April 17, 2012

Are Archives Not Deaccessioning Enough?

At the Spring MARAC meeting during a panel on digital preservation, a presenter showed a slide of a Post-it note adhered to an inaccessible disc that said “Save in case of miracle.” In archiving we are constantly faced with the decision (or non-decision) point of saving a decayed/corrupted original just in case some future means of reformatting is invented that will allow us to recover it versus the deaccessioning of assets that are of questionable research/resource value. These decisions are complicated by the collector’s mentality many of us possess as well as the creative, problematizing minds we must develop for archival work… I mean, just what if the percentage of a VHS tape used for recording versus its recordable length becomes an important research topic in 40 years?

There were a number of panels that touched on the issue of deaccessioning as part of archival processing, such as the seemingly easy decision to jettison eight cartons of college catalogs that were neither rare nor had any annotations or extra meaning to the collection beyond the fact that they were in the subject’s office (though a researcher did try to stop the deaccession). But there was also the reminder that the urge to save everything justincase (or because that’s what people non-conversant in the struggles over space and resources an institution faces expect) is a powerful force in our decision (or non-decision) making.

This issue comes up for me a lot because while the Save Every Frame ideology sounds nice it is incredibly impractical for the vast majority of archives out there (and not necessarily desirable, either, when truly weighing the curatorial value of all accessioned assets), but also because in my work I must necessarily approach recommendations from a technical aspect sprinkled with what I can glean in regards to institutional values and character. This is the collaborative nature of working with an organization where we combine our areas of expertise to hopefully arrive at an acceptable and realistic prioritization/preservation plan. I factor in valuation as much as I can, but my knowledge is not as deep as those within the institution.

As an outsider in this way (as opposed to the myriad other ways) there are many asset types I wonder about as far as their value to the institution or the appetite for maintaining them. Trims and outtakes from film projects are an obvious area I seen some discussions on, but what I run into more often are what I call courtesy copies — those typically 1-5 minute stories created by an outside news/information program about an institution or event, copies of which are regularly provided to the news story subject.

These may document an event or topic that the institution has not itself documented and may be of value as such. By the same token, they may be low quality versions provided on now obsolete or problematic formats, and very often on cassettes that have a much greater capacity than actual program running time (oh the 1/120th full VHS tapes I’ve seen…).

Though certainly of value to institutional history, these tapes present a great burden to physical storage resources and a great challenge to preservation decisions. Does a poor VHS dub warrant an uncompressed video preservation master, or may a lossy, more manageable format make more sense for digitization? Should the originals be saved, should one rely on the original creator to maintain a high-res version for the future, or should one take on the anticipated role of the de facto archive…Just in case? And, really, what value does a receiving institution place on these copies beyond “Well, we have it, so we should save it,” especially if burdened with formats for which they do not have playback capabilities or content of questionable copyright status? I would guess that news organizations are looking for cheaper and cheaper ways to send courtesy copies, including low-res digital files they can simply email to avoid the cost of media and postage. Where does a low bit-rate MPEG4 fit into a full-on preservation plan?

To be clear, I’m not claiming these types of materials are worthless, but asking colleagues who hold such assets how they view the value, use, and challenges of them. And not just on the content level, but on the practical level of storing, managing, and potentially reformatting (and then storing and managing those copies) those boxes and boxes and boxes of audiocassettes, DATs, VHS, U-matic, DVCam, etc., etc., etc.


In the end, these questions matter, are difficult, and point to the many resource burdens of preservation. However, the answers to such questions point to the institutional benefits of preservation and reformatting. No, it isn’t a reliable plan to reformat for licensing and monetization. And, yes, it does cost a good chunk of change to reformat for content that is potentially low quality and not currently unique. But the value to an institution’s character, to be able to say This is our history and This happened here and the world cared enough to document it —— to be able to show employees This is what you’re supporting through all of your contributions to the institution —— to be able to show patrons This is the tradition you’re becoming a part of —— these concepts are evaluated beyond monetary worth. They speak to the value of the mission and the continued support of the organization, and they speak to the value of archives in housing and providing access to that incalculable benefit.

Joshua Ranger

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  1. Jim says:

    All good questions. I work at a small liberal arts college, and two years ago the media office off-loaded a few thousand VHS tapes documenting about 20 years of college activity (and including a fair number of courtesy copies from local news stations as well). Now that we have the tapes roughly inventoried, we need to begin the process of deciding what is worth preserving (not to mention, what might be past the point of preservation). Goodness knows I don’t shy away from deaccessioning material, but I do think discarding audio/visual materials is inherently more difficult. So is it easier for archivists to simply save audio/visual materials, even those we figure are largely worthless, until they deteriorate, thus relieving us of the burden of having to destroy them? Certainly relieves us of the responsibility of having to make a choice.

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