there?"
Part of the four-member Virginia Newspaper Project, Persinger has worked here as a project technician for 14 years. Today he's using archival Japanese paper with a heat-activated adhesive to prevent old newspapers from tearing further, stabilizing them so that others can handle them and put them onto microfilm.
Or as he says in a soft-spoken voice, "I smooth out the rough edges."
Behind him is a city block filled with rows of archived materials. While it may be an unglamorous job, even getting to the fourth floor requires an employee to run a gauntlet of new security codes on doors and elevators in part because of a serial vandal three years ago. The mysterious page-ripper was never caught.
Persinger, 42, is better known as a video documentarian who covers every City Council meeting as well as local concerts and arts events nearly every week — all unpaid and on his own dime. He's the guy in council chambers darting between his two video cameras, trying to predict who'll speak next.
"A picture's worth a thousand words," he says. "[At the council meetings] people are making micro-expressions and you can tell a lot more about what's going on. … I do it to have a record. It tells a story and it keeps people accountable. I think just having a camera there might even change the dialogue sometimes."
City Council President Charles Samuels calls him "a dedicated man."
"He takes the time to read the ordinances and not just the caption at the top. And pays close attention to details," Samuels says. "There's nothing better than being able to have a conversation with someone who's prepared."
It all started in 2003, when Persinger put out two issues of a small newspaper called the Crow that covered council meetings. "Those were really dense," he says. "That's what I think a newspaper should be like — everything that happens at the meetings is important."
But it was time-consuming with another job, so he started video taping instead.
"Nowadays I work part-time and my boss is cool and lets me cut out to attend meetings," he says, noting that he learned right away that not many people attend the separate committee meetings, mainly because they often start before 5 p.m.
This quickly led to collecting better cameras and filming all kinds of arts events, from heavy-metal shows to spoken word and burlesque. On April 1, he recorded powerful speeches at the memorial held for former Gwar frontman Dave Brockie at the National, which he says have been watched thousands of times.
"The reason I make videos is because it's the thing I do most appreciated by the community," Persinger says. "I think it's cool to preserve our culture. If I wasn't there recording it, it would be in everyone's memory, which is so fleeting."
Persinger was born in San Francisco and moved to Los Angeles when he was 4. He describes his parents matter-of-factly as "drug-addled hippies."
"My grandmother told me my parents' friends were always calling and saying, 'You need to take these kids," he says. So when he was 8, he and his brother moved to Virginia, where they were reared by their legal guardians, an older couple in Salem. He came to Richmond in 1990 to attend Virginia Commonwealth University, where he studied English literature.
Persinger has no grand plans for all the accumulated video that keeps him up to his waist in hard drives. He hopes that collectively it will provide an archive for future generations and be useful when local issues require a look at council meeting history.
"I'm just doing what I can … I'm not a journalist, I'm a citizen advocate or an activist," he says. "A big advocate for transparency, open government, citizen participation."
Whatever he calls it, Persinger is a good example of the ever-blurring lines between journalists and citizen reporters.
William G. Oglesby, an assistant professor in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at VCU, says it's hard to argue with more sources of information.
"It becomes a case of 'buyer beware.'" he says by email. "Many of the traditional standards have fallen even for those who are paid professional journalists, but at least they have an economic incentive to be accurate. That is often not the case with bloggers and other citizen journalists."
Persinger doesn't do any writing anymore, and he knows what is working by his view counts.
"Lately, I've really gotten into filming burlesque shows. It's great because it's a visual medium," he says. "Those are by far the most popular of my videos, the burlesque stuff. City Council is least popular." S
To watch Silver Persinger's videos, go to http://vimeo.com/freesilver.