Last week I attended a briefing day on the preservation of moving image and sound. The event was hosted by the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) in London, and brought together speakers from the archives, higher education, and broadcasting sectors. This was one of the largest and most well attended training events that the DPC has held. It was clear from the attendee list that audiovisual preservation is regarded as increasingly urgent by archivists.
So why is this? There was much talk among attendees about the ‘2025 deadline’ for digitising audiovisual materials. The deadline reflects that media carriers (such as DVDs, VHS, DAT, and Betamax) physically degrade, and that the hardware needed to play them are becoming increasingly rare. Many audiovisual experts estimate that by 2025 it will be prohibitively expensive to digitise magnetic carriers.
2025 is looming ever closer, and the audiovisual preservation challenge can feel insurmountable when juggling the day-to-day tasks of running an archive. However, the speakers had some encouraging advice about how their own organisations got started with limited staff resources. A key take away from the day is that there are some tasks which you can do, without having to be an expert in this area.
To get organisations started on their audiovisual preservation journeys, the briefing day covered activities such as:
1) Surveying what material you have
2) Undertaking a risk assessment
3) Creating a business case for digitisation and preservation
The rest of this blog summarises some of the top tips and lessons learnt conveyed by the speakers, and also where you can go to find more information on this topic.
Step 1: Survey
Knowing what audiovisual carriers you have is the foundation for making the case for digitisation and digital preservation. Many of the speakers described that this is how their organisations initially got momentum going. The level of detail in a survey will depend on what staff resources are available. A high-level overview may be the most feasible approach for some archives, but remember that the more detail that you are able to gather the easier it will be to do step 2 (the risk assessment) and step 3 (the business case).
Examples of survey methods include informal interviews with colleagues, online questionnaires, and searching finding aids. It was observed that finding aids are often not detailed and consistent enough in their description of audiovisual carriers; opening up boxes to get accurate counts and identify the carrier type may be necessary.
If you are not sure how to identify different types of carriers, some great resources are the Museum of Obsolete Media, the Preservation Self-assessment Program, and TCA’s video tape guide. These resources also come with handy images to compare against.
Step 2: Risk assessment
The next step is to assess different risks to help prioritise which material to digitise first. This prioritisation can be done through a combination of:
- Evaluating the uniqueness of the content (is the content ‘unique’, ‘rare’, or ‘common’?)
- And evaluating the preservation risk to the carrier itself
In terms of the latter, Stephen McConnachie from the British Film Institute (BFI) commented that the oldest carriers are not always the most urgent to digitise. Formats such as video can be more urgent than film, since specialised hardware is required to play video. Indiana University has an overview of the types of carriers they believe are most at risk which can help you get you started on your own assessment (page 36).
Step 3: Business case
Making the case for digitisation of audiovisual materials is a challenge and, whilst the speakers could not offer definitive answers about how to secure funding, they were able to describe the drivers in their own organisations. Some of these might be relevant for other archives as well.
Ruth Cammies from the Open University’s archive explained that by providing concrete evidence of student and staff actively requesting this type of material (as part of teaching) they were able to acquire funding for digitising some 1600 videos. Adrienne Warburton from the RTÉ has found that the archive is most successful in its funding bids when focusing on research themes across collections, as well as working in collaboration with other organisations.
Will Prentice from the British Library commented that ‘management likes big numbers’. It can be useful for business cases to estimate how many hours of audiovisual material the archive holds. Talking about audiovisual material in terms of hours instead of ‘items’ really highlights the extent and richness of these resources and the benefits of preserving them.
The DPC briefing day was packed full of advice to get started. High-level knowledge about audiovisual digitisation (and how to preserve the output from digitisation) is important, but luckily we do not all need to turn into full-blown audiovisual experts to get the conversation going. There are lots of friendly expert groups and online forums happy to answer questions. To get involved have a look at the AMIA-L Listserv and the ARA Section for Film, Sound and Photography.
Edith Halvarsson, Digital Preservation Specialist, Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford)