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Personal Stories, Storage Media, and Veterans History: An Interview with Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz

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The following is a guest post by Jefferson Bailey, Strategic Initiatives Manager at Metropolitan New York Library Council and co-chair of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group.

In the latest installment of the Insights Interviews series, a project of the Innovation Working Group of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance, we talk with Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz, Archivist in the Veteran’s History Project in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The VHP collects, preserves, and makes available the records of the nation’s veterans.

Jefferson: For readers that don’t know about the Veteran’s History Project, tell us a bit about how it got started, its mission and role within the Library of Congress, and about your responsibilities as an archivist for VHP.

Andrew Cassidy-Amstutz, Processing Archivist for the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, sitting at a Ripstation processing born digital oral history interviews.

Andrew: The legislation creating the VHP was passed unanimously by the United States Congress in 2000 as a way to collect, preserve and make accessible the first-hand experiences of America’s veterans.  VHP relies on volunteers, both individuals and organizations, throughout the nation to record, collec, and contribute the stories of veterans in their communities and in their lives.  In addition to audio- and video-recorded interviews, VHP accepts memoirs, collections of individual photographs and letters, diaries, maps and other historical documents from World War I through current conflicts.  VHP is part of the American Folklife Center within the Library of Congress and is one of the largest oral history collections in the United States.

As the archivist for VHP, my responsibilities are manifold.  I am not only responsible for the preservation of the project’s physical collections, but I am also tasked with the management and preservation our digital assets.  At the same time, I help to process incoming collections and also provide consultation and reference services with researchers and members of the general public.  Finally, I also oversee the growth and development of the project’s internal archives.

Jefferson: You mentioned that one unique aspect of VHP is that the public is able to directly submit both their interviews with veterans and accompanying personal material such as photographs and letters. What challenges does this pose for archivists and collection managers?

Annie Pleasant Interviewing Veteran Peter Young
Amie Pleasant Interviewing Veteran Peter Young

Andrew: One of the most significant challenges associated with the public aspect of VHP is that we rarely know what is going to arrive at the Library on a daily basis whether it is dropped off in-person or delivered through a commercial service.  We have received home movie footage, glass audio recordings, collections of hundreds of letters and photographs, multiple types of audio and video carriers and countless other unexpected, but welcome, additions to our collections.

This not only poses a challenge for archivists in anticipating immediate and long-term conservation priorities but also presents the rather unusual challenge of trying to budget for and purchase appropriate quantities of conservation supplies from year to year.  I can make broad estimates of approximately how many photographs or audio cassettes will arrive at VHP each fiscal year by observing the way our collections have grown over a specific time period, but due to the unpredictable nature of the collections we receive, it is not unusual for either that estimate to be significantly off near the end of the fiscal year or for something entirely new to arrive in our mailbox.

Jefferson: The VHP FieldKit, which provides guidelines on conducting interviews, also includes a list of accepted media types and formats for audio/video materials. Have these media and format guidelines (PDF) always been in place? Or how have they evolved over the years?

Andrew: VHP’s accepted media types and formats guidelines have evolved over the years to strike a balance between taking advantage of potential opportunities that new technologies offer for recording oral history interviews and ensuring that VHP is accessible to as many people as possible across the country.  We are always attempting to stay abreast of current technologies and we actively review our accepted media types and format guidelines on a regular basis.

We have also had to adapt our accepted media types and formats guidelines to take into consideration preservation concerns about specific media types and formats.  For example, we no longer accept DAT tapes or microcassettes due to specific preservation concerns such as their fragile nature and limited longevity.  We are also taking steps to mitigate potential preservation concerns before they manifest themselves.  VHP purchased a Ripstation several years ago and instituted our own Tangible Media Project to capture content on optical discs before we lose access to the data due to either physical damage or any type of corruption.

Oral Histories on Various Media Awaiting Processing
Oral Histories on Various Media Post Processing

Jefferson: In working with such a diverse set of acceptable media and format types, ingest and migration must be essential activities in accessioning and managing the oral history interviews that VHP receives from the public. Tell us about your experiences working with different media (optical, DigiBeta, etc.) and formats as far as failure rates, format craziness and mass content transfers? And how have these impacted submission guidelines over the years?

Andrew: Ingest and migration are absolutely essential to manage the oral history interviews that VHP receives from the public.  By the time I started with VHP in the summer of 2012, we had streamlined most of our submission guidelines to take into account preservation considerations and current technological and archival standards.  However, we still possessed a large quantity of oral history interviews received over the past decade on optical disc, various tape-based carriers and various cassette-based carriers.

Like many other archival repositories currently dealing with digital preservation, VHP does not have access to all of the equipment required to either access legacy carriers or to create preservation master files on a mass-production scale.  To overcome these obstacles, we contract with outside vendors to create preservation master files according to specifications that VHP provides.  We determine which collections should be migrated using this workflow based on preservation concerns, available funding, and numerous other practical and technical considerations.

