Posts Tagged ‘Memory’

Save our Sounds – 2030 and the threat of audiovisual extinction

Monday, February 9th, 2015

At the beginning of 2015, the British Library launched the landmark Save Our Sounds project.

The press release explained:

‘The nation’s sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation and as the means of playing them disappear from production. Archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.’

dvw-a510-digital-betacam-loading-gearYes you have read that correctly dear reader: by 2030 it is likely that we simply will not be able to play many, if not all of the tape we currently support at Great Bear. A combination of machine obsolescence, tape deterioration and, crucially, the widespread loss of skills necessary to repair, service and maintain playback machines are responsible for this astounding situation. They will make it ‘costly, difficult and, in many cases, impossible’ to preserve our recorded audio heritage beyond the proposed cut-off date.

While such news might (understandably) usher in a culture of utter panic, and, let’s face it, you’d have to have a strong disposition if you were charged with managing the Save Our Sounds project, the British Library are responding with stoic pragmatism. They are currently undertaking a national audit to map the conditions of sound archives which your organisation can contribute to.

Yet whatever way you look at it, there is need to take action to migrate any collections currently stored on obsolete media, particular if you are part of a small organisation with limited resources. The reality is it will become more expensive to transfer material as we move closer to 2030. The British Library project relates particularly to audio heritage, but the same principles apply to audiovisual collections too.

Yes that rumbling you can hear is the sound of archivists the world over engaged in flurry of selection and appraisal activities….

Extinction

One of the most interesting things about discussions of obsolete media is that the question of operability is often framed as a matter of life or death.

Formats are graded according to their ‘endangered statuses’ in more or less explicit terms, as demonstrated on this Video Preservation website which offers the following ‘obsolescence ratings’:

‘Extinct: Only one or two playback machines may exist at specialist laboratories. The tape itself is more than 20 years old.

Critically endangered: There is a small population of ageing playback machinery, with no or little engineering or manufacturing support. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are fewer working machine-hours than total population of tapes. Tapes may range in age from 40 years to 10 years.

Endangered: The machine population may be robust, but the manufacture of the machinery has stopped. Manufacturing support for the machines and the tapes becomes unavailable. The tapes are often less expensive, and more vulnerable to deterioration.

Threatened: The playback machines are available; however, either the tape format itself is unstable or has less integrity than other available formats, or it is known that a more popular or updated format will be replacing this one in a short period of time.

Vulnerable: This is a current but highly proprietary format.

Lower risk: This format will be in use over the next five years (1998-2002).’

The ratings on the video preservation website were made over ten years ago. A more comprehensive and regularly updated resource to consult is the Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP), ‘a free online tool that helps collection managers prioritize efforts to improve conditions of collections. Through guided evaluation of materials, storage/exhibit environments, and institutional policies, the PSAP produces reports on the factors that impact the health of cultural heritage materials, and defines the points from which to begin care.’ As well as audiovisual media, the resource covers photo and image material, paper and book preservation. It also has advice about disaster planning, metadata, access and a comprehensive bibliography.

The good news is that fantastic resources do exist to help archivists make informed decisions about reformatting collections.

dcc-backview

A Digital Compact Cassette

The bad news, of course, is that the problem faced by audiovisual archivists is a time-limited one, exacerbated no doubt by the fact that digital preservation practices on the ‘output end’ are far from stable. Finding machines to playback your Digital Compact Cassette collection, in other words, will only be a small part of the preservation puzzle. A life of file migrations in yet to be designed wrappers and content-management systems awaits all kinds of reformatted audiovisual media in their life-to-come as a digital archival object.

Depending on the ‘content value’ of any collection stored on obsolete media, vexed decisions will need to be made about what to keep and what to throw away at this clinical moment in the history of recorded sound.

Sounding the fifteen-year warning

At such a juncture, when the fifteen year warning has been sounded, perhaps we can pause for a second to reflect on the potential extinction of large swathes of audio visual memory.

If we accept that any kind of recording both contains memory (of a particular historical event, or performance) and helps us to remember as an aide-mémoire, what are the consequences when memory storage devices which are, according to UNESCO, ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries’, can no longer be played back?

These questions are of course profound, and emerge in response to what are consequential historical circumstances. They are questions that we will continue to ponder on the blog as we reflect on our own work transferring obsolete media, and maintaining the machines that play them back. There are no easy answers!

As the 2030 deadline looms, our audiovisual context is a sobering retort to critics who framed the widespread availability of digitisation technologies in the first decade of the 21st century as indicative of cultural malaise—evidence of a culture infatuated with its ‘past’, rather than concerned with inventing the ‘future’.

Perhaps we will come to understand the 00s as a point of audiovisual transition, when mechanical operators still functioned and tape was still in fairly good shape. When it was an easy, almost throw away decision to make a digital copy, rather than an immense preservation conundrum. So where once there was a glut of archival data—and the potential to produce it—is now the threat of abrupt and irreversible dropout.

Play those tapes back while you can!

Significant properties – technical challenges for digital preservation

Monday, April 28th, 2014

A consistent focus of our blog is the technical and theoretical issues that emerge in the world of digital preservation. For example, we have explored the challenges archivists face when they have to appraise collections in order to select what materials are kept, and what are thrown away. Such complex questions take on specific dimensions within the world of digital preservation.

