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Preservation Week 2015: AV Edition

Michele Hamill of CUL’s fantastic Conservation Department asked me to guest blog about audiovisual preservation as part of Preservation Week 2015. Pardon the cross-posting, but I thought I’d share it here on the DSPS Press blog as well. Wishing you a happy birthday and a wonderful Charter Day, Cornell University, as well as a wonderful weekend to you all.


First of all, I’m honored to be a guest on our Library’s Conservation Department blog, as they are a great team doing magical things. When discussing audiovisual preservation and the big issues facing possible catastrophic loss of materials on magnetic media, proper conservation becomes even more important as we chart out solutions that may emerge from our campus-wide AV Preservation Initiative.

Both UNESCO’s Blue Ribbon Task Force publication (Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet, 2010) and the Library Of Congress are estimating that the vast majority of materials housed on magnetic tapes (cassettes, open-reel audiotape, VHS, etc.) will be lost in the next 10 years due to degradation and playback obsolescence. This includes materials ranging from field recordings of cultural events in dying languages to your own home movies of grandparents or children.

Cornell University Library’s Collection Development Executive Committee has set up a preservation fund (allocated through a grant-based system) awarded to save fragile, unique, and heavily used collections and, due to issues with legacy AV content, a lot of that fund has gone to digitization of AV collections. As an example, I’m currently working on digitizing a large collection of VHS tapes for the Africana Library of unique lectures given at Cornell in the past. Last year, this collection was moved to the annex, as they are the only copies in existence and are no longer in circulation.

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While preservation and digitization is key to older formats, it’s also incredibly challenging for digital formats as well. Digital content, while often easier to use and access in a lot of cases, is incredibly fragile and subject to many problems such as bit rot and errors, proprietary and complex formats and file types, and costly storage. In reality the world is creating digital content at a staggering pace, resulting in petabytes of possibly important or disposable content. How do we deal with this in our work or even in our personal collections of video or photos?

The Library of Congress has provided a thorough resource for individuals to get a handle on the digital content they are creating, as well as digitizing to share with family and friends across the globe. This is a rapidly increasing need of people everywhere, but how do we decide what do we keep and how much? stands out as a good example of an organization that is also promoting a more curatorial culture for our content at large, and for a purpose. They provide a guide to archiving content from a journalism/activist perspective, from creation to preservation and access.

Working in a memory institution, I often feel like I’m helping usher content from the past into the future and that is a tremendously gratifying feeling. ‘This work will outlive us,’ is something I often hear said in libraries and archives and while that is true, there is a huge amount of effort and a lot of tough decisions that go into conservation, preservation, and access. Whether it’s a beautiful tome from the 17th century or video of one of the last known public appearances of Jimmy Hoffa, it takes detailed work, resources, and careful planning to keep these things alive. In reality, history is written by every one of us. What’s your story?


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