October 27th marks UNESCO’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. “Audiovisual” is the word we use to describe moving image and sound recordings in our archival collections, which can be any of a variety of formats. These include films, videos, DVDs, CDs, audiocassettes, 8-tracks, phonographic records, and born digital material. Amistad’s collections contain close to 8,000 individual audiovisual items, amounting to many hours of material. Whether oral histories with icons of the Civil Rights Movement from the Tom Dent collection, activist and social justice videos from the Africa Fund records, interviews with New Orleans hiphop artists from the NOLA Hiphop Archive Project collection, or an exploration of local LGBT issues from the Just for the Record collection, each of these items is an important cultural document of the 20th and 21st Centuries.
Audiovisual material is particularly susceptible to deterioration and damage, and archivists who handle AV collections face a different set of concerns than those who deal strictly with paper-based collections. Shelf stability and problems with playback are the two main threats to the preservation of our audiovisual heritage. All AV formats have their own preservation concerns, but surprisingly, older formats like motion picture film and phonographic discs have emerged as the most shelf stable items. You may find a film from the 1930s in your collection that still looks great when played, whereas a VHS from the 1990s has become completely unplayable. AV deterioration cannot be stopped, but can be slowed by storing items under optimum environmental conditions, meaning cool temperatures and low (but not too low!) humidity.
Access to playback equipment is also an ongoing concern for AV collections. Many different formats of moving image and sound recordings necessitate many different playback machines. An 8mm film cannot be played on the same projector as a 35mm film; a U-matic videotape cannot be played on the same device as a Digital Betacam tape. This means not only must an archives acquire a wide variety of playback equipment, it must also maintain the equipment to keep it in peak condition so as not to damage items being played on it. This is particularly challenging because in many instances new playback equipment and replacement parts for legacy formats has not been produced in many decades.
The emergence of digital technology has gone a long way to help archives protect their original recordings and provide easy playback for anyone who wants to access their collections, but it is not without its own problems. Bridging the gap between analog and digital can be costly and time consuming, whether archivists decide to tackle the digitization in house or ship items to a professional lab for transfer. And once recordings have been digitized, it is up to the archivists to make sure that with every software update and file transfer the recordings remain safe and playable.
Amistad began its Audiovisual Initiative in 2009. Since that time, the Center has done much to ensure the long term preservation and access to its AV collections. We have hired an audiovisual archivist to our staff, expanded our playback capabilities, rewritten policy to include AV specific concerns, and improved our storage environment. We are currently undertaking several projects to increase digital access to our audiovisual collections, including expanded cataloging, digitization and indexing of sound recordings, and sharing collections though Tulane’s Digital Library.
As this year’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage theme reminds us, we have “much more to do.” With AV collections, as with all archival collections, the job is never finished. Technology is constantly changing. New collections and new formats continue to come in. New scholarship within the archival field leads to new best practices and better techniques for safeguarding our audiovisual heritage. And while all this is happening, our collections continue to age and grow closer to the point that, if we have not yet done something to preserve them, they will be lost forever. That is why we take this annual day to highlight these concerns, to celebrate our achievements and to plan our strategies for the future.
For more information on the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage visit the UN website: http://www.un.org/en/events/audiovisualday/
Posted by Brenda Flora.