World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, which is sponsored by UNESCO and takes place every year on 27 October, is an occasion to celebrate how audio, video and film contribute to the ‘memory of the world.’
The theme for 2016 – ‘It’s your story, don’t lose it!’ – conveys the urgency of audio visual preservation and the important role sound, film and video heritage performs in the construction of cultural identities and heritage.
Great Bear make an important contribution to the preservation of audiovisual heritage.
On one level we offer practical support to institutions and individuals by transferring recordings from old formats to new.
The wider context of Great Bear’s work, however, is preservation: in our Bristol-based studio we maintain old technologies and keep ‘obsolete’ knowledge and skills alive. Our commitment to preservation happens every time we transfer a recording from one format to another.
‘The story of the audiovisual media is told partly through its technology, and it is incumbent on archives to preserve enough of it – or to preserve sufficient documentation about it – to ensure that the story can be told to new generations. Allied to this is the practical need, which will vary from archive to archive, to maintain old technology and the associated skills in a workable state. The experience of (for example) listening to an acoustic phonograph or gramophone, or watching the projection of a film print instead of a digital surrogate, is a valid aspect of public access.’
Edmondson articulates the shifting perceptions within the field of audiovisual archiving, especially in relation to the question of ‘artefact value.’
‘Carriers once thought of and managed as replaceable and disposable consumables’, he writes, ‘are now perceived as artefacts requiring very different understanding and handling.’
Viewing or listening to media in their original form, he suggests, will come to be seen as a ‘specialist archival experience,’ impossible to access without working machines.
Through the maintenance of obsolete equipment the Great Bear studio offers a bridge to such diverse audio visual heritage experiences.
These intangible cultural heritages, released through the playback of media theorist Wolfgang Ernst has called ‘Sonic Time Machines’, are part of our every day working lives.
We rarely ponder their gravity because we remain focused on day to day work: transferring, repairing, collecting and preserving the rich patina of audio visual heritage sent in by our customers.
Since 2005, UNESCO have used the landmark to highlight the importance of audiovisual archives to ‘our common heritage’ which contain ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries.’ Increasingly, however, the day is used to highlight how audio and moving image archives are particularly threatened with by ‘neglect, natural decay to technological obsolescence, as well as deliberate destruction’.
Indeed, the theme for 2014 is ‘Archives at Risk: Much More to Do.’ The Swiss National Sound Archives have made this rather dramatic short film to promote awareness of the imminent threat to audiovisual formats, which is echoed by UNESCO’s insistence that ‘all of the world’s audiovisual heritage is endangered.’
As it is World Audiovisual Heritage Day, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of the recent research and policy that has been collected and published relating to digitisation and digital preservation.
While the UNESCO anniversary is useful for raising awareness of the fragility of audiovisual mediums, what is the situation for organisations and institutions grappling with these challenges in practice?
The survey asked a range of organisations, institutions and collections to rank issues that are critical for the preservation of video collections. Respondents ‘identified the top three stumbling blocks in preserving video as:
Getting funding and other resources to start preserving video (18%)
Supporting appropriate digital storage to accommodate large and complex video files (14%)
Locating trustworthy technical guidance on video file formats including standards and best practices (11%)’
Interestingly in relation to the work we do at Great Bear, which often reveal the fragilities of digital recordings made on magnetic tape, ‘respondents report that analog/physical media is the most challenging type of video (73%) followed by born digital (42%) and digital on physical media (34%).’
It may well be that there is simply more video on analogue/ physical media than other mediums which can account for the higher response, and that archives are yet to grapple with the archival problem of digital video stored on physical mediums such as DVD and in particular, consumer grade DVD-Rs. Full details will be published on The Signal, the Library of Congress’ Digital Preservation blog, in due course.
Recent research – Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC)
Another piece of preliminary research published recently was the user consultation for the 2nd edition of the Digital Preservation Coalition’s Digital Preservation Handbook. The first edition of the Handbook was published in 2000 but was regularly updated throughout the 00s. The consultation precedes what will be a fairly substantial overhaul of the resource.
Many respondents to the consultation welcomed that a new edition would be published, stating that much content is now ‘somewhat outdated’ given the rapid change that characterises digital preservation as a technological and professional field.
Survey respondents ranked storage and preservation (1), standards and best practices (2) and metadata and documentation (3) as the biggest challenges involved in digital preservation, and therefore converge with the NDSA findings. It must be stressed, however, that there wasn’t a massive difference across all the categories that included issues such as compression and encryption, access and creating digital materials.
