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Monstrous Regiment – Audio Cassette Digitisation

Monstrous Regiment were one of many trailblazing feminist theatre companies active in the 1970s-1990s. They were established as a collective very much built around performers, both (professional) actors such as Mary McCusker and (professional) musicians such as Helen Glavin.

Between 1975-1993 Monstrous Regiment produced a significant number of plays and cabarets. These included Scum: Death, Destruction and Dirty Laundry, Vinegar Tom, Floorshow, Kiss and Kill, Dialogue Between a Prostitute and One of Her Clients, Origin of the Species, My Sister in This House, Medea and many others.

Monstrous Regiment’s plays were not always received positively be feminists. A performance of Time Gentlemen Please (1978), for example, was controversially shut down in Leeds when some audience members stormed the stage. The play was, according to some commentators, seen to promote a ‘glossy, middle-class view of sexual liberation.’ [1]

As with any historical event there are many different accounts of what happened that evening. Mary McCusker and Gillian Hanna have discussed their perspective, as performers, in an interview conducted with Unfinished Histories: Recording the History of Alternative Theatre.

A detailed biography of the company can be also found on the Unfinished Histories website, which has loads more information about Women’s, Black, Gay and Lesbian Theatre companies active at the same time as Monstrous Regiment. Check it out!

An Archival Legacy

Monstrous Regiment still exist on paper, but ceased producing in 1993 after the Arts Council withdrew the company’s revenue funding.

To ensure a legacy for Monstrous Regiment’s work the company archive was deposited in the Women’s Library (then Fawcett Library).

Due to a large cataloguing backlog at the Women’s Library, however, the Monstrous Regiment collection was never made publicly available.

Co-founder Mary McCusker explains her frustration with this situation:

‘We were always keen to create a body of work that would be accessible to future practitioners that the work would not be hidden from history, but alas unknown to us it was not catalogued so available to no one. Script were meant to be performed, some of the unpublished plays have not been available for such a long time. I/we do want the ideas the energy of those times the talent and wonderful creativity to be there after we are gone. That goes for the plays’ readings we did as well as the performances.’

‘I admire writers immensely and even if some plays didn’t get the critical response hoped for I believe all the work deserves a space, somewhere to be discovered anew. I would also hope the idea a group of actors started this and kept going, took control over their work conditions and wanted their beliefs to inform what was written and how they worked with other creative beings would still resonate in the future.’

Monstrous Moves

Two women sing in a theatrical manner into a microphone To address the access problem the Monstrous Regiment archive was recently moved to a new home, the theatre collection at the V & A, where it will soon be catalogued.

The decision to relocate is part of a new effort to organise and publicly interpret the Monstrous Regiment archive.

Plans are in place to construct a new archival website that will tell the Monstrous Regiment Story. It will include photographs, fliers, scripts, ephemera and – yes – audiovisual material.

Russell Keat, a semi-retired academic and partner of Mary McCusker, has begun the process of looking through the collection at the V & A, selecting items for digitisation and contacting people who performed with Monstrous Regiment to ask for new material.

Russell has also been exploring McCusker’s personal audio cassette collection for traces of Monstrous Regiment. The fruits of this labour were sent to Great Bear for digitisation.

The recordings we transferred include performances of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Floorshow, a radio broadcast of Mourning Pictures, a spoken voice audio guide of the play The Colony Comes a Cropper for Visually Challenged Audiences, a tape made by a composer for Mary to rehearse with, songs from Vinegar Tom and Kiss and Kill recorded in a rehearsal studio and a sound tape for Love Story of a Century, comprising piano and rain effects.

The (live) Monstrous Regiment Archive

Making audiovisual documentation was an exceptional rather than everyday activity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. ‘We had a few things filmed; not whole plays but maybe snippets. Music taped. Radio interviews and magazine interviews were one way of spreading the word,’ Mary told us.

As a documentary form, the audiovisual recording exists in tension with the theatrical ideal of live performance: ‘It’s very difficult for a film to capture the experience of live theatre because of course you rehearse and produce the play to be experienced live. BUT naturally if that performance has gone and all you have is a script then any filmed documentation gives the reader/viewer all the visual clues about what a character is feeling when they speak but also the bigger picture about how they feel about what other characters are saying,’ Mary reflected.

