Students Saving Sounds: An Interview with Anthony Cocciolo

The five recipients of the inaugural NDSA awards are exemplars of the creativity, diversity, and collaboration essential to supporting the digital community as it works to preserve and make available digital materials. In an effort to learn more and share the work of the individuals, projects and institutions who won these awards I am excited to be able to interview them about their work and projects here on The Signal.

Today I’m thrilled to be able to chat with Anthony Cocciolo, an Assistant Professor at the Pratt Institute School of Information and Library Science. Anthony was chosen by the awards committee for his innovative approaches to teaching digital preservation practices, in particular his work partnering classes with archival institutions to work on the digitization and digital preservation of analog audio collections.

Trevor: Could you tell us about your approach to directly involving library school students in collaborations with archives? What are your learning goals for students and what does this approach provide to the archives?

Anthony: The pedagogical approach I use is called constructionism, which is the idea that education happens particularly felicitously by having students create a tangible artifact in a social environment. In our case, we create a tangible digital archive by transforming a collection of analog materials provided by partnering archives.

Screenshot of Striking a Balance: an Archive

Students are confronted with a multitude of tasks to complete this transformation, such as digitizing materials, creating metadata, designing a web-presence, integrating the technology, researching best practices and digital rights, uncovering new information about the collection, and working with donors and other stakeholders. The goal of the course is for students to develop the skills and confidence in creating digital archives.

The classes have primarily digitized content available on magnetic audiocassettes. This format is both obsolete and increasingly fragile with age. However, it was a choice format for recording oral histories and used by consumers for decades, and today’s students even vaguely remember using this technology, so it is great for use with classes.

The benefit for the partnering archives is getting a completed digital archive they can use by the end of the class. Additional benefits include getting to both promote their collections to the students, as well as be involved in educating the next generation of archivists.

It is truly fascinating to watch students get absorbed in the collections of a partnering archive, and learn about things they didn’t even know they were interested in. For example, students learn about Americans working to evacuate Jews from Nazi Germany, and rebuild Europe after the war, through the Archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Or they learn about the role of civilian ambulance drivers during WWII via the Archives of the American Field Service and AFS Intercultural Programs. Or the visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives and learn about the history of women’s sexuality. Working with real collections in need of digitization is an essential in creating an authentic experience for students.

Screenshot of the JDC Oral History Archive site

If you are interested in more information on the pedagogical approach I’ve used with my classes, I’ve written a paper about it in the open-access journal Evidence Based Library and Information Practice.

Trevor: What advice would you offer to any library school faculty or cultural heritage organizations interested in developing similar relationships and collaborations?

Anthony: Over the years of using this approach, there are a few bits of advice I would offer. The first is that as a teacher, it is important to allow the students to come to their own conclusions on how to proceed with creating the digital archive. You can kind of gently nudge one way or the other, however, it is important not to dictate how to proceed. Otherwise, the dynamic becomes a more traditional teacher-student relationship, where the teacher has all the answers and the students has to come to the teacher to find out what they are. This dynamic does not activate the problem solving skills of students.

I also think it is important to work to assure the partnering archives of the safety of their archival materials. The way I have done this is by only have a small amount of collection on-campus at any given time, and each week I would transport in new materials personally via NYC subway. This way, if there is a fire, flood, or theft, the damage to the archive is minimal.

Trevor: What are some of your biggest lessons learned in developing your approach? Are there any things that you thought would work that didn’t or parts of this process that have turned out to be easier or harder than you expected?

Anthony: One of the challenges with this approach is logistics: being able to have the right technology for a particular archival problem available to the students when they need it. This usually involves planning for needs of partnering archives as far as a year in advance to allow enough time to secure the funds, buy equipment, and get it deployed into the classroom/lab environment. Traditional academic institution purchasing cycles can make a more dynamic lab environment difficult to achieve.

Trevor: I would be curious to hear what you thought were some of the most interesting sessions at the conference? What sessions were useful to you and how can you see any of the content of the sessions informing your teaching?

Anthony: I was most interested in the sessions about archiving born-digital materials. Since all intellectual materials are primarily born digital at this point, I think it is important to have sensible tools available for archiving this kind of material, particularly ones that can take advantage of automation but still maintain archival context. Because of this interest, talks about disk imaging (such as by Mark Matienzo of Yale and Doug Reside of NYPL), automated tools for processing files (such as presented by staff from the National Archives), and preserving context for born-digital material (such as Ben Fino-Radin of Rhizone’s presentation), were particularly compelling.

Trevor: What new approaches are you thinking about bringing into your teaching? Where do you see your collaborative work between students and archives leading in the future?

Anthony: I am currently launching a new course this Fall called “Projects in Moving Image and Sound Archiving.” It builds upon the audio archiving that I have been doing for the last several years, but focuses exclusively on moving image and sound assets, such as video, film, and digital cinema.

The proliferation of born-digital moving images, such as produced by independent filmmakers, are proving to be a growing challenge to preserve. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science’s Digital Dilemma 2 report highlights how many independent films are preserved in a digitally-precarious way. This doesn’t even begin to account for video content available on social media sites like YouTube or Vimeo, portions of which may prove to have enduring value. I was reminded of how precarious this situation is when Google Video almost deleted all their content a few years ago (luckily, they reversed course at the last minute).

I think archives students are going to need to know a lot more about preserving moving image and sound content, including things like file formats, CODECS, frame rates, aspect ratios, color spaces, and physical media, as well as preservation notions germane to all digital content (such as OAIS, Trusted Digital Repositories, and so forth).
Our culture is increasingly relying on video-mediated communication (as epitomized by the widespread use of video sharing sites), thus it is important for future archivists to be able to readily handle this medium in all its variations.

I will also be recruiting partnering archives in the New York City area for future class projects so if you are interested please feel free to email me (acocciol at pratt dot edu).

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