If you work in digital preservation then the term ‘significant properties’ will no doubt be familiar to you. The concept has been viewed as a hindrance due to being shrouded by foggy terminology, as well as a distinct impossibility because of the diversity of digital objects in the world which, like their analogue counterparts, cannot be universally generalised or reduced to a series of measurable characteristics.

Cleaning an open reel-to-reel tape

In a technical sense, establishing a set of core characteristics for file formats has been important for initiatives like Archivematica, ‘a free and open-source digital preservation system that is designed to maintain standards-based, long-term access to collections of digital objects.’ Archivematica implement ‘default format policies based on an analysis of the significant characteristics of file formats.’ These systems manage digital information using an ‘agile software development methodology’ which ‘is focused on rapid, iterative release cycles, each of which improves upon the system’s architecture, requirements, tools, documentation, and development resources.’

Such a philosophy may elicit groans of frustration from information managers who may well want to leave their digital collections alone, and practice a culture of non-intervention. Yet this adaptive-style of project management, which is designed to respond rapidly to change, is often contrasted with predictive development that focuses on risk assessment and the planning of long-term projects. The argument against predictive methodologies is that, as a management model, it can be unwieldy and unresponsive to change. This can have damaging financial consequences, particularly when investing in expensive, risky and large scale digital preservation projects, as the BBC’s failed DMI initiative demonstrates.

Indeed, agile software development methodology may well be an important key to the sustainability of digital preservation systems which need to find practical ways of maneuvering technological innovations and the culture of perpetual upgrade. Agility in this context is synonymous with resilience, and the practical application of significant properties as a means to align file format interoperability offers a welcome anchor for a technological environment structured by persistent change.

Significant properties vs the authentic digital object

What significant properties imply, as archival concept and practice, is that desiring authenticity for the digitised and born-digital objects we create is likely to end in frustration. Simply put, preserving all the information that makes up a digital object is a hugely complex affair, and is a procedure that will require numerous and context-specific technical infrastructures.

As Trevor Owens explains: ‘you can’t just “preserve it” because the essence of what matters about “it” is something that is contextually dependent on the way of being and seeing in the world that you have decided to privilege.’ Owens uses the example of the Geocites web archiving project to demonstrate that if you don’t have the correct, let’s say ‘authentic’ tools to interpret a digital object (in this case, a website that is only discernible on certain browsers), you simply cannot see the information accurately. Part of the signal is always missing, even if something ‘significant’ remains (the text or parts of the graphics).

It may be desirable ‘to preserve all aspects of the platform in order to get at the historicity of the media practice’, Jonathan Sterne, author of MP3: Meaning of a Format suggests, but in a world that constantly displaces old technological knowledge with new, settling for the preservation of significant properties may be a pragmatic rather than ideal solution.

Analogue to digital issues

To bring these issues back to the tape we work we with at Great Bear, there are of course times when it is important to use the appropriate hardware to play the tapes back, and there is a certain amount of historically specific technical knowledge required to make the machines work in the first place. We often wonder what will happen to the specialised knowledge learnt by media engineers in the 70s, 80s and 90s, who operated tape machines that are now obsolete. There is the risk that when those people die, the knowledge will die with them. Of course it is possible to get hold of operating manuals, but this is by no means a guarantee that the mechanical techniques will be understood within a historical context that is increasingly tape-less and software-based.  By keeping our wide selection of audio and video tape machines purring, we are sustaining a machinic-industrial folk knowledge which ultimately helps to keep our customer’s magnetic tape-based, media memories, alive.

Of course a certain degree of historical accuracy is required in the transfers because, very obviously, you can’t play a V2000 tape on a VHS machine, no matter how hard you try!

Yet the need to play back tapes on exactly the same machine becomes less important in instances where the original tape was recorded on a domestic reel-to-reel recorder, such as the Grundig TK series, which may not have been of the greatest quality in the first place. To get the best digital transfer it is desirable to play back tapes on a machine with higher specifications that can read the magnetic information on the tape as fully as possible. This is because you don’t want to add any more errors to the tape in the transfer process by playing it back on a lower quality machine, which would then of course become part of the digitised signal.

It is actually very difficult to remove things like wow and flutter after a tape has been digitised, so it is far better to ensure machines are calibrated appropriately before the tape is migrated, even if the tape was not originally recorded on a machine with professional specifications. What is ultimately at stake in transferring analogue tape to digital formats is the quality of the signal. Absolute authenticity is incidental here, particularly if things sound bad.

The moral of this story, if there can be one, is that with any act of transmission, the recorded signal is liable to change. These can be slight alterations or huge drop-outs and everything in-between. The agile software developers know that given the technological conditions in which current knowledge is produced and preserved, transformation is inevitable and must be responded to. Perhaps it is realistic to assume this is the norm in society today, and creating digital preservation systems that are adaptive is key to the survival of information, as well as accepting that preserving the ‘full picture’ cannot always be guaranteed.

Irene Brown’s reel to reel recordings of folk and Gaelic culture

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Two reel-to-reel tapes and boxesWe are currently migrating a collection of tapes made by Irene Brown who, in the late 1960s, was a school teacher living in Inverness. Irene was a member of the Inverness folk club and had a strong interest in singing, playing guitar and collecting the musical heritage of folk and Gaelic culture.

The tapes, that were sent by her niece Mrs. Linda Baublys, are documents of her Auntie’s passion, and include recordings Irene made of folk music sung in a mixture of Gaelic and English at the Gellions pub, Inverness, in the late 1960s.