Live and later recorded music performed a key role in Monstrous Regiment’s work. Unlike other theatre groups such as the Sadista SistersSpare Tyre and Gay Sweatshop, Monstrous Regiment never released an album of the music they performed. The tapes Great Bear have transferred will therefore help future researchers understand the musical dimension of the company’s work in a more nuanced way.

Mary explains that ‘from the very start we wanted live music to be part of the shows we produced and encouraged writers to write not only for the company of actors but also to put music as an integral part of the play; to have it as a theatrical force in a central position, not a scene change background filler.

This was true in all our early work and of course in the two cabarets. I think the songs in Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill still provoke much discussion. I know I loved singing them. Later as our musicians moved on and also money got tighter we had musicians like Lindsay Cooper and Joanna MacGregor write and perform scores for plays that were recorded and became used rather as you would in cinema.’

***

We are hugely grateful to Mary and Russell for taking time to respond to our questions for this article.

We wish them the best of luck for their archive project, and will post links to the new website when it hits the servers.

Notes

[1] Aleks Sierz (2014) In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, London: Faber and Faber.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments

Deacon Blue Live – Betamax PCM recordings

We regularly work with Bristol Archive Records, for example, who keep the memory of Bristol’s post punk and reggae history alive, one release at a time.

Other ‘archival’ releases recently transferred include cult Yugoslav New Wave band Doktor Spira i Ljudska Bića’s Dijagnoza (available late 2016), John Peel favourites Bob and legendary acid-folk act The Courtyard Music Group.

Greatbear can deliver your files as high resolution stereo recordings or, if available, individual ‘stems’ ready for the new remix.

A stack of Betamax PCM recordings of a Deacon Blue tour in 1988 Deacon Blue Live – PCM Betamax transfer

We recently transferred several live concerts by Scottish pop sensations Deacon Blue.

Recorded in 1988, the concerts capture Deacon Blue in their prime.

The energetic performances feature many of their well-known hits, such as ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Fergus Sings the Blues.’

As Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM) digital recordings on Betamax tape transferred at 24 bit/ 44 kHz, the recordings capture the technical proficiency of the band with exceptional clarity.

Introduced in the late 1970s, PCM digital audio harnessed the larger bandwidth of videotape technology to record digital audio signals.

‘A PCM adaptor has the analogue audio (stereo) signal as its input, and translates it into a series of binary digits, which, in turn, is coded and modulated into a monochrome (black and white) video signal, appearing as a vibrating checkerboard pattern, modulated with the audio, which can then be recorded as a video signal.’

PCM digital audio was widely used until the introduction of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) in 1987. Despite its portability and ability to record at different sampling rates, DAT was not immediately or widely adopted. Given that the Deacon Blue recordings were made on PCM/Betamax in 1988 is evidence of this. It also indicates a telling preference for digital over analogue formats in the late 1980s.

Deacon Blue Live at the Dominion Theatre, London, 26th October 1988 is available to download as part of Deacon Blue’s new album Believers, released 30th September 2016.

According to singer and main songwriter Ricky Ross, the new Deacon Blue album aims to conjure a sense of hope: ‘it’s our statement to the fact that belief in the possibilities of hope and a better tomorrow is the side we choose to come down on.’

Deacon Blue are touring the UK in Nov/ Dec, visiting Bristol’s Colston Hall on 18 November.

 

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies Audio Cassette Transfer

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is widely heralded as a classic of 20th century English literature. The book adorns English Literature syllabuses throughout the UK, its provocative events continue to inspire debate about the nature of humanity and ‘civilisation.’

We recently transferred an audio cassette recording of the Nobel-prize winning author reading his famous novel.

The recordings were made, Golding’s daughter Judy Carver tells us, in ‘the space of a few days during September 1976. He went up to London and stayed for a few nights, spending the whole of each day reading the novel aloud in a studio. He found it very hard work, and was extremely tired by the time he’d finished. We all remember the date for a particular reason. He went to Waterloo to catch the train home, phoned my mother, and she greeted him with “Hello, Grandpa!” My eldest son, their first grandchild, had been born that morning.’ william-golding.co.uk

Excerpts from the transferred tapes will be uploaded to the commemorative and educational website www.william-golding.co.uk, helping to meet the ‘steady demand’ for Golding-related material from documentary makers.

