Digitising small audiovisual collections: making decisions and taking action

Deciding when to digitise your magnetic tape collections can be daunting.

The Presto Centre, an advocacy organisation working to help ‘keep audiovisual content alive,’ have a graphic on their website which asks: ‘how digital are our members?’

They chart the different stages of ‘uncertainty,’ ‘awakening’, ‘enlightenment’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘certainty’ that organisations move through as they appraise their collections and decide when to re-format to digital files.

Similarly, the folks at AV Preserve offer their opinion on the ‘Cost of Inaction‘ (COI), arguing that ‘incorporating the COI model and analyses into the decision making process around digitization of legacy physical audiovisual media helps organizations understand the implications and make well-informed decisions.’

They have even developed a COI calculator tool that organisations can use to analyse their collections. Their message is clear: ‘the cost of digitization may be great, but the cost of inaction may be greater.’

Digitising small-medium audiovisual collections

For small to medium size archives, digitising collections may provoke worries about a lack of specialist support or technical infrastructure. It may be felt that resources could be better used elsewhere in the organisation. Yet as we, and many other people working with audiovisual archives often stress, the decision to transfer material stored on magnetic tape has to be made sooner or later. With smaller archives, where funding is limited, the question of ‘later’ is not really a practical option.

Furthermore, the financial cost of re-formatting audiovisual archives is likely to increase significantly in the next five-ten years; machine obsolescence will become an aggravated problem and it is likely to take longer to restore tapes prior to transfer if the condition of carriers has dramatically deteriorated. The question has to be asked: can you afford not to take action now?

If this describes your situation, you might want to hear about other small to medium sized archives facing similar problems. We asked one of our customers who recently sent in a comparatively small collection of magnetic tapes to share their experience of deciding to take the digital plunge.

We are extremely grateful for Annaig from the Medical Mission Sisters for answering the questions below. We hope that it will be useful for other archives with similar issues.

threadimg-eiaj-half-inch-video-tape1. First off, please tell us a little bit about the Medical Mission Sisters Archive, what kind of materials are in the collection?

The Medical Mission Sisters General Archives include the central archives of the congregation. They gather all the documents relating to the foundation and history of the congregation and also documents relating to the life of the foundress, Anna Dengel. The documents are mainly paper but there is a good collection of photographs, slides, films and audio documents. Some born digital documents are starting to enter the archives but they are still few.

2. As an archive with a modest collection of magnetic tapes, why did you decide to get the materials digitised now? Was it a question of resources, preservation concerns, access request (or a mixture of all these things!)

The main reason was accessibility. The documents on video tapes or audio tapes were the only usable ones because we still had machines to read them but all the older ones, or those with specific formats,  where lost to the archives as there was no way to read them and know what was really on the tapes. Plus the Medical Mission Sisters is a congregation where Sisters are spread out on 5 continents and most of the time readers don’t come to the archives but send me queries by emails where I have to respond with scanned documents or digital files. Plus it was obvious that some of the tapes were degrading as that we’d better have the digitisation sooner than later if we wanted to still be able to read what was on them. Space and preservation was another issue. With a small collection but varied in formats, I had no resources to properly preserve every tape and some of the older formats had huge boxes and were consuming a lot of space on the shelves. Now, we have a reasonably sized collection of CDs and DVDs, which is easy to store in good conditions and is accessible everywhere as we can read them on computer here and I can send them to readers via email.

3. Digital preservation is a notoriously complex, and rapidly evolving field. As a small archive, how do you plan to manage your digital assets in the long term? What kinds of support, services and systems are your drawing on to design a system which is robust and resilient?

At the moment the digital collection is so small that it cannot justify any support service or system. So I have to build up my own home made system. I am using the archives management software (CALM) to enter data relating to the conservation of the CDs or DVDs, dates of creation, dates to check them and I plan to have regular checks on them and migrations or copies made when it will prove necessary.

4. Aside from the preservation issue, what are your plans to use the digitised material that Great Bear recently transferred?

It all depends on the content of the tapes. But I’ve already spotted a few documents of interest, and I haven’t been through everything yet. My main concern now is to make the documents known and used for their content. I was already able to deliver a file to one of the Sisters who was working on a person related to the foundation of the congregation, the most important document on her was an audio file that I had just received from Greatbear, I was able to send it to her. The document would have been unusable a few weeks before. I’ve come across small treasures, like a film, probably made by the foundress herself, which nobody was aware of. The Sisters are celebrating this year the 90th anniversary of their foundation. I plan to use as many audio or video documents as I can to support the events the archives are going to be involved into.

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What is illuminating about Annaig’s answers is that her archive has no high tech plan in place to manage the collection – her solutions for managing the material very much draw on non-digital information management practices.

The main issues driving the decision to migrate the materials are fairly common to all archives: limited storage space and accessibility for the user-community.

What lesson can be learnt from this? Largely, that if you are trained as an archivist, you are likely to already have the skills you need to manage your digital collection.

So don’t let the more bewildering aspects of digital preservation put you off. But do take note of the changing conditions for playing back and accessing material stored on magnetic tape. There will come a time when it will be too costly to preserve recordings on a wide variety of formats – many of such formats we can help you with today.

If you want to discuss how Greatbear can help you re-format your audiovisual collections, get in touch and we can explore the options.

If you are a small-medium size archive and want to share your experiences of deciding to digitise, please do so in the comment box below.

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