The tapes also include recordings of her family singing together. Linda remembered fondly childhood visits to her ‘Granny’s house that was always filled with music,’ and how her Auntie used to ‘roar and sing.’

Perhaps most illustriously, the tapes include a prize-winning performance at the annual An Comunn Gaidhealach/ The National Mòd (now Royal National Mòd). The festival, which has taken place annually at different sites across Scotland since it was founded in 1892 is modelled on the Welsh Eisteddfod and acts ‘as a vehicle for the preservation and development of the Gaelic language. It actively encourages the teaching, learning and use of the Gaelic language and the study and cultivation of Gaelic literature, history, music and art.’ Mòd festivals also help to keep Gaelic culture alive among diasporic Scottish communities, as demonstrated by the US Mòd that has taken place annually since 2008.

If you want to find out more about Gaelic music visit the Year of the Song website run by BBC Alba where you can access a selection of songs from the BBC’s Gaelic archive. If you prefer doing research in archives and libraries take a visit to the School of Scottish Studies Archives. Based at the University of Edinburgh, the collection comprises a significant sound archive containing thousands of recordings of songs, instrumental music, tales, verse, customs, beliefs, place-names biographical information and local history, encompassing a range of dialects and accents in Gaelic, Scots and English.

As well as learning some of the songs recorded on the tape to play herself, Linda plans to eventually deposit the digitised transfers with the School of Scottish Studies Archives. She will also pass the recordings on to a local school that has a strong engagement with traditional Gaelic music.

Digitising and country lanes

Linda told us it was a ‘long slog’ to get the tapes. After Irene died at the age of 42 it was too upsetting for her mother, and Linda’s Granny, to listen to them. The tapes were then passed onto Linda’s mother who also never played the tapes, so when she passed away Linda, who had been asking for the tapes for nearly 20 years, took responsibility to get them digitised.

Open reel in a box

The tapes were in fairly good condition and minimal problems arose in the transfer process. One of the tapes was however suffering from ‘country-laning’. This is when the shape of the tape has become bendy (like a country lane), most probably because it had been stored in fluctuating temperatures which cause the tape to shrink and grow. It is more common in acetate-backed tape, although Linda’s tapes were polymer-backed. Playing a tape suffering from country-laning often results in problems with the azimuth because the angle between tape head and tape are dis-aligned. A signal can still be discerned, because analogue recordings rarely drop out entirely (unlike digital tape), but the recording may waver or otherwise be less audible. When the tape has been deformed in this way it is very difficult to totally reverse the process. Consequently there has to be some compromise in the quality of the transfer.

We hope you will enjoy this excerpt from the tapes, which Linda has kindly given us permission to include in this article.

Digital Optical Technology System – ‘A non-magnetic, 100 year, green solution for data storage.’

Monday, January 27th, 2014

‘A non-magnetic, 100 year, green solution for data storage.’

This is the stuff of digital information managers’ dreams. No more worrying about active data management, file obsolescence or that escalating energy bill.

Imagine how simple life would be if there was a way to store digital information that could last, without intervention, for nearly 100 years. Those precious digital archives could be stored in a warehouse that was not climate controlled, because the storage medium was resilient enough to withstand irregular temperatures.

Imagine after 100 years an archivist enters that very same warehouse to retrieve information requested by a researcher. The archivist pulls a box off the shelf and places it on the table. In their bag they have a powerful magnifying glass which they use to read the information. Having ascertained they have the correct item, they walk out the warehouse, taking the box with them. Later that day, instructions provided as part of the product licensing over 100 years ago are used to construct a reader that will retrieve the data. The information is recovered and, having assessed the condition of the storage medium which seems in pretty good nick, the digital optical technology storage is taken back to the warehouse where it sits for another 10 years, until it is subject to its life-cycle review.Group_47_DOTS

Does this all sound too good to be true? For anyone exposed to the constantly changing world of digital preservation, the answer would almost definitely be yes. We have already covered on this blog numerous issues that the contemporary digital information manager may face. The lack of standardisation in technical practices and the bewildering array of theories about how to manage digital data mean there is currently no ‘one size fits all’ solution to tame the archive of born-digital and digitised content, which is estimated to swell to 3,000 Exabytes (thousands of petabytes) by 2020*. We have also covered the growing concerns about the ecological impact of digital technologies, such as e-waste and energy over-consumption. With this in mind, the news that a current technology exists that can by-pass many of these problems will seem like manna from heaven. What can this technology be and why have you never heard about it?

The technology in question is called DOTS, which stands for Digital Optical Technology System. The technology is owned and being developed by Group 47, who ‘formed in 2008 in order to secure the patents, designs, and manufacturing processes for DOTS, a proven 100-year archival technology developed by the Eastman Kodak Company.’ DOTS is refreshingly different from every other data storage solution on the market because it ‘eliminates media and energy waste from forced migration, costly power requirements, and rigid environmental control demands’. What’s more, DOTS are ‘designed to be “plug & play compatible” with the existing Linear Tape Open (LTO) tape-based archiving systems & workflow’.

In comparison with other digital information management systems that can employ complex software, the data imaged by DOTS does not use sophisticated technology. John Lafferty writes that at ‘the heart of DOTS technology is an extremely stable storage medium – metal alloy sputtered onto mylar tape – that undergoes a change in reflectivity when hit by a laser. The change is irreversible and doesn’t alter over time, making it a very simple yet reliable technology.’