Judy is currently organising the Golding family archive which ‘holds a great deal of material in written, audio and visual form.’ A large amount of the written archive will be lent to the University of Exeter, building on the landmark deposit of the handwritten draft of Lord of the Flies that was made in 2014. ‘We are giving some thought as to how to archive family photos and other items.’

As with organising any archive, Judy admits, ‘there are many and various tasks and problems, but it is a fascinating job and I am lucky to have it.’

***

Many thanks to Judy for answering questions about the recordings for this article.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments

British Stand Up Comedy Archive’s audiovisual collections

Greatbear have recently worked with the British Stand Up Comedy Archive (BSUCA) to reformat a number of Digital Audio Tapes (DATs) and U-Matic video tapes from their collection.

Established in 2013 and based at the University of Kent’s Special Collections, the BSUCA aims ‘to celebrate, preserve, and provide access to the archives and records of British stand-up comedy and stand-up comedians.’

A hand holding a microphine superimposed on a red circle

In 2014 the BSUCA became one of the University of Kent’s 50th anniversary ‘Beacon Projects‘.

Beacon Project funding will support work to ‘catalogue, preserve, digitise, and make accessible the existing collections, and identify new relevant collections.’

They will also hold a number of events which engage comedians ‘in conversation’ about their archives, excerpts from these events are documented here.

We are honoured that project archivist Elspeth Millar took time out of her busy archiving schedule to tell us a bit more about the BSUCA.

She told us:

‘I’m really enjoying the variety of material that I get to work on, including printed material (posters, flyers, letters, notebooks), audio-visual material on a range of formats (audio cassettes, VHS, DAT, MiniDisc, U-matic), and also born-digital records held on obsolete formats (such as 3.5” floppy disks).

In addition the content of the material is, of course, really interesting, and I feel that I am learning a lot from our collections, including about the history of stand-up comedy (from the alternative cabaret movement, to alternative comedy, to the comedy ‘industry’ today) but also political and social topics (for example Mark Thomas’ collection includes a lot of material on the arms trade and large corporations). We are also holding events with some fantastic comedians (Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, Mark Thomas, and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Jo Brand, Alexei Sayle, Susan Calman) so it is wonderful to hear comedians themselves reflecting on their work and on material that they have deposited with the archive.’

You can keep up to date with the latest news from the BSUCA archive on twitter and view images from their collections on flickr.

Read on for more from Elspeth. Her answers cover issues such as selection and appraisal decisions, metadata and dissemination plans for the BSUCA.

They also provide useful insight into the digital preservation tools BSUCA use to manage their digitised and born-digital assets.

Once again, massive thanks to her for responding to our questions and best of luck to BSUCA in the future.

 BSCUA Responses to Greatbear Questions

1. What motivated you to get the tapes you sent to us re-formatted now? i.e., what kinds of selection and appraisal processes were behind the decision?

The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive has AV material on a number of audio and moving image formats, magnetic and optical, including audio compact cassettes, MiniDiscs, DATs (Digital Audio Tapes), VHS, DVCams, Audio CD and U-matic tapes. None of these formats are suitable for archival storage and all material will need to be digitised or transferred from their original carrier to digital files. We can carry out the digitisation (or digital transfer) of some audio in-house and we have started our project by transferring material originally captured or stored on MiniDiscs, Audio CDs, and audio compact cassettes1. After assessing all the formats we currently have it was decided to outsource the digitisation of DATs and U-matic tapes. Both of these are priority formats for transfer from a preservation perspective2 and after some research I learnt that DATs can be problematic to transfer due to ‘DAT compatibility’ and dropout problems3. In addition, we have neither a DAT machine or U-matic machine already within Special Collections or within the University, and with the number of recordings on these formats currently limited, it was felt that it would not make sense to purchase already obsolete equipment, which would then need to be professionally maintained.

The other important reason for transferring the tapes of course was for accessibility, so that we can make the recordings accessible to researchers. In addition, our funding is currently only for one year4, so it is vital to ensure that audio-visual material on obsolete formats are transferred during this first phase of the project.

