AVPreserve (AVP), is a consulting firm specialising in audiovisual archives and a renowned name in our field. In the past, they have worked for HBO, MoMA and Tate Gallery and Library of Congress to name a few. Since July 2013, their consultants Kara Van Malssen and Seth Anderson have been working for VIAA.
In mid-August 2013 they came to Flanders, for a workshop about the archive system and to conduct interviews with the VIAA partners and target groups. Their expertise will enable us to build a state-of-the-art system that lives up to the expectations of our target groups. We look forward to the new insights, features, advice and practical support they will continue to provide us with. Following the partnership with VIAA, we met Kara Van Malssen of AVP, for an interesting conversation about digitisation and the main trends in their and our field: Audiovisual Preservation.
Hi Kara, Can you tell us a bit about AVP and how did you come to work with VIAA?
“At AVPreserve, we work with some incredible institutions with amazing collections, including the Library of Congress, MoMA, Yale University, Carnegie Hall, HBO, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and now VIAA.”
What experience do you bring to the table that’s especially relevant for VIAA?
A core service we provide is supporting selection of technologies to better enable preservation and access of AV content. We have worked with many clients on similar projects. We feel strongly, and have learned from experience, that
“Preservation and access environments are ecosystems of people, policies, and technologies. Therefore, we take a very holistic approach to technology selection by considering the goals and objectives of various stakeholders, and factor in the importance of change management to the entire process.”
This seems particularly important for VIAA, since there is such a large and diverse group of stakeholders involved in the initiative. As we work with a wide variety of organisations, we understand the concerns of these different stakeholding communities.
We also bring a deep understanding of large-scale projects with many moving parts. For example, we have recently been involved with a project that is similar to VIAA in several ways, which is with the US Corporation for Public Broadcasting's (CPB) American Archive. Like VIAA, the American Archive has embarked on an initiative to digitise tens of thousands of hours of AV content from over 120 different entities, including public television and radio, as well as independent producers and archives of public media content. The project has a similar structure and flow to VIAA's; essentially, tapes are given a barcode, shipped to a central digitisation service provider, and then the content and metadata is managed and preserved in a central environment. We have worked closely with CPB, the digitisation service provider, and the individual stations to ensure that the logistics of the process have been smooth and on time. Overall, we have a wealth of experience with strategic and business planning for AV archives, archival workflows and operations, metadata modeling and data management, for great number of diverse organisations, all of which is very relevant for VIAA.
Today, what are the most important challenges or issues in AV preservation that are still underestimated?
I can think of two categories of issues that are underestimated: those specific to the general public, and those from within the professional community.
“A large and overwhelming concern is the continued perception by the general public that everything is available on the web.”Kara Van Malssen
“It is now estimated by industry experts that we have a window of 10-15 years before it will no longer be economically viable to migrate content contained on physical media.”
This is not very long, and considering the enormous quantities of material out there, it is certainly not enough. There needs to be a widespread effort to raise awareness of this issue, increase funding for digitisation in the short term, and take quick action to salvage this content. By not doing this, we are essentially throwing money out the window -- all the money that has gone into acquiring and managing those physical collections over the years will be lost if no action is taken soon. Instead of looking at what will be the return on investment following digitisation, perhaps we should focus on the cost of inaction: the money lost by not migrating content to the file-based domain.
What are the most important recent trends and changes in AV preservation?
Technologically speaking, a lot has changed in recent years. Things like increased storage and bandwidth, improved web standards, and greater efficiency of AV codecs have contributed to the pervasiveness of AV on the web. This in turn has enabled digital preservation of AV content, which simply wasn't economically feasible at scale even a few years ago.
Access to AV content has also dramatically improved. We can now do really interesting things with time-based metadata and linked data on the web, for instance, all of which is grounded in standards.
“There are exciting opportunities for automated and crowdsourced annotation, which collecting institutions are now starting to take advantage of.”
The potential for AV content to be used more as information than as entertainment is emerging based on these things, which is exciting for AV archives. Because of these new opportunities, archives are no longer seen just as places that things go when they are done being used.
Archival assets have a lifecycle. We now have better tools to support the active use of AV materials. And keeping AV materials in use aids in their preservation.
In what way is AV archiving different from ‘traditional’ archiving?
The main differentiating factor is that AV content is delivered over time. This has a few implications.
First, archiving of anything that is machine or system dependent is unique, whether it is physical or digital. Because of its time-based nature, all AV content is dependent on some apparatus for playback, so it is inherently different from content that can be accessed without the aid of a technology. Preservation of these materials requires a strategy of active management as the technological environments in which they are accessed are continually changing. For better or worse there is no opportunity to "store and ignore" AV materials. This is even more compounded with digital.
“It's very hard to talk about preservation in the past tense. Nothing has been "preserved"; it's always an ongoing process.”
Second, we have to think about things like description of AV content a little differently than we do for photographs, for example. Whereas the description of a digital photograph can provide a great deal of information about the content of that image, the same doesn't apply to AV. It's basically impossible to describe, in words, an entire radio program or a television show so those words can't tell you exactly what is contained within that particular radio or television program. We need to describe segments of these programs, and align those descriptions with time stamps so they are easy to locate. Creating descriptions of segments, while more time-consuming and resource intensive, provide much more information for future users. This is very much in contrast to descriptions done by "traditional" archives, but these are critical steps if we want to support access and re-use of AV.
What challenges does digital born material pose for AV archiving?
Born-digital material is being produced much more quickly than analog material ever was. This is indeed a challenge. Due to the overwhelming volumes, digital collections run the risk of accidentally falling into a state of benign neglect.
“If we don't stay on top of tracking, identifying, organising, storing, and describing these large volumes of born-digital content, collections will quickly get out of control. It becomes too easy to lose things quickly.”
Perhaps because of this, we've noticed that some institutions simply avoid collecting born-digital materials. This trend may lead to the loss of valuable content which could just slip through the cracks, be lost to time, or simply left to the fickle whim of the web. The web has its own retention practice, a strange sort natural selection process where popular things get replicated and described in a wide variety of places, and therefore persist. The less popular things, which could be of great, undiscovered value are left to possibly disappear sooner or later.
Part of the challenge appears to be dealing with and recognising that ambiguity exists around roles in the archival process. Management of born-digital collections requires new roles, responsibilities, and coordination amongst business units. There's good news: while the volumes are higher we have many opportunities to automate the process to deal with increased content. We need to better leverage these new technologies which are coming from large industries such as IT, and provide better access to skilled professionals who can support the activities of a digital archive.
What did you do during recent work visit with VIAA and why was it useful or interesting?
Our visit was largely focused on meetings with stakeholders in VIAA. Our goal was to better understand what their expectations are for VIAA, what role they want VIAA to play, and most importantly, how they anticipate using the Media Asset Management system. We participated in the MAM working group meeting where the interesting discussion produced a lot of good system requirements and use cases that will be going into the Request for Proposals for the MAM. In addition, along with the archiving team at VIAA, we held several interviews with content providers and partners such as PACKED vzw. These discussions were very revealing. I think these interviews allowed the team as a whole to come to a better understanding of the digital AV preservation challenges and goals shared by a variety of groups, and I think we found many surprising parallels across diverse institutions.
“The conversation with the different stakeholders of VIAA will be ongoing, and will help ensure that all voices are heard as the systems and workflows take shape over the coming months.”
What did you like about Flanders?
We loved the ‘frieten’, chocolate, waffles, Flemish stew, beer, bicycle riding in the countryside and historic architecture. And most importantly: the people! Everyone we met was very welcoming, extremely accommodating, and, as we say in the US, very chill.