September 28, 2015

Your Inaccessible, Undocumented Collection Is Not Used & Therefore Has No Value

Earlier this year OCLC published some summary results from a survey on the challenges of digitization, identifying nine categories of common challenges. Most of these categories are associated with file and metadata management or access. The one category that sticks out is Audio/Visual Materials. Just that — audio/visual materials as a single challenge.

Though A/V and other complex media actually represent a broad swath of issues and decision points in their handling and preservation, the only challenges identified within this survey grouping by respondents are a complaint that outside of filmmakers, patrons are not interested in audio/visual materials… and that the cost of digitization is very high.

I can’t disagree with this second point. The digitization of certain formats and of large collections can be very expensive. But there are also certain formats and smaller collections that can be more affordable to approach. But that point is actually moot in the larger picture, as the cost is just an unavoidable factor of collection care. Either one chooses to accept the costs as a fact and work to do as much as possible, or one gives up before trying and lets their collections fade.

To be sure, reformatting is an absolute necessity for the access and preservation of audiovisual materials. It must be done or else obsolescence and decay will cause collections to become inaccessible or much much much more costly to reformat.

But I respectfully disagree. No, A/V digitization is not (currently) a challenge. There are a number of oddball or highly obsolete formats that are problematic, but the equipment and expertise for the most common formats are (for the time being) widely available. Even for difficult formats there are pockets of expertise where at least a portion of such materials can be preserved through digitization.

No, the media type is not the challenge… or at least the direct cause of the challenge. The challenge is how A/V materials have been managed in archives. The challenges are not entirely inherent in the media type. The challenges have been embedded and have arisen from the longterm neglect of A/V in archival collections, which has lead to massive backlogs in processing and reformatting/digitization. This has been exacerbated by a prior lack of attention to A/V within professional training, education, and related professional organizations, as well as the lack of development of tools, processes, and other resources for archival activities that are specific to A/V and not just applied and forced to fit (or exasperatedly given up on) from the resources developed around paper-based collections.

The challenges and costs we see in regards to A/V are a result of this history. Massive backlogs in processing and reformatting are going to be overwhelming time-consuming and costly because those activities were put off until a crisis moment. Access is not going to occur and users are not going to request access to A/V materials in archives if the content is inaccessible and/or not documented well (or at all) in finding aids or catalogs. And if people are not requesting access, digitization will not be a prioritized investment of resources or there will be no user prompted requests for digitization.

The report is correct, that filmmakers will more likely take the chance to dig through under-described content or pay for digitization because the material is essential to their work, the same way as writers will spend days digging through boxes and boxes of manuscripts or documents for their research in hope of finding that one letter or diary entry that is just what they need. The difference here, of course, is that those boxes of manuscripts and photos are easily accessible, but the A/V materials are not if there is not equipment to play them or they have not been reformatted. However, though, as we see from the growing creation, consumption, and use of media online and in our personal lives, we cannot deny that there is a vast unfed hunger for access to audio and video content from the public…and we cannot deny that that public is generally frustrated by the lack of access they see (or the amount of potential access available that they are missing).

There is more training available regarding the care for A/V materials, and new tools & resources are being developed in the community. We also see many organizations taking the small steps or, in some cases, the very large steps (Indiana University, New York Public Library, The American Archive of Public Broadcasting, Jerusalem Cinematheque, etc.) towards addressing the preservation of and access to their A/V collections, but the weight of the backlogs (and the realities of our limited timeline for reformatting) are major challenges. The work to inventory, assess, plan, budget, prioritize, and implement reformatting projects needs to be an institutional and a national priority if we want to save any portion of our audio/visual heritage.

Just do me a favor and don’t mention our file-based collection and digital preservation needs for another couple of years until we get this sorted out…

Joshua Ranger

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