2. Can you tell us how metadata helps you to describe, preserve and aid discovery of the Stand Up Comedy archive.

Providing information about our audiovisual items (and resulting digital items) is incredibly important from both an access and preservation perspective. Metadata about analogue items (and subsequent digital files) and born-digital files will be included in the cataloguing collections management system used by the British Stand-Up Comedy Archive (which is part of the University of Kent’s Special Collections & Archives). The catalogue records will include descriptive metadata and administrative metadata. Metadata which comes under the ‘descriptive metadata’ heading describes the item/file and includes a summary of the contents of the recording, all of which helps to make recordings discoverable for researchers. This metadata is also vital from a preservation perspective as it allows archivists to retrieve and identify files. Metadata which comes under the ‘administrative metadata’ heading provides information to help manage the file(s)/recordings, and includes information related to Intellectual Property Rights (including copyright) and preservation information such as the file format and the digitisation/digital transfer. Researchers will be interested in some of these issues (e.g. copyright, as this determines how archived recordings can be used) but from a digital preservation perspective this metadata is extremely important as it records information about the format of the digital file, information about the original carrier, as well as fixity information, to measure whether the file has changed over time.

This metadata will be recorded in our catalogue and will be searchable via the University of Kent’s website and in the future some archive aggregators. However, we are also experimenting with different processes and tools for embedding metadata in files, and researching different metadata standards for this. The benefits of embedding some metadata within the file include the removal of the risk of losing the link between the metadata and the digital file that it is describing. In addition, metadata embedded in born-digital master and digitised master files can also be transferred to ‘access’ copies (generated at a lower specification/resolution) which will also assist in user accessibility. Embedded metadata has its limitations and it is not that flexible, which is why we are using a dual approach of embedding some metadata, but also keeping this information externally in our catalogue. Two cassettes from 1982 and 1982

3. How do you manage, and plan to manage digital audio and audio visual materials in the Stand Up Archive? What digital preservation tools do you use?

The first process in managing digital AV materials in the BSUCA is to think about the file formats that we will use for long-term preservation and access. For audio material we are digitising as LPCM (Linear Pulse Code Modulation) in a Wave format (.wav) wrapper. The addition of embedding metadata into these wave files extends the file to become BWF .wav files, the standard recommended by the International Association of Audiovisual Archives (IASA).5

Deciding upon a file format for digitising moving image has been trickier, as the Greatbear team have already written about on this blog; we hope to get underway with digitisation of VHS in September and we are looking at using the FFv1 codec (an open-source lossless compressed codec) wrapped as either AVI or Matroska (MKV).

We are also experimenting with a number of digital preservation tools; one directory that has proved great for discovering such tools is the COPTR wiki (Community Owned digital Preservation Tool Registry), a really useful collated list of various digital preservation tools . One aspect of our digital preservation planning is the creation of checksums as early in the lifecycle of the digital file as possible. We are using a tool called Blackbush, which is a checksum tool6 which generates MD5 hash files which was developed for the British Library’s Sound Archive. To embed metadata into .wav files we are using the BWF MetaEdit tool, a free open-source tool developed by AV Preserve and the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative. When our archival master is a compressed format (such as an mp3 on a data or audio CD which has been deposited), we are using tools such as Adobe Bridge to embed metadata in the ID3 format (or Adobe Audition’s metadata tools as we transfer audio). The advantage of BWF MetaEdit for wav files is that it is a free open-source tool, which also has other functions such as batch editing (we can edit multiple wav files at once) and batch import and export functions, which will be useful for when we catalogue this material to item level.

Other tools that we have found useful include DROID (Digital Record Object Identification), developed by The National Archives, and, for other digital material we are using forensic imaging tools such as FTK Imager and ImDisk to mount virtual images of disk images.

4. How do you think the material will be used by future researchers? As a Stand Up Archive I imagine you get a lot of requests for material from broadcasters. How do you manage requests and expectations from different user communities?

The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive is still in its infancy; although we have had material since 2013, it has only been since the beginning of this year that we have been funded to digitise and preserve the material already deposited, start to catalogue it, make it accessible, and publicise what we have and what we are aiming to do.

