Convergence of Audiovisual Archivists in the ‘Fairest Cape': A Report of the 2014 IASA Conference

On Table Mountain looking south, Atlantic coast.

On Table Mountain looking south, Atlantic coast. Photo courtesy of Carl Fleischhauer.

Upon seeing the Cape of Good Hope near Cape Town, South Africa, for the first time in 1580, Sir Francis Drake wrote in his diary that “this cape is the most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth” And I have to say that I agree.

In early October, my colleague Carl Fleischhauer and I attended the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archivists meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. Carl’s upcoming blog post covers one of the plenary sessions which included a look back at twenty-five years of significant change in audio preservation by two of the pioneers in the field.

With members from more than 70 countries, IASA as an organization is “concerned with the care of, access to, and long term preservation of the world’s sound and audiovisual heritage. IASA promotes, encourages and supports the development of best professional standards and practice in all countries through communication, cooperation, advocacy, promulgation, dissemination, training and/or education, amongst public or private archives or libraries, institutions, businesses, organizations and associations which share these purposes.”  The theme of this year’s conference was Connecting Cultures: Content, Context, and Collaboration and was held at the National Library of South Africa’s Centre for the Book.

IASA 2014, Centre for the Book

Centre for the Book. Photo courtesy of Carl Fleischhauer.

This year, the annual conference was an opportunity to officially launch the newest IASA publication, TC-05, Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers which covers in detail the function, composition, and life expectancy of audiovisual carriers as well as the influence of environmental conditions and recent recommendations on handling and storage.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of an international conference is hearing about projects in other parts of the world. For example, I learned about collaborative efforts between Sweden’s Folkmusikens Hus and the British Library to preserve audio and video collections at the National Centre for Arts and Culture in the Gambia. The University of the South Pacific talk opened my eyes to the impact of the rising sea levels due to climate change displacing communities on the Pacific island nations so there’s a strong need to preserve audiovisual materials that document site-specific traditions as people are relocated to different areas.

One of my favorite presentations was from Lizzy Komen of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision on the creative reuse of sound archives which included Andy Thomas’ gorgeous video artwork Nightingale and Canary which visualizes two recorded bird sounds. Her talk, which also covered the Social Networks Pilot, a beta map-based collaborative platform which harnesses the Europeana API to integrate sounds from the British Library and Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision via SoundCloud and AudioBoom on Historypin, was one of several which touched upon collaborative efforts.  Aggregation platforms like Europeana and National Library of Australia’s Trove were also on display.

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Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island. Photo courtesy of Carl Fleischhauer.

With the conference being in South Africa, there was a strong African focus including a talk by Diane Thram about the International Library of African Music at Rhodes University initiative to repatriate music and other data collected on field recordings to the local communities and the efforts to establish a world-class audiovisual preservation center at the BOP Recording Studios in Mafikeng through a public-private partnership with the Swiss National Sound Archives. We also were treated to excerpts from the unique collections of the National Film, Video and Sound Archives of South Africa, including the Dictabelt recordings of court proceedings of Nelson Mandela’s famous speech during the Rivonia Trial and learned about the Retro Afrika project to digitally reformat (to the DPX format), restore and re-release films produced in the 1970’s and 1980’s for the oppressed majority audiences under the apartheid era South African film subsidy programs.

Of course, Carl and I attended the conference as representatives of the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative Audio-Visual Working Group. FADGI has several reports undergoing internal and invited review that are of interest to the IASA community as a whole but especially the Technical Committee which is in the early stages of developing a guideline for the preservation of digital video collections. Not to worry! We will make an announcement on The Signal blog when these reports are ready for public comment.

Other Library of Congress efforts on display include two talks from American Folklife Center staff: Guha Shankar discussed the Civil Rights History Project and newly elected IASA board member Judith Gray told the story of the Jesse Walker Fewkes cylinder recordings of Maine’s  Passamaquoddy people which the Library of Congress is in the process of digitizing.

Our fellow Washington, D.C, area colleague Megan McShea from the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art discussed the AAA’s CLIR Hidden Collections grant project, Uncovering Hidden Audiovisual Media Documenting Postmodern Art which has produced benchmarks for archival processing of mixed media collections which contain audiovisual material as well as guidelines for the description of audiovisual media in EAD finding aids.

