Scale & Risk: Discussing Challenges to Managing A/V Collections in the RLP

I recently wrote about the results of our survey to assess the needs of the Research Library Partnership (RLP) community related to audiovisual materials in special collections. In follow-up to the survey, we held a series of conversations with RLP colleagues to share and get their read on the responses, and generally hear more about their work and needs related to A/V collections.

The calls included people from more than twenty RLP institutions, representing a range of academic, independent, and federal research libraries with archival and special collections holdings. While everyone on the calls were working with A/V collections in some way, roles varied across the group and included responsibility for audiovisual preservation, archival collections management and administration, collection curation, and metadata creation and management. Similarly, the maturity of programs of work related to A/V collections varied, with some participants in early stages of formulating an approach to their A/V backlogs and others several years into major digitization and access initiatives.

Today I’ll share highlights from these conversations, and some of the overarching themes that emerged.

Scale & Risk

All work with special collections is about managing risk, but with A/V we are working against the clock to avoid clear and present risks. These risks are well documented and widely known. In “Why Media Preservation Can’t Wait: The Gathering Storm,” Mike Casey succinctly lays out the issue:

“The problem can be effectively summarized with a few keywords: large numbers, obsolescence, degradation, high research value, and short time window.”

Casey, Mike. “Why Media Preservation Can’t Wait: The Gathering Storm.” International Association of Sound & Audiovisual Archives Journal no. 44 (January 2015): 14–22.

Our archives hold huge numbers of analog and physical digital audiovisual media, many that are unique and/or of high research value, and we have only a short window of time before the formats will degrade and playback media will no longer be available, rendering access to these collections impossible. Our colleagues at AVP have shown with their work on the Cost of Inaction Calculator, risk and cost only increases the longer we wait to address these collections.

This threat, coupled with the large numbers of audiovisual materials in our holdings and short time window, means that we must work on our A/V collections at scale. Working at scale amplifies the challenges of A/V materials like uncertain copyright or lack of detailed descriptive information, and also creates new challenges. Colleagues with more mature programs offered that each new stage of work brought new issues they hadn’t fully anticipated, often exacerbated by working at scale.

Ramping up digitization brought challenges in planning for digital storage and preservation, and dealing with copyright determination for large bodies of materials with uncertain rights status. Institutions that had used minimal level descriptive approaches to gain control of collections found that this was in tension with the requirements of their access or preservation systems. Surveys to gain baseline levels of control brought insight but also the challenge of prioritization across large areas of need and laid bare the need for more advocacy and fundraising. Projects that relied on the labor of non-specialist librarians and archivists in order to work at scale faced challenges in helping their staff to develop needed A/V related competencies.

A Shift in Mindset

Several times in our conversations, the notion of a shift in mindset came up as necessary to addressing the challenges of stewarding these collections at scale.

Thinking In Aggregate

The primary shift necessary for working at scale is away from an item-level approach that has been the tradition at many institutions. Driven by the needs of preservation, digitization, or institutional repositories workflows, A/V was often approached at the item level throughout the entire stewardship lifecycle. The work of the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in their Guidelines for Processing Collections with Audiovisual Material was invoked in more than one conversation as an important tool to support this shift in thinking. The guidelines outline an archival approach to managing and describing A/V materials iteratively and in aggregate, with specific guidance about when item-level work is warranted. One colleague described finding this guidance as “so freeing!” as well as pragmatic and useful.

An MVP for Each Stage

A challenge to shifting from item-level to scale thinking is identifying the appropriate level at which to work. Participants agreed that thinking in terms of a minimal viable product for each stage was necessary. What does smart work at each stage look like, that maximizes efficiency and uses resources responsibly, but also lays the groundwork for being able to operate at scale in the next phase of work? The Archives of American Art guidelines lay some of this out for processing, but further guidance for other activities would be useful to the community.

Holistic Prioritization and Opportunistic Action

Prioritization and program management were recurring challenges identified in the conversations. Rarely do resources match need, and there was concern about how to choose the best action to take with available resources. Several participants advocated getting a baseline level of control and understanding of all A/V holdings. Getting baseline control allows an institution to make holistic and informed decisions about further work and take intelligent advantage of resources when they become available. They pointed to projects such as the recent Smithsonian Pan-Institutional Survey of Audiovisual Collections as examples of this kind of work.

While holistic understanding is ideal, participants also advocated acting opportunistically to take advantage of resources as they became available. This might mean moving forward with digitizing high value collections that you are already aware while in process of executing a comprehensive survey. Similarly, participants cited examples of doing things out of what some might consider the traditional order. One organization described digitizing large swaths of a collection even though the resources to describe the materials would likely not be available for a year or more.

Mainstreaming A/V Responsibilities

To work at scale, a shift in thinking is also required regarding who is doing this work and how the workload can be shared more broadly. In many repositories, responsibility for audiovisual materials falls to people with a very specific skill set. In order to scale up our approaches, the range of necessary work with A/V must be taken on by a broader set of roles in the library. This may mean staff need to acquire new, A/V specific skills.

The challenges of making this shift came up across our conversations and in the free text responses in the survey. It elicited questions like: what skills are needed to do this work, what types of responsibilities can be taken on by what roles, and how much A/V specific knowledge do you need to effectively manage this work? Participants cited some good resources for things like format identification and digitization best practices that can help get work started. But they also acknowledged that there are limited resources for non-specialists to skill up broadly beyond self-study with resources like these.

Shifting the Balance Toward Access

Call participants who had experience with significant large-scale digitization encountered issues of scale and risk intolerance when it came to providing access to digitized materials. Because of the challenges of copyright determination and Section 508 compliance at scale, many institutions are only providing on-site access to digitized materials which otherwise could be accessed via streaming online. They expressed a desire for tools and approaches that could help shift the risk/access balance in favor of access, and support being responsible actors with regard to copyright, accessibility, privacy, and other rights issues. Participants cited the ARL Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Research Libraries as an important tool to think carefully about risk and access, and identified the need for an A/V specific guidance with a similar approach.

They also talked about the need for approaches similar to the take-down policies institutions use to mitigate risk when providing access to orphan works. These policies privilege access but allow for transparency about unknown copyright status and allow for quick recourse if harm has been done. One institution discussed a pilot in this spirit, addressing the need to create transcripts for their streaming audio and video. They do not have the resources to create transcripts for everything they have digitized, so they are allocating a portion of their annual budget to transcription-on-demand at researcher request. They hope this approach will allow them to iteratively address transcript creation, and will allow research interest to drive the work.    

These conversations were enlightening, adding detail and nuance to the overarching issues identified in the survey and helping to contextualize answers we saw there. I’m grateful to all who participated and shared their knowledge, insight, and experience. We will be using what we learned to determine next steps for our work supporting stewarding A/V resources in special collections.