But two of our core purposes are to ensure access (that these archives are universally discoverable and accessible), and to ensure that the archives are used, and used in a variety of ways (popular culture, academic research, teaching, journalism, general enjoyment). Our main user group at the moment is actually students studying stand-up and popular performance at the University of Kent (at BA and MA level) who have used AV material as part of their course, and we also have a number volunteering with the project, doing summaries of recorded interviews and stand-up performances.

Notes

[1] We have purchased an audio cassette deck (Denon DN-790R) and are using a MiniDisc deck on loan from colleagues within the University, and have also purchased an external audio capture card/A-D converter.

[2] https://psap.library.illinois.edu/format-id-guide/audiotape#dat and https://psap.library.illinois.edu/format-id-guide/videotape#umatic.

[3] https://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/digitalAudioTapesPreservation2010_0.pdf (page 5-8) and http://thegreatbear.net/audio-tape/transferring-dats-to-digital-files/.

[4] The British Stand-Up Comedy Archive is part of the University of Kent’s Special Collections and Archives, but it currently has specific funding for one year (as a Beacon Project) to digitise and make accessible its current holdings; more about the Beacon projects can be found at http://www.kent.ac.uk/beacon/about.html.

[5] Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects, IASA-TC 04, 2.8.2

[6] A checksum is ‘an algorithmically-computed numeric value for a file or a set of files used to validate the state and content of the file for the purpose of detecting accidental errors that may have been introduced during its transmission or storage. The integrity of the data can be checked at any later time by recomputing the checksum and comparing it with the stored one. If the checksums match, the data was almost certainly not altered’. National Digital Stewardship Alliance Glossary, http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/ndsa/ndsa-glossary.html.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

Save Our Sounds’ £9.5 million boost

british-library-sound-archives This article is a bit late to break this news, but it is worth highlighting again in case you missed it first time round.

In May 2015 the British Library were awarded over £9.5 million pounds by the Heritage Lottery Fund to help them deliver their hugely important Save Our Sounds project.

We told you about Save Our Sounds earlier in the year.

As stated in a press release, ‘the funding will enable the British Library to digitise and make available 500,000 rare, unique and at-risk sound recordings from its own archive and other key collections around the country over 5 years (2017-2022).’

Funding will also help ‘develop a national preservation network via ten regional centres of archival excellence which will digitise, preserve and share the unique audio heritage found in their local area.’

Living Knowledge

Also worth a read is the recently published Living Knowledge: The British Library 2015-2023, which sets out the strategic priorities of the organisation in its 50th anniversary year.

The short text outlines ‘what it means to be a national library in a digital age and what the British Library’s role is as one of the UK’s great public assets.’

These are set out in ‘a framework of six purposes which explain, as simply and clearly as we can, the enduring ways in which the public funding we receive helps to deliver tangible public value – in custodianship, research, business, culture, learning and international partnership.’

Within the strategy digitising ‘the 42 different physical formats which hold our 6.5 million audio items’ is highlighted as ‘the next great preservation challenge’ for the British Library.

As ever, we will keep you up to date with updates from the British Library’s Save Our Sounds project as it evolves.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments

IASA – Resources and Research

There are an astonishing amount of online resources relating to the preservation and re-formatting of magnetic tape collections.

Whether you need help identifying and assessing your collection, getting to grips with the latest video codec saga or trying to uncover esoteric technical information relating to particular formats, the internet turns up trumps 95% of the time.

Marvel at the people who put together the U-Matic web resource, for example, which has been online since 1999, a comprehensive outline of the different models in the U-Matic ‘family.’ The site also hosts ‘chat pages’ relating to Betamax, Betacam, U-Matic and V2000, which are still very much active, with archives dating back to 1999. For video tape nerds willing to trawl the depths of these forums, nuggets of machine maintenance wisdom await you.

 International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives

Sometimes you need to turn to rigorous, peer-reviewed research in order to learn from AV archive specialists.

Fortunately such material exists, and a good amount of it is collected and published by the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA).

Three IASA journals laid out on the floor

‘Established in 1969 in Amsterdam to function as a medium for international co-operation between archives that preserve recorded sound and audiovisual documents’, IASA holds expertise relating to the many different and specialist issues attached to the care of AV archives.