Some of the responses ranged from the pragmatic…
‘digital preservation training etc tend to focus on technical solutions, tools and standards. The wider issues need to be stressed – the business case, the risks, significant properties’ (16)
‘increasingly archives are being approached by community archive groups looking for ways in which to create a digital archive. Some guidance on how archive services can respond effectively and the issues and challenges that must be considered in doing so would be very welcome’ (16)
…to the dramatic…
‘The Cloud is a lethal method of storing anything other than in Lo Res for Access, and the legality of Government access to items stored on The Cloud should make Curators very scared of it. Most digital curators have very little comprehension of the effect of solar flares on digital collections if they were hit by one. In the same way that presently part of the new method of “warfare” is economic hacking and attacks on financial institutions, the risks of cyber attacks on a country’s cultural heritage should be something of massive concern, as little could demoralise a population more rapidly. Large archives seem aware of this, but not many smaller ones that lack the skill to protect themselves’ (17)
…Others stressed legal issues related to rights management…
‘recording the rights to use digital content and ownership of digital content throughout its history/ life is critical. Because of the efforts to share bits of data and the ease of doing so (linked data, Europeana, commercial deals, the poaching of lines of code to be used in various tools/ services/ products etc.) this is increasingly important.’ (17)
It will be fascinating to see how the consultation are further contextualised and placed next to examples of best practice, case studies and innovative technological approaches within the fully revised 2nd edition of the Handbook.
The language of the recommendation very much echoes the rationale laid out by UNESCO for establishing World Audiovisual Heritage Day, discussed above:
‘Cinematography is an art form contained on a fragile medium, which therefore requires positive action from the public authorities to ensure its preservation. Cinematographic works are an essential component of our cultural heritage and therefore merit full protection.’
Although the recommendation relates to preservation of cinematic works specifically, the implementation report offers wide ranging insight into the uneven ways ‘the digital revolution’ has affected different countries, at the level of film production/ consumption, archiving and preservation.
The report gravely states that ‘European film heritage risks missing the digital train,‘ a phrase that welcomes a bit more explanation. One way to understand is that it describes how countries, but also Europe as a geo-political space, is currently failing to capitalise on what digital technologies can offer culturally, but also economically.
The report reveals that the theoretical promise of interoperable digital technologies-smooth trading, transmission and distribution across economic, technical and cultural borders-was hindered in practice due to costly and complex copyright laws that make the cross border availability of film heritage, re-use (or ‘mash-up’) and online access difficult to implement. This means that EU member states are not able to monetise their assets or share their cultural worth. Furthermore, this is further emphasised by the fact that ‘85% of Europe’s film heritage is estimated to be out-of-commerce, and therefore, invisible for the European citizen’ (37).
In an age of biting austerity, the report makes very clear that there simply aren’t enough funds to implement robust digitization and digital preservation plans: ‘Financial and human resources devoted to film heritage have generally remained at the same level or have been reduced. The economic situation has indeed pushed Member States to change their priorities’ (38).
There is also the issue of preserving analogue expertise: ‘many private analogue laboratories have closed down following the definitive switch of the industry to digital. This raises the question on how to maintain technology and know-how related to analogue film’ (13).
The report gestures toward what is likely to be a splitting archival-headache-to-come for custodians of born digital films: ‘resources devoted to film heritage […] continue to represent a very small fraction of resources allocated to funding of new film productions by all Member States’ (38). Or, to put it in numerical terms, for every €97 invested by the public sector in the creation of new films, only €3 go to the preservation and digitisation of these films. Some countries, namely Greece and Ireland, are yet to make plans to collect contemporary digital cinema (see opposite infographic).
Keeping up to date
It is extremely useful to have access to the research featured in this article. Consulting these different resources helps us to understand the nuts and bolts of technical practices, but also how different parts of the world are unevenly responding to digitisation. If the clock is ticking to preserve audiovisual heritage in the abrupt manner presented in the Swiss National Archives Film, the EU research in particular indicates that it may well be too late already to preserve a significant proportion of audiovisual archives that we can currently listen to and watch.
All that is left to say is: enjoy the Day for World Audiovisual Heritage! Treasure whatever endangered media species flash past your eyes and ears. Be sure to consider any practical steps you can take to ensure the films and audio recordings that are important to you remain operable for many years to come.
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.’
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.
‘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.