DOTS can survive the benign neglect all data experiences over time, but can also withstand pretty extreme neglect. During research and development, for example, DOTS was exposed to a series of accelerated environmental age testing that concluded ‘there was no discernible damage to the media after the equivalent of 95.7 years.’ But the testing did not stop there. Since acquiring patents for the technology Group 47,

‘has subjected samples of DOTS media to over 72 hours of immersion each in water, benzine, isopropyl alcohol, and Clorox (™) Toilet Bowl Cleaner. In each case, there was no detectable damage to the DOTS media. However, when subjected to the citric acid of Sprite carbonated beverage, the metal had visibly deteriorated within six hours.’

Robust indeed! DOTS is also non-magnetic, chemically inert, immune from electromagnetic fields and can be stored in normal office environments or extremes ranging from -9º – 65º C. It ticks all the boxes really.

DOTS vs the (digital preservation) world

The only discernible benefit of the ‘open all hours’, random access digital information culture over a storage solution such as DOTS is accessibility. While it certainly is amazing how quick and easy it is to retrieve valuable data at the click of a button, it perhaps should not be the priority when we are planning how to best take care of the information we create, and are custodians of. The key words here are valuable data. Emerging norms in digital preservation, which emphasise the need to always be responsive to technological change, takes gambles with the very digital information it seeks to preserve because there is always a risk that migration will compromise the integrity of data.

The constant management of digital data is also costly, disruptive and time-consuming. In the realm of cultural heritage, where organisations are inevitably under resourced, making sure your digital archives are working and accessible can sap energy and morale. These issues of course affect commercial organisations too. The truth is the world is facing an information epidemic, and surely we would all rest easier if we knew our archives were safe and secure. Indeed, it seems counter-intuitive that amid the endless flashy devices and research expertise in the world today, we are yet to establish sustainable archival solutions for digital data.

256px-Dictionary_through_lens (2)

Of course, using a technology like DOTS need not mean we abandon the culture of access enabled by file-based digital technologies. It may however mean that the digital collections available on instant recall are more carefully curated. Ultimately we have to ask if privileging the instant access of information is preferable to long-term considerations that will safeguard cultural heritage and our planetary resources.

If such a consideration errs on the side of moderation and care, technology’s role in shaping that hazy zone of expectancy known as ‘the future’ needs to shift from the ‘bigger, faster, quicker, newer’ model, to a more cautious appreciation of the long-term. Such an outlook is built-in to the DOTS technology, demonstrating that to be ‘future proof’ a technology need not only withstand environmental challenges, such as flooding or extreme temperature change, but must also be ‘innovation proof’ by being immune to the development of new technologies. As John Lafferty writes, the license bought with the product ‘would also mandate full backward compatibility to Generation Zero, achievable since readers capable of reading greater data densities should have no trouble reading lower density information.’ DOTS also do not use propriety codecs, as Chris Castaneda reports, ‘the company’s plan is to license the DOTS technology to manufacturers, who would develop and sell it as a non-proprietary system.’ Nor do they require specialist machines to be read. With breathtaking simplicity, ‘data can be recovered with a light and a lens.’

It would be wrong to assume that Group 47’s development of DOTS is not driven by commercial interests – it clearly is. DOTS do however seem to solve many of the real problems that currently afflict the responsible and long-term management of digital information. It will be interesting to see if the technology is adopted and by who. Watch this space!

* According to a 2011 Enterprise Strategy Group Archive TCO Study

Digital Records of the First World War

Monday, January 20th, 2014

Across the world, 2014-2018 will be remembered for its commitment to remembrance. The events being remembered are, of course, those related to the First World War.

A soldier being presented with a medal, during World War I. He is standing in front of four men on a small platform. One is reaching over and pinning a medal to the soldier's lapel, another is reading from a list. More soldiers are standing to the side of the platform. This is an example of an uplifting image which would reassure those at home that their 'boys' were being recognised officially for their efforts. [Original reads: 'SCENES ON THE WESTERN FRONT - Presentation of medalsWhat is most intriguing about the centenary of the First World War is that it is already an occasion for growing reflection on how such an event has been remembered, and the way this shapes contemporary perceptions of history.

The UK government has committed over £50 million pounds for commemoration events such as school trips to battlefields, new exhibitions and public ceremonies. If you think that seems like a little bit too much, take a visit to the No Glory in War website, the campaign group who are questioning the purposes of commemorating a war that caused so much devastation.

The concerns raised by No Glory about political appropriation are understandable, particularly if we take into account a recent Daily Mail article written by current Education Secretary Michael Gove. In it Gove stresses that it is

‘important that we commemorate, and learn from, that conflict in the right way in the next four years. […] The war was, of course, an unspeakable tragedy, which robbed this nation of our bravest and best. Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.

The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.’

Gove clearly understands the political consequences of public remembrance. In his view, popular cultural understanding of the First World War have distorted our knowledge and proper values ‘as a nation’. There is however a ‘right way to remember,’ and this must convey particular images and ideas of the conflict, and Britain’s role within it.

Digitisation and re-interpretation

While the remembrance of the First World War will undoubtedly become, if it has not already, a political struggle over social values, digital archives will play a key role ensuring the debates that take place are complex and well-rounded. Significant archive collections will be digitised and disseminated to wide audiences because of the centenary, leading to re-interpretation and debate.

The BBC are facilitating discussions through features on their significant commemoration site, including an interesting consideration of the enduring influence of poet Wilfred Owen. Jisc and Oxford University have also collaborated to create an Open Educational Resource supporting new directions in teaching the First World War.