Comprised of several committees dealing with issues such as standards and best practices; National Archive policies; Broadcast archives; Technical Issues; Research Archives; Training and Education, IASA reflects the diverse communities of practice involved in this professional field.

As well as hosting a yearly international conference (check out this post on The Signal for a review of the 2014 meeting), IASA publish a bi-annual journal and many in-depth specialist reports.

Their Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects (2nd edition, 2009), written by the IASA Technical Committee, is available as a web resource, and provides advice on key issues such as small scale approaches to digital storage systems, metadata and signal extraction from original carriers, to name a few.

Most of the key IASA publications are accessible to members only, and therefore remain behind a paywall. It is definitely worth taking the plunge though, because there are comparably few specialist resources relating to AV archives written with an interdisciplinary—and international—audience in mind.

Examples of issues covered in member-only publications include Selection in Sound Archives, Decay of Polymers, Deterioration of Polymers and Ethical Principles for Sound and Audiovisual Archives.

The latest publication from the IASA Technical Committee, Handling and Storage of Audio and Video Carriers (2014) or TC05, provides detailed outlines of types of recording carriers, physical and chemical stability, environmental factors and ‘passive preservation,’ storage facilities and disaster planning.

The report comes with this important caveat:

 ‘TC 05 is not a catalogue of mere Dos and Don’ts. Optimal preservation measures are always a compromise between many, often conflicting parameters, superimposed by the individual situation of a collection in terms of climatic conditions, the available premises, personnel, and the financial situation. No meaningful advice can be given for all possible situations. TC 05 explains the principal problems and provides a basis for the archivist to take a responsible decision in accordance with a specific situation […] A general “Code of Practice” […] would hardly fit the diversity of structures, contents, tasks, environmental and financial circumstances of collections’ (6).

Member benefits

Being an IASA member gives Greatbear access to research and practitioner communities that enable us to understand, and respond to, the different needs of our customers.

Typically we work with a range of people such as individuals whose collections have complex preservation needs, large institutions, small-to-medium sized archives or those working in the broadcast industry.

Our main concern is reformatting the tapes you send us, and delivering high quality digital files that are appropriate for your plans to manage and re-use the data in the future.

If you have a collection that needs to be reformatted to digital files, do contact us to discuss how we can help.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

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-tape 1. 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.

***

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.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

Save our Sounds – 2030 and the threat of audiovisual extinction

At the beginning of 2015, the British Library launched the landmark Save Our Sounds project.

The press release explained:

‘The nation’s sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation and as the means of playing them disappear from production. Archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.’

dvw-a510-digital-betacam-loading-gear Yes you have read that correctly dear reader: by 2030 it is likely that we simply will not be able to play many, if not all of the tape we currently support at Great Bear. A combination of machine obsolescence, tape deterioration and, crucially, the widespread loss of skills necessary to repair, service and maintain playback machines are responsible for this astounding situation. They will make it ‘costly, difficult and, in many cases, impossible’ to preserve our recorded audio heritage beyond the proposed cut-off date.

While such news might (understandably) usher in a culture of utter panic, and, let’s face it, you’d have to have a strong disposition if you were charged with managing the Save Our Sounds project, the British Library are responding with stoic pragmatism. They are currently undertaking a national audit to map the conditions of sound archives which your organisation can contribute to.

Yet whatever way you look at it, there is need to take action to migrate any collections currently stored on obsolete media, particular if you are part of a small organisation with limited resources. The reality is it will become more expensive to transfer material as we move closer to 2030. The British Library project relates particularly to audio heritage, but the same principles apply to audiovisual collections too.

Yes that rumbling you can hear is the sound of archivists the world over engaged in flurry of selection and appraisal activities….

Extinction

One of the most interesting things about discussions of obsolete media is that the question of operability is often framed as a matter of life or death.

Formats are graded according to their ‘endangered statuses’ in more or less explicit terms, as demonstrated on this Video Preservation website which offers the following ‘obsolescence ratings’:

‘Extinct: Only one or two playback machines may exist at specialist laboratories. The tape itself is more than 20 years old.

