My three-month-old granddaughter helped introduce me to the world of homemade video recordings. As I slipped the cassette into my television tape player, her image appeared on the screen. I watched and listened as she drank from her bottle and made sucking sounds. She chortled and splashed in her bath, and I was with her. She celebrated Christmas, and I shared the celebration.
The sense of intimate reality, the combination of sight and sound that came from the television screen, made me understand for the first time why the video camera is replacing the movie camera as a means of recording family events. There is a vitality that emanates from the TV screen, a sense of news as it happens, that makes yesterday's home movies seem like poor imitations.
Video has other advantages over film. There is no delay while the negative is processed. The television camera, connected to a monitor, can show exactly what is being recorded. Footage can be reviewed and reshot. Lighting can be adjusted. The actors can watch themselves on screen (and laugh or groan). Tapes are easily duplicated to send to family and friends. There is no need for movie screens, projectors, extension cords, and furniture-moving. Video cassettes are played where the television is - a spot already arranged for comfortable viewing.
Though thousands of families now have TV cassette players, relatively few own video cameras. Sales are held back by the cost of the equipment - $1,500 to $2, 000 for camera, recorder, power unit, tripod, and connecting cables - and by a widespread perception that video recording equipment is difficult and mysterious to operate.
Some public libraries and cable TV operations, however, are dispelling the mystery by providing cameras on loan, along with training in their use and care.
In Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, the Hennepin County regional library circulates two sets of recording equipment. Borrowers who live in the library's service area can check out the units after presenting a library card and one other form of identification. Those who live outside Hennepin County can buy a special card for $30. Cameras are loaned for 24 hours.
Rick Johnson, senior audio-visual technician for the library's media lab, speaks encouragingly about the ability of the average person to operate a video camera. ''People come in here having absolutely no idea which end of the camera to point,'' he says. ''They walk out of here (after an hour's instruction) knowing the equipment and how easy it is to use.''
Equipment is tested before it goes out and after it comes back. The borrower is not held responsible for normal wear and tear, but is liable for other damage.
Cable TV firms also make recording equipment available to the average citizen. But there's a big difference here: tapes produced with this equipment are played over the system's public access channels and thus can be viewed by everyone who subscribes to the cable service. This opens the possibility of a community-wide audience for homemade recordings, rather than the strictly family viewing of tapes played through a cassette player.
Although the Federal Communications Commission no longer requires cable companies to reserve a channel for the public's use, most franchises offer them, and many states protect them.
Many communities in suburban Minneapolis have organizations designed to help individuals and groups make use of cable's public-access capability.
''We exist to air video developed by the public,'' says Janet Wigfield, director of Park Cable Works, a nonprofit public access corporation in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. ''Our programs are not home movies. The quality is very good.''
Ms. Wigfield maintains that programs can be developed in a way that satisfies both the individual interest and the need for high-quality material. ''There's a man who gets his friends together and they do a video,'' she says. ''They talk about life and philosophy. They play songs and read poetry. It's done with flair and a visual approach. It works.''
According to Dan Reiva, coordinator of public access for the cable system in nearby Bloomington, parents tape sporting events, dance recitals, baton twirling contests, and school band concerts. ''They can tape an event from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., then go home and see it aired at 9 p.m.,'' says Mr. Reiva. ''The audience for a specific event may be only the participants and their families.''
In Charlotte, Mich., Ernest Culp, a retired auto worker, has successfully combined the old and new technologies - 16mm home movies and cable TV public-access programming. He edits the films he takes of family outings, youth groups, summer children's camps, sky divers, pets - anything he thinks will be of interest to families. Then he transfers the film to video, dubbing in the voice-over. He now has a library of 106 half-hour programs that circulate on public-access channels from New York City to Phoenix, Ariz.