The only opportunity I have to work with large quantities of carriers is when I use VHP’s Ripstation and apply it to our version of the Tangible Media Project.  I have been able to capture the content of approximately 4000 optical discs over the past year and I have learned so much in the process.  First, I am constantly amazed how much content can be captured from optical discs that are nine or ten years old, if not older, and that have been subjected to hazards ranging from a variety of environmental conditions during their shipment to the Library to the security screening each package receives when it arrives on Capitol Hill.  I don’t have specific numbers but the vast majority of the optical discs I have processed have finished our Tangible Media Project workflow successfully and been ingested into a digital preservation server environment.

Jefferson: Has VHP noticed changes in the types of digital storage media that are being submitted?

Andrew: We have definitely observed changes in terms of the preferred carriers over the years.  In the beginning of the project, we were receiving large quantities of VHS tapes and audio cassettes.  There was such a proliferation of alternate tape-based recording formats (Hi-8, Video-8, Digital-8, VHS-C, S-VHS, Betacam SP, Betacam Oxide, and many others) that many donors stuck with what they were familiar with.  As blank CDs and DVDs became not only more widely available but also increasingly trusted for their storage capabilities, we started receiving them in larger and larger quantities.  The vast majority of the oral history interviews that we now receive are on DVDs.  While this is likely to continue for the next two to three years, donors are beginning to ask about submitting interviews on flash drives, hard drives and via electronic file transfer.  We anticipate that this request will become more common as blank CDs and DVDs become harder to locate and with most new computers being manufactured without an optical drive.

Jefferson: Accepting unsolicited materials must also create many challenges as far as verification of the content of the interviews. How does VHP staff go about verifying the the validity of interviews?

Andrew: The Veterans History Project is not tasked with verifying the validity and accuracy of the interviews we receive, and we make no claim as to the veracity of the stories that we care for.  Rather, the diverse (and occasionally contradictory) recollections of the individuals within our collections serves to highlight the human experience of service and conflict and how those two themes shape us and contribute to our growth as individuals.

Jefferson: Tell us about unique workflows or processes that VHP has developed over the years in working with public submissions of born-digital content. Does it manage its digital content differently than curatorial units of the LC that have specific appraisal policies? And how do VHP’s digital preservation policies differ (if at all) from those of other units within LC?

Andrew: We do manage our content slightly differently than other curatorial units within the Library of Congress due to our status within the American Folklife Center.  Unlike other curatorial units, such as the Manuscript Division, I am responsible for the care and preservation of only one collection rather than hundreds.  Even though the Veterans History Project contains the experiences of tens of thousands of veterans, I am able to describe those files at a much more granular level than a traditional archival collection.  For example, I can create a specific file name for each veteran during our digital preservation workflow that corresponds to their individual record in our collections database.  This is not always possible (or even desirable) when dealing with a collection that might consist of dozens of boxes.

As for our digital preservation policies, they do not differ much from those of other custodial units within the Library of Congress.  Recently, we have begun prioritizing the migration of our collections on optical media to servers as part of our digital preservation workflow.  I know that this effort is being replicated across the Library as various custodial units find themselves grappling with some of the same problems that the Veterans History Project has encountered, such as unknown failure rates for different brands of optical discs and the susceptibility of the discs to damage from physical sources.

Jefferson: Past interviews on The Signal have talked about projects within LC such as the Tangible Media Project that work across departments on specific media or content types. Tell us about VHP’s involvement with cross-institutional projects and how it collaborates with other departments.

Andrew: As part of the American Folklife Center, we collaborate most heavily with their staff.  This can involve anything from sharing knowledge and expertise on digital preservation issues, helping to staff their reading room desk or working together to accept volunteers and interns.

Additionally, we have benefited from the expertise gained by Library staff working on the Tangible Media Project.  VHP consulted with several staff members before purchasing a Ripstation and instituting our own Tangible Media Project to handle the tens of thousands of optical discs in our collection.  As we gain more experience with our Ripstation and our own Tangible Media Project workflows, we hope to add our new expertise to the pool of individuals currently sharing information and resources about the Ripstation throughout the Library.

Jefferson: Finally, what are some of the emerging issues that VHP will face in the coming years, both related to born-digital submissions, specific media and formats and within the overall field of veterans and oral history?

Andrew: The Veterans History Project will need to tackle many issues in the coming years as we continue to make the project as accessible to as many people as possible across the country.  As we work to stay abreast of current and emerging technology we will need to continue to actively review our collection policies and procedures on a regular basis.  As part of this review process, we will need to consider and adapt to new ways of capturing and submitting the stories of American veterans.  Some of these considerations might include the ability to receive multiple interviews on the same flash drive or portable hard drive, the ability to upload interviews and other files electronically to a publicly accessible server within the Veterans History Project and the ability to accept high definition or even ultra high definition files for inclusion within the project.

Additionally, we are beginning to consider the possibility of accepting interviews from defense contractors who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 09/11.  We are proceeding very carefully on this issue because, while we are cognizant of the important war-time contributions made by defense contractors and the impact their service had on their lives, we must prioritize maintaining the authenticity of the collections already within our care above expanding our mission.  We want to continue to honor and respect the collections we currently have but at the same time want to be open to the current opportunities for service now available to Americans both domestically and internationally.

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