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A/V at Cornell University Library

At long last, DCAPS is pleased to be able to offer preservation-quality digitization of your A/V assets. We now have the capacity to do in-house digitization of VHS, audio cassette tape, and vinyl, and have plans to expand our services to include U-matic and mini-dv in the coming months.  All other formats we can outsource for you to a reputable vendor.  Our new A/V specialist, Tre Berney, is happy to advise you on your collections and develop a preservation strategy for your most valuable and high-risk assets.  He can be reached at dhb229@cornell.edu.  For a little insight into the complexity of developing this program, please continue reading!

 

Since taking over management of the Digital Media Group at CUL in 2005, A/V has felt like my own personal white elephant in the room. I knew that at some point (always “very soon”) I was going to have to deal with it, but didn’t have the staffing, resources, or know-how to really begin to tackle it.   I sensed the overwhelming complexity of formats; the problems of nascent delivery platforms; and the lack of a viable preservation system (not to mention standards) to handle the files in perpetuity.  So instead I punted, outsourcing when necessary, but also developing very small “boutique” collections of A/V content with which to cut my teeth.  (One particularly fun and successful project involved partnering with the University of Bremen to digitize, describe, translate, and caption 22 films by the German filmmaker Alexander Kluge: http://muller-kluge.library.cornell.edu/en/index.php.)  While I learned a huge amount in the process of developing this type of collection, it in no way approached the range of activities needed to deal with A/V in a systematic way across the Library’s vast holdings.

 

In pondering A/V more expansively, I’ve always broken it into three primary components: digitization, delivery, and preservation (of course, metadata is integral to all three).  I felt like, until we had a viable option for at least 2 out of 3 of these, it would be folly to pursue it seriously.  Then in 2010 Cornell University contracted with Kaltura to support delivery of A/V assets campus-wide, and Cornell Library completed Phase 1 of its Fedora based archival repository.  When, in 2011, the Goldsen Archive became the official repository for the Experimental Television Center’s 40-year history of artist produced tapes (a phenomenal and historically significant collection), I knew it was time to begin digitizing A/V content inhouse.  We applied for internal funding from the College of Arts & Sciences, and were awarded a small grant to digitize a portion of the Center’s VHS tapes.

By design I knew I wanted to begin simply.  Starting with a single collection and a seemingly more accessible format like VHS seemed doable.  Despite these good intentions, it’s been significantly more complicated than I anticipated.  The classic trope, “the more I learn the more I realize how little I know,” definitely rings true in this case.  That said, we now have a fully functional workspace for A/V digitization and a skilled technician to do the work.  To get there, we contracted with Chris Laciank at AVPS (avpreserve.com) in New York to help us establish our lab-space and workflow, and hired an internal person with subject expertise in video art to begin digitization.  We knew we wanted preservation and access quality versions, so we decided to benchmark at an uncompressed 10 bit format, which upped our storage requirements significantly (and also negated the possibility of using our current archival repository, which isn’t set up to ingest such large files).  All in all, it’s been a rewarding endeavor, but if I had to do it all over again, here are a few things I wish I’d known in the beginning.

  • Initially I thought I could get away without hiring an official A/V technician.  This was very naïve of me.  While we made progress in digitization, it was a very steep learning curve, much of which could have been mitigated by having a dedicated person on staff.  It was equally important to have the subject-expert involved, but trying to cut corners by merging the positions was unadvisable.
  • Starting with an albeit very compelling collection of experimental video art dating from the 1970’s has been very challenging, to put it mildly.  I can see it as either incredibly demanding or remarkably forgiving, depending on the day and my mood.  In short, it’s really hard to determine whether that tracking error or color shift was by design  (think Nam June Paik) or a problem in the tape, further complicating the capture and qc process.
  • Setting up a viable lab-space for A/V is much more demanding than for still images.  One huge factor I didn’t consider: the potential electrical frequency interference from the small mechanical room adjacent to our lab.  We had to find another location within the Library to set this up (never an easy prospect with the shortage of space typical of academic institutions).
  • Overall, the A/V workflow is simply way more complex, from capture to qc to preservation- every step of the way is fraught with significant technical demands and challenges.

While I’m glad to have started this process, it’s still very daunting to contemplate what lies ahead.  We have vast holdings of A/V content at very high risk, and no real way of dealing with it.  For this reason, a colleague at the Lab of Ornithology and I have initiated a campus wide group to try to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with the University’s A/V assets, modeling our approach on the successful work done by Indiana University (http://www.indiana.edu/~medpres/).   While there is no guarantee of success, I’m looking forward to learning more about what I don’t know (and probably won’t ever know), but hopefully getting the funding to hire many who do.  Stay tuned.

PS-On the delivery front, this is a whole different story. Let’s just say nothing is ever “out of the box.”  We are in the final stages of implementing Kaltura for the Library, after making a number of regrettable compromises in the process.  Write me if you want to gory details.

 

-Danielle Mericle, April 2013

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