Critically endangered: There is a small population of ageing playback machinery, with no or little engineering or manufacturing support. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there are fewer working machine-hours than total population of tapes. Tapes may range in age from 40 years to 10 years.

Endangered: The machine population may be robust, but the manufacture of the machinery has stopped. Manufacturing support for the machines and the tapes becomes unavailable. The tapes are often less expensive, and more vulnerable to deterioration.

Threatened: The playback machines are available; however, either the tape format itself is unstable or has less integrity than other available formats, or it is known that a more popular or updated format will be replacing this one in a short period of time.

Vulnerable: This is a current but highly proprietary format.

Lower risk: This format will be in use over the next five years (1998-2002).’

The ratings on the video preservation website were made over ten years ago. A more comprehensive and regularly updated resource to consult is the Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP), ‘a free online tool that helps collection managers prioritize efforts to improve conditions of collections. Through guided evaluation of materials, storage/exhibit environments, and institutional policies, the PSAP produces reports on the factors that impact the health of cultural heritage materials, and defines the points from which to begin care.’ As well as audiovisual media, the resource covers photo and image material, paper and book preservation. It also has advice about disaster planning, metadata, access and a comprehensive bibliography.

The good news is that fantastic resources do exist to help archivists make informed decisions about reformatting collections.

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A Digital Compact Cassette

The bad news, of course, is that the problem faced by audiovisual archivists is a time-limited one, exacerbated no doubt by the fact that digital preservation practices on the ‘output end’ are far from stable. Finding machines to playback your Digital Compact Cassette collection, in other words, will only be a small part of the preservation puzzle. A life of file migrations in yet to be designed wrappers and content-management systems awaits all kinds of reformatted audiovisual media in their life-to-come as a digital archival object.

Depending on the ‘content value’ of any collection stored on obsolete media, vexed decisions will need to be made about what to keep and what to throw away at this clinical moment in the history of recorded sound.

Sounding the fifteen-year warning

At such a juncture, when the fifteen year warning has been sounded, perhaps we can pause for a second to reflect on the potential extinction of large swathes of audio visual memory.

If we accept that any kind of recording both contains memory (of a particular historical event, or performance) and helps us to remember as an aide-mémoire, what are the consequences when memory storage devices which are, according to UNESCO, ‘the primary records of the 20th and 21st centuries’, can no longer be played back?

These questions are of course profound, and emerge in response to what are consequential historical circumstances. They are questions that we will continue to ponder on the blog as we reflect on our own work transferring obsolete media, and maintaining the machines that play them back. There are no easy answers!

As the 2030 deadline looms, our audiovisual context is a sobering retort to critics who framed the widespread availability of digitisation technologies in the first decade of the 21st century as indicative of cultural malaise—evidence of a culture infatuated with its ‘past’, rather than concerned with inventing the ‘future’.

Perhaps we will come to understand the 00s as a point of audiovisual transition, when mechanical operators still functioned and tape was still in fairly good shape. When it was an easy, almost throw away decision to make a digital copy, rather than an immense preservation conundrum. So where once there was a glut of archival data—and the potential to produce it—is now the threat of abrupt and irreversible dropout.

Play those tapes back while you can!

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

Digitisation: methodologies, processing and archival practices

  Time-based correction machines We work with a range of customers at Great Bear, digitising anything from personal collections to the content of institutional archives. Because of this, what customers need from a digitisation service can be very different.

A key issue relates to the question of how much we process the digital file, both as part of the transfer and in post-production. In other words, to what extent do we make alterations to the form of the recording when it becomes a digitised artifact. While this may seem like an innocuous problem, the question of whether or not to apply processing, and therefore radically transform the original recording, is a fraught, and for some people, ethical, consideration.

There are times when applying processing technologies is desirable and appropriate. With the transfer of video tape, for example, we always use time-based correctors or frame synchronisers to reduce or eliminate errors during play back. Some better quality video tape machines, such as the U-matic BVU-950P, already have time-based correctors built in which makes external processing unnecessary. As the AV Artifact Atlas explains however, time-based correction errors are very common with video tape:

‘When a different VTR is used to playback the same signal, there can be slight mechanical and electronic differences that prevent the tape from being read in the same way it was written. Perhaps the motors driving the tape in a playback VTR move slightly slower than they did in the camera that recorded the tape, or maybe the head of the playback VTR rotates a fraction quicker than the video head in the machine that recorded the tape. These tiny changes in timing can dramatically affect stability in a video image.’