If you want a less UK-centric take on remembrance you can visit the Europeana 1914-1918 Website or Centenary News, a not-for-profit organisation that has been set up to provide independent, impartial and international coverage of the Centenary of the First World War.

Images from Europeana website

Other, less ‘curated’ resources, abound online. For example, the Daily Telegraph has digitised every newspaper published between 1914-1918, with each edition being ‘published’ on its centenary date. The British Library’s excellent timeline series include one relating to the First World War. Significant parts of the National Archives’ First World War collections are available to access online, including copies of war diaries, Victoria Cross and service registers for members of the Army, Navy, Airforce and War Nurses. You can also listen to ‘Voices of the Armistice,’ a series of recordings relating to Armistice Day. Similar to the Soldier’s Stories Audio Gallery on the BBC, these recordings are not the oral testimony of soldiers, but actors reading excerpts from their diaries or letters.

Oral Testimonies of the First World War

Large amounts of digitised material about the First World War are paper documents, given that portable recording technologies were not in wide scale use during the years of the conflict. 

The first hand oral testimonies of First World War soldiers have usually been recorded several years after the event. What can such oral records tell us that other forms of archival evidence can’t?

Since it became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, oral histories have often been treated with suspicion by some professional historians who have questioned their status as ‘hard evidence’. The Oral History Society website describe however the unique value of oral histories: ‘Everyone forgets things as time goes by and we all remember things in different ways. All memories are a mixture of facts and opinions, and both are important. The way in which people make sense of their lives is valuable historical evidence in itself.’

We were recently sent some oral recordings of Frank Brash, a soldier who had served in the First World War. The tapes, that were recorded in 1975 by Frank’s son Robert, were sent in by his Great-Grandson Andrew who explained how they were made ‘as part of family history, so we could pass them down the generations.’ He goes on to say that ‘Frank died in 1980 at the age of 93, my father died in 2007. Most of the tapes are his recollections of the First World War. He served as a machine gunner in the battles of Messines and Paschendale amongst others. He survived despite a life expectancy for machine gunners of 6 days. He won the Military Medal but we never found out why.’

Excerpt used with kind permission

If you are curious to access the whole interview a transcript has been sent to the Imperial War Museum who also have a significant collection of sound recordings relating to conflicts since 1914.

The recordings themselves included a lot of tape hiss because they were recorded at a low sound level, and were second generation copies of the tapes (so copies of copies).

Our job was to digitise the tapes but reduce the noise so the voices could be heard better. This was a straightforward process because even though they were copies, the tapes were in good condition. The hiss however was often as loud as the voice and required a lot of work post-migration. Fortunately, because the recording was of a male voice, it was possible to reduce the higher frequency noise significantly without affecting the audibility of Frank speaking.

Remembering the interruption

Adventure and Action Amid the rush of archive fever surrounding the First World War, it is important to remember how, as a series of events, it arguably changed the conditions of how we remember. It interrupted what Walter Benjamin called ‘communicable experience.’ In his essay ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’, Benjamin talks of men who ‘had returned from the battlefield grown silent’, unable to share what had happened to them. The image of the shell-shocked soldier, embodied by fictional characters such as Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, was emblematic of men whose experience had been radically interrupted. Benjamin went on to write:

‘Never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than the strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse drawn street-car now stood under the empty sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.’

Of course, it cannot be assumed that prior to the Great War all was fine, dandy and uncomplicated in the world. This would be a romantic and false portrayal. But the mechanical force of the Great War, and the way it delayed efforts to speak and remember in the immediate aftermath, also needs to be integrated into contemporary processes of remembrance. How will it be possible to do justice to the memory of the people who took part otherwise?

Digital Preservation – Establishing Standards and Challenges for 2014

Monday, January 13th, 2014

2014 will no doubt present a year of new challenges for those involved in digital preservation. A key issue remains the sustainability of digitisation practices within a world yet to establish firm standards and guidelines. Creating lasting procedures capable of working across varied and international institutions would bring some much needed stability to a profession often characterized by permanent change and innovation.

In 1969 The EIAJ-1 video tape was developed by the Electronic Industries Association of Japan. It was the first standardized format for industrial/non-broadcast video tape recording. Once implemented it enabled video tapes to be played on machines made by different manufacturers and it helped to make video use cheaper and more widespread, particularly within a domestic context.

Close up of tape machine on the 'play', 'stop', 'rewind' button

The introduction of standards in the digitisation world would of course have very little impact on the widespread use of digital technologies which are, in the west, largely ubiquitous. It would however make the business of digital preservation economically more efficient, simply because organisations would not be constantly adapting to change. For example, think of the costs involved in keeping up with rapid waves of technological transformation: updating equipment, migrating data and ensuring file integrity and operability are maintained are a few costly and time consuming examples of what this would entail.

Although increasingly sophisticated digital forensic technology can help to manage some of these processes, highly trained (real life!) people will still be needed to oversee any large-scale preservation project. Within such a context resource allocation will always have to account for these processes of adaptation. It has to be asked then: could this money, time and energy be practically harnessed in other, more efficient ways? The costs of non-standardisation becomes ever more pressing when we consider the amount of the digital data preserved by large institutions such as the British Library, whose digital collection is estimated to amass up to 5 petabytes (5000 terabytes) by 2020. This is not a simple case of updating your iphone to the next model, but an extremely complex and risky venture where the stakes are high. Do we really want to jeopardise rich forms cultural heritage in the name of technological progress?

