Conference Notes: International Council of Archives, pt.1

Written by Annie Peterson, Preservation Librarian, Tulane University

The International Council on Archives Section on University and Research Libraries (ICA-SUV) recently held its annual conference in Chapel Hill, NC. The theme of the conference was “Audiovisual Archives in University Archives and Research Institutions, and it was a small, well-curated conference that provoked great discussions in and outside of the sessions.

Day 1: July 14, 2015

The conference opened with keynote speaker William R. Ferris, Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History; Senior Associate Director of CSAS; Adjunct Professor in the Curriculum in Folklore.  Ferris made clear the importance of preserving our audiovisual heritage for scholarship by talking about the work that he did to document the American South. He invoked an African proverb that says when a man or woman dies a library burns down, but Ferris added that archivists preserve that knowledge so that it can carry on. Ferris’s talk was an inspiring start to the conference, setting the stage for the importance of what would be discussed for the next few days, and reminding us all of the reasons that we work to preserve collections.

The first session of the day, “Making the Case for Media Preservation: Context, Tools, and Strategies,” offered a slightly more grim outlook of the state of things, but with some hope for the future. In “Why Media Preservation Can’t Wait: The Gathering Storm,” Mike Casey, Indiana University, reinforced the urgency of the problem that we face in AV preservation, talking about degradation and obsolescence, or, degralescence. Casey set the expiration date for media at 2028 for the purposes of his discussion, and the date carried through the conference as a date we should anticipate that digitization will be either impossible (there will simply be no equipment available for transfers), or prohibitively expensive.

Chris Lacinak followed with a talk about the Cost of Inaction Calculator, a tool to help us quantify the loss that Casey spoke about for communicating the value at stake to administrators or other stakeholders who need data for decision-making. Casey and Lacinak both then provided examples of how some institutions are working to address the problem, with a number of different approaches to tackling everything in-house, outsourcing, a combination of the two, or collaborating across organizations.

In the first afternoon session, Skip Elsheimer of A/V Geeks, Josephine McRobbie, and Jason Evans Groth, both from North Carolina Sate University Libraries, presented on “A/V Geeks at the Hunt Library: What Obsolete Media Can Still Teach Us.” At NC State’s Hunt Library, the three presenters  had worked together to organize a series of screenings of historic education films from the collection of A/V Geeks. Elsheimer worked with faculty or scholars to provide historical context for the films, and spoke in the session about the importance of making archives relevant and providing access after digitization: if content is digitized and then not made accessible, it’s gone from one shelf to another. McRobbie and Groth talked about the many details that were considered in planning the event in order to make it a success in Hunt Library’s unique space, such as measuring sound levels throughout the open library as the screening was happening to ensure that it was not too disruptive, and using physical artifacts (films and other media) in a show-and-tell session to incorporate the original media into the events (the films are projected digitally in Hunt Library). The session included a screening of a 1948 educational film “How to Judge Facts.” 

The first day of the conference concluded with the session  “Standards and Assessment.” Seth Anderson, AVPreserve, opened the session with “Applying ISO 16363 to AV Archives.” ISO 16363 is the standard for audit and certification of trustworthy digital repositories. Anderson said that the standard can provide guidelines for thinking about digital preservation, strategic planning, and larger concepts associated with digital preservation. Michelle Krasowski, Internet Archive, presented a contrasting view of media preservation from what had been previously been discussed at the conference in “Archiving for All: Working Towards Inclusive Digitization Standards.”  Krakowski spoke of a more flexible approach to standards because communities with fewer resources are excluded by standards that are difficult to attain, putting the history of those communities at risk. The Internet Archive has a Community Media Archive of community access television, and has built up in house digitization capabilities for optical discs, audio cassettes, and some video. Not all of the content is digitized to the highest “preservation quality” standards, but it is now accessible and would otherwise not be seen. Josh Harris, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, concluded the session with “The Current State of Media Preservation:  Assessment as a Pathway to Meeting the Challenge,” in which he described the media census at the University of Illinois that identified AV assets across campus (>400,000), and propelled forward UIUC’s media preservation efforts including in-house reformatting. Harris noted that programmatic approaches to AV preservation are still slow, and more action must be taken swiftly to address the challenges that we know exist.

Day 1 of the conference gave a great overview of the challenges faced by academic libraries and other cultural heritage institutions, and provided examples for different ways forward. The sessions were tied together with a common thread of the importance of providing access to the amazing content that is held across all types of institutions, and the critical role of librarians and archivists in acting swiftly to preserve our AV heritage.  Stay tuned for a wrap up of day 2 of the conference.

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