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IASA Technical Committee meeting. Photo courtesy of Carl Fleischhauer.

My primary interests are digital formats, especially digital video formats, as well as digitization workflows and several sessions covered these topics in earnest. Through Michel Merten of Memnon (a service provider based in Belgium, with a newly opened branch in Bloomington, Indiana), I learned about the hybrid “insourcing” approach for digitizing large collections which combines the advantages of inhouse work with outsourcing in bringing a third party outsourcer to work inside an institution facility so that each institution does the tasks that it is best at doing. For example, the cultural heritage institution who owns the collection prepares the physical carriers for digitization but an external service provider handles most of the other tasks including workflow optimization, project management, playback equipment, training, and expert technical knowledge.

Jean-Christophe Kummer from NOA (a provider of digitizing systems based in Vienna, Austria) discussed the challenges of preservation and access within broadcast archives, especially the decisions around archival file formats. An ideal archive-appropriate format, he says, is one where it must be possible to read the file without requiring the people who made the file and/or reproducing the original system. Sebastian Gabler also from NOA reminded us of the importance of the integration of OAIS principles in long-term archiving. He used the comparison of a static dinosaur model in a museum to a 3D film of dinosaurs in motion as an example of communities defining expectations for data use and delivery.

The MXF format is a topic near and dear to our hearts in FADGI so the use case presented by Tom Lorenz of Cube-Tec about issues with non-compliant MXF D10 files at Austrian broadcaster ORF TV archives was especially intriguing. Approximately 8,000 hours out of 22,000 hours of legacy MXF footage contained errors and could not be ingested into the ORF’s archive system. Using automated tools, the impacted files were analyzed and corrected to comply with MXF specifications. Quality control points, including format specification compliance, are covered in the EBU Tech 3363 publication on Quality Control. This effort produced the Periodic Table of QC Criteria (PDF).

One of the most inspiring yet practical talks was given by Will Prentice from the British Library’s Sound and Vision department about the BL’s struggle to develop a workable preservation plan to digitize its audiovisual collections. The scale of the task can be overwhelming yet the audiovisual collections continue to deteriorate with each tick of the clock. His team’s research determined that to digitize the BL’s 1.6 million physical carriers on over 40 different formats will take 48 years at current level of work. This sounds overwhelming but breaking the larger problems down into smaller solvable chunks helped clear a path forward. By adjusting the resources available to address the issue, in the BL’s case adding more digitization staff is one component of the plan, they’ve created a workable plan to digitize their collections in a more reasonable timeframe.

Such preservation planning can be facilitated by the free online Cost of Inaction Calculator demonstrated by Bert Lyons from AVPreserve which helps audiovisual preservationists convey the impacts of varying levels of preservation action to senior management. The tool asks a series of questions about the makeup of collections and institutional investment, both already committed and planned, to produce useful graphs to help articulate what stands to be lost or gained in terms of access, intellect and finances based on different scenarios. The graphs help decision makers make informed choices that promote and enable progress and taking action.

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From the ferry to Robben Island, looking back at Cape Town and Table Mountain. Photo courtesy of Carl Fleischhauer.

There were too many thoughtful presentations to cover them all here so I’ll mention just a few more in closing. Drexel University’s Toby Seay did a presentation that caught my attention on reformatting the Mitsubishi ProDigi 32-track open reel audio tape format popular in the early 1980s-1990s with artists such as Daryl Hall and Teddy Pendergrass. Some interesting points for me included the observation that some recordings used a spare audio track to store timecode data, something I came across before while working with National Archives and Records Administration collections before I came to the Library of Congress last year, and that baking the tapes at low temperatures for a prolonged period of time before digital transfer yielded a half decibel gain in signal level. Marie O’Connell from the New Zealand Film Archive gave a uniquely personal account of disaster recovery following the 7.1 earthquake in Christchurch in 2010. And finally, there was Xavier Loyant’s presentation on the Charles Cros collection of historic audiovisual playback equipment at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, which will host the 2015 IASA conference in Paris next autumn.

Read about the 2011 IASA meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, in this blog post.

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