The US-based National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) National Agenda for Digital Stewardship 2014 echoes such a sentiment. They argue that ‘the need for integration, interoperability, portability, and related standards and protocols stands out as a theme across all of these areas of infrastructure development’ (3). The executive summary also stresses the negative impact rapid technological change can create, and the need to ‘coordinate to develop comprehensive coverage on critical standards bodies, and promote systematic community monitoring of technology changes relevant to digital preservation.’ (2)

File Format Action Plans

One step on the way to more secure standards is the establishment of File Format Action Plans, a practice which is being increasingly recommended by US institutions. The idea behind developing a file format action plan is to create a directory of file types that are in regular use by people in their day to day lives and by institutions. Getting it all down on paper can help us track what may be described as the implicit user-standards of digital culture. This is the basic idea behind Parsimonious Preservation, discussed on the blog last year: that through observing trends in file use we may come to the conclusion that the best preservation policy is to leave data well alone since in practice files don’t seem to change that much, rather than risk the integrity of information via constant intervention.

As Lee Nilsson, who is currently working as a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the US Library of Congress writes, ‘specific file format action plans are not very common’, and when created are often subject to constant revision. Nevertheless he argues that devising action plans can ‘be more than just an “analysis of risk.” It could contain actionable information about software and formats which could be a major resource for the busy data manager.’

Other Preservation Challenges

Analogue to Digital Converter close upWhat are the other main challenges facing ‘digital stewards’ in 2014? In a world of exponential information growth, making decisions about what we keep and what we don’t becomes ever more pressing. When whole collections cannot be preserved digital curators are increasingly called upon to select material deemed representative and relevant. How is it possible to know now what material needs to be preserve for posterity? What values inform our decision making?

To take an example from our work at Great Bear: we often receive tapes from artists who have achieved little or no commercial success in their life times, but whose work is often of great quality and can tell us volumes about a particular community or musical style. How does such work stand up against commercially successful recordings? Which one is more valuable? The music that millions of people bought and enjoyed or the music that no one has ever heard?

Ultimately these questions will come to occupy a central concern for digital stewards of audio data, particularly with the explosion of born-digital music cultures which have enabled communities of informal and often non-commercial music makers to proliferate. How is it possible to know in advance what material will be valuable for people 20, 50 or 100 years from now? These are very difficult, if not impossible questions for large institutions to grapple with, and take responsibility for. Which is why, as members of a digital information management society, it is necessary to empower ourselves with relevant information so we can make considered decisions about our own personal archives.

A final point to stress is that among the ‘areas of concern’ for digital preservation cited by the NDSA, moving image and recorded sound figure highly, alongside other born-digital content such as electronic records, web and social media. Magnetic tape collections remain high risk and it is highly recommended that you migrate this content to a digital format as soon as possible. While digitisation certainly creates many problems as detailed above, magnetic tape is also threatened by physical deterioration and its own obsolescence challenges, in particular finding working machines to play back tape on. The simple truth is, if you want to access material in your tape collections it needs now to be stored in a resilient digital format. We can help, and offer other advice relating to digital information management, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

End of year thank yous to our customers

Monday, December 16th, 2013

What a year it has been in the life of Great Bear Analogue and Digital Media. As always the material customers have sent us to digitise has been fascinating and diverse, both in terms of the recordings themselves and the technical challenges presented in the transfer process. At the end of a busy year we want to take this opportunity to thank our customers for sending us their valuable tape collections, which over the course of 2013 has amounted to a whopping 900 hours of digitised material.

We feel very honoured to play a part in preserving personal and institutional archives that are often incredibly rare, unique and, more often than not, very entertaining. It is a fairly regular occurrence in the Great Bear Studio to have radio jingles from the 60s, oral histories of war veterans, recordings of family get-togethers and video documentation of avant-garde 1970s art experiments simultaneously migrating in a vibrant melee of digitisation.

Throughout the year we have been transported to a breathtaking array of places and situations via the ‘mysterious little reddish-brown ribbon.’ Spoken word has featured heavily, with highlights including Brian Pimm-Smith‘s recordings of his drive across the Sahara desert, Pilot Officer Edwin Aldridge ‘Finn’ Haddock’s memories of World-War Two, and poet Paul Roche reading his translation of Sophocles’ Antigone.

We have also received a large amount of rare or ‘lost’ audio recordings through which we have encountered unique moments in popular music history. These include live recordings from the Couriers Folk Club in Leicester, demo tapes from artists who achieved niche success like 80s John Peel favourites BOB, and large archives of prolific but unknown songwriters such as the late Jack Hollingshead, who was briefly signed to the Beatles’ Apple label in the 1960s. We always have a steady stream of tapes from Bristol Archive Records, who continue to acquire rare recordings from bands active in the UK’s reggae and post-punk scenes.  We have also migrated VHS footage of local band Meet Your Feet from the early 1990s.

Rack of three digital multi-track machines On our blog we have delved into the wonderful world of digital preservation and information management, discussing issues such as ‘parsimonious preservation‘ which is advocated by the National Archives, as well as processes such as migration, normalisation and emulation. Our research suggests that there is still no ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy in place for digital information management, and we will continue to monitor the debates and emerging practices in this field in the coming year. Migrating analogue and digital tapes to digital files remains strongly recommended for access and preservation reasons, with some experts bookmarking 15 April 2023 as the date when obsolescence for many formats will come into full effect.

