What could be more special?

I’ve just read the minutes from a recent meeting of the Lot 49 group, which was formed to address issues related to moving image digitization. [Here’s a link to notes about the inaugural meeting in July 2007.] The need to be in Dublin, OH last week precluded my being there, but reading the minutes has led me to reflect on how motion and sound fit into Jen’s and my diatribe, Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow (about digitizing special collections for access).

Our major premise is that, in cases where we will preserve the original, we ought to think about digitization for access rather than for preservation. In this way, we can get more special collections digitized and accessible, thereby increasing the demand and, hopefully funding, for our collections. The alternative, investing in time-consuming expensive processes, risks special collections becoming marginalized in the midst of the vast quantity of books on-line.

By using the phrase “special collections” we meant to draw attention to digitization of non-book materials, but we hadn’t given a lot of thought specifically to motion and sound. One way in which motion and sound are different than other non-book formats is that the delivery of access copies requires a significantly compressed file, usually sacrificing a lot of quality. Another difference is that the premise that we would most often be preserving the original doesn’t always apply to motion and sound media.

The first objective, always, is stabilization of the content, then provision of access. With motion and audio, sometimes the original is digital (e.g., much current audio) and we can derive an access copy from it. If the original is in a stable analog format (e.g., preservation-quality film), then we can digitize for access. If the original is unstable and needs to be reformatted, there are two possibilities: a) when the best option is to reformat onto another analog medium (e.g., going from nitrate to safety film), we would subsequently create a digital access copy, or b) when the best reformatting option is digital (e.g., going from magnetic tape to digital audio), we’ll want to retain all the quality possible when digitizing, and then derive an access copy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, a lot of motion and sound in our collections hasn’t even been cataloged. [Maybe the next round of CLIR/Mellon Hidden Collections grant funding should be inundated with proposals to describe hidden motion and sound collections.] Until we have a good sense of the nature and size of the problem, we won’t be effective in addressing it. [And if you have any ideas about how to survey backlogs, get in touch with Merrilee, who is launching a project to assess archival backlog survey methods.]

First describe ’em, then stabilize ’em, and then by all means, make them accessible.

Ricky Erway, Senior Program Officer at OCLC Research, worked with staff from the OCLC Research Library Partnership on projects ranging from managing born digital archives to research data curation. Ricky left OCLC in 2015.

One Comment on “What could be more special?”

  1. Great post, but let me add (and perhaps take small exception) to what you suggest regarding stabilization of content.

    Legacy moving image archival practice typically inhibits access to unpreserved film material. For example, many archives won’t transfer nitrate or vinegar syndrome-compromised film to video or digital formats without first making a preservation film copy. In an ideal world, ethics and practice would combine and we’d always have the wherewithal to preserve. But film-to-film copying happens to be terribly expensive, and much film won’t be viewed or transferred to video because it isn’t copied. We can’t let a film’s unpreserved status roadblock nondestructive forms of access when the original material can handle a pass through a telecine. Making digital surrogates available gives the record new life and may be the best way to build consensus and corral necessary resources towards its preservation.

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