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March 17, 2010

A Distended Note on the Vagaries of Access and Preservation

(A preliminary note to the following distended note: As a public response to the named article, this was written with a general audience in mind. Please add any forgiveness for basic seeming statements to the usual forgiveness requested for syntactical idiosyncracies.)

To The Editors of The New York Times,

The recent article on the International Amateur Scanning League (“Duplicating Federal Videos for an Online Archive”) was certainly a textbook case of the networked distribution of a news story, seeping outwards through the archival community like a case of vinegar syndrome in a warm room of 1970s acetate stock. I’m sure many others, like myself, appreciate the impetus behind the actions of the IASL to duplicate and distribute DVD-based content from the collections at the National Archives and fully support the idea of the improved ability to access public domain materials. I did not see equal mention of the similarly inspired work done by The Library of Congress Flickr photostream (http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/) and YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/LibraryOfCongress), Smithsonian Folkways Radio (http://www.folkways.si.edu/explore_folkways/radio.aspx), and other fine efforts. Oh, The National Archives has a YouTube channel as well (http://www.youtube.com/user/usnationalarchives), but that is neither here nor there (rather, the internet is everywhere).

Getting back off focus, what I feel should be pointed out regarding the work that IASL and others are doing is that access is one reale in the archiving treasure chest of pieces of eight. Another segment is preservation, which itself is a multi-faceted strategy of efforts that includes, among other issues, proper storage, conservation, and transfers or duplications in a series of formats destined for different purposes. It is under this scheme that DVDs or low-resolution videos (like on YouTube) are created as access copies of the original materials. What is considered the preservation master, the item that is stored away for safety, is more typically a film (very stable medium) or uncompressed digital video or some other not terribly easy to access format. While it is possible that at some point in the future only the access copies might remain and they would be considered the de facto preservation master, it’s not really a great idea to use DVDs or low-res video as the main focus of a preservation strategy. Personally I wouldn’t really want to rely on that scratched up copy of The Gods Must Be Crazy IV: Crazy in Hong Kong or a variable quality, cut-up YouTube version of Teen Witch as the sole formats to maintain my cultural heritage.

Continued access to audiovisual materials is dependent on preservation efforts, but preservation doesn’t really mean much without the ability to access. Archiving and preservation can result in flashy access-related outcomes but, as the Times article attempts to define it, they are often achieved at the expense of seemingly unexciting processes*. Preservation work can certainly be a slog at times – as is the case with certain aspects of any career – but it is much more complicated and engaging than Insert Disc Here And Turn Knob For Prize. We audiovisual archivists are proud of our professionalism and of the work we do, and are pleased to see that other people think it’s a cool enough field that they want to emulate us in their free time.

Joshua Ranger

*(A derivative point in style and substance: Considering the extensive work NARA has done developing guidelines for architectural, storage, and environmental standards in archives, I’m not so sure of the need for anyone to have to ‘dust off’ a DVD before duplicating it as if it were some musty, forgotten item buried in the attic, as the Times would suggest. Thank you.)

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by gracelile: RT @AVPreserve Why is the Times afraid to admit archiving processes are sexy fun? New blog post com http://bit.ly/bbnBg1 #archives…

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