We have been developing the blog into a source of information and advice for our customers, particularly relating to issues such as copyright and compression/ digital format delivery. We hope you have found it useful!

While the world is facing a growing electronic waste crisis, Great Bear is doing its bit to buck the trend by recycling old domestic and professional tape machines. In 2013 we have acquired over 20 ‘new’ old analogue and digital video machines. This has included early 70s video cassette domestic machines such as the N1502, up to the most recent obsolete formats such as Digital Betacam. We are always looking for old machines, both working and not working, so do get in touch if your spring clean involves ridding yourself of obsolete tape machines!

Our collection of test equipment is also growing as we acquire more wave form monitors, rare time-based correctors and vectorscopes. In audio preservation we’ve invested heavily in early digital audio machines such as multi-track DTRS and ADAT machines which are rapidly becoming obsolete.

We are very much looking forward to new challenges in 2014 as we help more people migrate their tape-based collections to digital formats. We are particularly keen to develop our work with larger archives and memory institutions, and can offer consultation on technical issues that arise from planning and delivering a large-scale digitisation project, so please do get in touch if you want to benefit from our knowledge and experience.

Once again a big thank you from us at Greatbear, and we hope to hear from you in the new year.

Paul Roche recordings & preservation challenges with acetate reel-to-reel magnetic tape

Monday, November 25th, 2013

We were recently sent a very interesting collection of recordings of the late poet, novelist and acclaimed translator Paul Roche. During his colourful and creative life Roche published two novels, O Pale Gallellean and Vessel of Dishonour, and several poetry collections, and brushed shoulders with some of the 20th century’s most captivating avant-garde artistic and literary figures. His faculty colleague when he worked at Smith College, MA in the late 1950s was none other than Sylvia Plath, who pithily described Roche’s ‘professional dewy blue-eyed look and his commercially gilded and curled blond hair on his erect, dainty bored aristocratic head’.

His intense 30 year friendship with painter Duncan Grant was immortalised in the book With Duncan Grant in Southern Turkey, which documented a holiday the friends took together shortly before Grant’s death. The relationship with Grant has often eclipsed Roche’s own achievements, and he is often mistakenly identified as a member of the Bloomsbury group. Roche also achieved success beyond the literary and scholarly world when his translation of Oedipus the King became the screenplay for the 1968 film starring Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles.

The recordings we were sent were made between 1960-1967 when Roche worked at universities in America. Roche experienced greater professional success in America, and his translations of Ancient Greek are still used in US schools and universities. His son Martin, who sent us the tapes, is planning to use the digitised recordings on a commemorative website that will introduce contemporary audiences to his father’s creative legacy.

The Great Bear Studio has been pleasantly awash today with the sound of Roche reading poetry and his dramatic renditions of Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus the King’, ‘Oedipus at Colonus’ and ‘Antigone’. The readings communicate his emphatic pleasure performing language via the spoken word, and an unique talent to immerse listeners in images, rhythm and phrases.

Listen to Paul Roche reading his translation of ‘Antigone’.

Our own pleasure listening to the recordings has however been disrupted because of frequent snaps in the tape. The tapes are covered in splices, which suggests they had been edited previously. Over time the adhesive glue has dried out, breaking the tape as it moves through the transport. The collection of tapes as a whole are fairly brittle because the base film, which forms the structural integrity of the tape, is made of acetate.

Canadian-based digitisation expert Richard Hess explains that

‘Acetate was the first widely used base film, with Scotch 111 being in production from 1948 through 1972/73, a total of 24-25 years. Acetate tape is generally robust and has the advantage of breaking cleanly rather than stretching substantially prior to breaking when overstressed. Acetate tapes residing in collections are over 30-years-old, with the oldest being over 60-years-old.’

The big downside to acetate is that when it degrades it loses its flexibility and becomes a bit like an extended tape measure. This means it is harder to pass the tape consistently through the tape transport. This is colloquially known in the digitisation world as ‘country-laning’, when the tape changes shape in all dimensions and becomes wiggly, like a country lane. To extend the metaphor, a well functioning tape should be flat, like, one supposes, a motorway.

Paul Roche's Tape BoxWhen a tape is ‘country-laning’ it means tracks of recorded material are moving slightly so they shift in and out of phase, dis-aligning the angle between the tape head(s) and tape, or azimuth. This has a detrimental effect on the quality of the playback because the machine reading the recorded material on the tape is at odds with surface area from which the information is being read.

If you are reading this and wondering if the base film in your tape is made of acetate, or is made of another substance such as paper or polyester, you can perform a simple test. If you hold the tape against the light and it appears translucent then the tape is acetate. There may also be a slightly odd, vinegar smell coming from the tape. If so, this is bad news for you because the tape is probably suffering from ‘Vinegar Syndrome’. Richard Hess explains that

‘Vinegar syndrome occurs as acetate decomposes and forms acetic acid. This is a well-known degradation mode for acetate film. High temperature and humidity levels, the presence of iron oxide, and the lack of ventilation all accelerate the process. Once it has started it can only be slowed down, not reversed.’

Acetate tape is also particularly vulnerable to excessive heat exposure, which makes it shrink in size. This is why you should never bake acetate tape! When acetate tape is exposed to heat it reaches what is known as the liquid-glass transition phase, the temperature where the material composition starts to change shape from a hard and relatively brittle state into a molten or rubber-like state. Although glass transition is reversible, it certainly is destructive. In other words, you can change the tape back from molten to a hard substance again but the tape would be unplayable.

While acetate backed tape has certain advantages over polyester tape in the migration process, namely it is easier to cleanly splice together tape that has broken as it has moved through the transport, unfortunately acetate tape is more fragile, and can get extremely stiff which makes it difficult to play back the tape at all. Even if you can pass the tape through the machine it may snap regularly, and will therefore require a lot of treatment in the transfer process. So if you have a valuable tape collection stored predominantly on acetate tape, we strongly recommend getting it migrated to digital format as soon as possible due to the fragility of the format. And if that whiff of vinegar is present, you need to move even more quickly!

Voice Letter – Analogue Reel-to-Reel Tape Transfer

Monday, November 18th, 2013

What can the packaging of a tape object tell you?

Grandma's voice and all of us, Xmas, Audre Boxing Day 1962

Even before a tape is played back prior to transfer the packaging can tell you a lot about how and where it has been stored, and what it was used for.

Whether the boxes include sparse notation or are covered in stamps from countries across the world, the places where the tape has been, and the personality of its owners, sometimes shines through.

The packaging can also provide insight about the cultural context of tape, like this 3″ spool that was marketed to link ‘absent friends’. The space on the back of the box to affix a stamp (that remains empty), shows how these tapes were posted to friends and family who lived far away from each other, prior to the introduction of the telephone.

The back of the tape indicates how it was used to record family gatherings, with precious recordings of ‘Grandma’s voice’ and ‘all of us’ together on rare occasions such as ‘Boxing Day 1962?’ And perhaps further recordings five years later, with the warning of the tape’s special content: ‘Elaine Don’t You Touch’, preventing further use.

 

UNESCO World Audiovisual Heritage Day – 27 October

Monday, October 28th, 2013

In 2005 UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) decided to commemorate 27 October as World Audiovisual Heritage Day. The theme for 2013 was ‘Saving Our Heritage for the Next Generation’. Even though we are a day late, we wanted to write a post to mark the occasion.

UNESCO argue that audiovisual heritage is a unique vehicle for cultural memory because it can transcend ‘language and cultural boundaries’ and appeal ‘immediately to the eye and the ear.’

Film camera beaming text 'World Day of Audio Visual Heritage'

World Audiovisual Heritage Day aims to recognise both the value and vulnerability of audiovisual heritage. It aims to raise awareness that much important material will be lost unless ‘resources, skills, and structures’ are established and ‘international action’ taken.

Many important records of the 20th and 21st century are captured on film, yet digitally preserving this material generates specific problems, which we often discuss on this blog. Andrea Zarza Canova emphasises this point on the British Library’s blog:

‘World Day for Audiovisual Heritage is an important moment to celebrate and draw attention to the efforts currently being made in audiovisual preservation. But the story doesn’t end here as the digital environment raises its own preservation challenges concerning the ephemerality of websites and digital formats. Saving our heritage for the next generation involves engaging with the ongoing complexities of preservation in a rapidly changing environment.’

World Audiovisual Heritage Day is an  ideal opportunity to delve into UNESCO’s Memory of the World collection whose audiovisual register features rare footage including photo and film documentation of Palestinian refugees, footage of Fritz Lang’s motion picture Metropolis (1927), documentary heritage of Los olvidados (“The Young and the Damned”), made in 1950 by Spanish-Mexican director Luis Buñuel, documentary heritage of Aram Khachaturian the world renowned Armenian composer and many others. Of the 301 items in the Memory of the World collection, 57 are audiovisual or have significant audiovisual elements.

Digital preservation is central to our work at the Great Bear. We see ourselves as an integral part of the wider preservation process, offering a service for archive professionals who may not always have access to obsolete playback machines, or expert technical knowledge about how best to transfer analogue tape to digital formats. So if you need help with a digitisation project why not get in touch?

UNESCO would surely approve of our work because we help keep the audiovisual memory of the world alive.

 

Digital Preservation – Planning for the Long Term

Wednesday, June 26th, 2013

There are plenty of reflections on the Great Bear tape blog about the fragility of digital data, and the need to think about digitisation as part of a wider process of data migration your information will need to make in its lifetime.

We have also explored how fast moving technological change can sometimes compromise our capacity to construct long term strategies for the survival of digital data.

digital-data-stream-visualisation (2)

This why it is so important that organisations such as the Digital Preservation Coalition, founded in February 2002, articulate a vision that aims to make ‘digital memory accessible tomorrow.’ Their website goes on to say:

Our generation has invested as never before in digital resources and we’ve done so because of the opportunity they bring. They have grown in volume, complexity and importance to the point that our children are baffled by the inefficiencies of the analogue age. Pervasive, fluid and fragile: digital data is a defining feature of our age. Industry, commerce, government, law, research, health, social care, education, the creative industries, the heritage sector and private life depend on digital materials to satisfy ubiquitous information needs and expectations. Digital preservation is an issue which all organisations, particularly in the knowledge sector, will need to address sooner or later.

As providers of a digitisation service it is important for us to understand digitisation in line with the ideas articulated above. This means creating high quality, uncompressed files that will make it as easy as possible for data migrations to happen in the future should they need to.

Organisations such as the Digital Preservation Coalition are providing sensible advice and creating forums for learning and debate about the problems and possibilities of digital preservation.

These are two things that are needed as we come to navigate an information environment heavily populated by ‘pervasive, fluid and fragile’ digital data.

 


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