We also utilise built in processes that are part of machine’s circuitry, such as drop out compensation and noise reduction. We use these, however, not in order to make the tape ‘look better.’ We do it rather as a standard calibration set up, which is necessary for the successful playback of the tape in a manner appropriate to its original operating environment.

After all, video tape machines were designed to be interchangeable. It is likely such stabilising processing would have been regularly used to play back tapes in machines that were different to those they were recorded on. Time-based correction and frame synchronisation are therefore integral to the machine/ playback circuitry, and using such processing tools is central to how we successfully migrate tape-based collections to digital files.

Digital processing tools  Time Based Correction - Close Up

Our visual environment has changed dramatically since the days when domestic video tape was first introduced, let alone since the hay day of VHS. The only certainty is that it will continue to change. Once it was acceptable for images to be a bit grainy and low resolution, now only the crisp clarity of a 4K Ultra HD image will do. There is perhaps the assumption that ‘clearer is better’, that being able to watch moving images in minute detail is a marker of progress.  Yet should this principle be applied to the kinds of digitisation work we do at Great Bear? There are processors that can transform the questionable analogue image into a bright, high definition, colour enriched digital copy. The teranex processor, for example, ‘includes extremely high quality de-interlacing, up conversion, down conversion, SD and HD cross/standards conversion, automatic cadence detection and removal even with edited content, noise reduction, adjustable scaling and aspect ratio conversion.’ ‘Upgrading’ analogue images in this way does come with certain ethical risks.

Talking about ethics in conjunction with video or audio tape might seem a bit melodramatic, but it is at the point of intervention/ non-intervention where the needs of our customers diverge the most. This is not to say that people who do want to process their tapes are unethical – far from it! We understand that for some customers it may be preferable for such processing to occur, or to apply other editing techniques such as noise reduction or amplification, so that audio can be heard with greater clarity.

Instead we want to emphasise that our priority is getting the best out of the tape and our playback machines, rather than relying on the latest processing technology that is also at risk from obsolescence. After all, a heavily processed file will always require further processing at an unknown point in future so that it can maintain visually relevant to whatever format is commercially dominant at the time. Such transformations of the digital file, which are necessarily destructive and permanent, contribute to the further circulation of what Hito Steyerl calls ‘poor images‘, ‘a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG…The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and reedited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction.’

Maintaining the integrity, and as far as possible authenticity of the original recordings, is a core part of our methodology. In this way our approach corresponds with Jisc’s mantra of ‘reproduction not optimisation’ where they write:

‘Improving, altering or modifying media for optimisation may seem logical when presenting works to a public or maintaining perceived consistency. It should be remembered that following an often natural inclination to enhance what we perceive to be a poor level of quality is a subjective process prescribed by personal preference, technological trends and cultural influences. In many cases the intentions of a creator are likely to be unknown and this can cause difficulties in interpreting levels of quality. In these instances common sense alongside trepidation should prevail. On the one end of the spectrum unintelligible recordings may be of little use to anyone, whereas at the opposite end recordings from previous eras were not produced with modern standards of clarity in mind.’

It is important to bear in mind, however, that even if a file is subject to destructive editing there may come a time when the metadata created about the artefact can help to illuminate its context and provenance, and therefore help it maintain its authenticity. The debates regarding digital authenticity and archiving will of course shift as time passes and practices evolve.

In the meantime, we will continue to do what we are most skilled at: restoring, repairing and migrating magnetic tape to digital files in a manner that maintains both the integrity of the original operating environment and the recorded signal.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

Significant properties – technical challenges for digital preservation

A consistent focus of our blog is the technical and theoretical issues that emerge in the world of digital preservation. For example, we have explored the challenges archivists face when they have to appraise collections in order to select what materials are kept, and what are thrown away. Such complex questions take on specific dimensions within the world of digital preservation.

If you work in digital preservation then the term ‘significant properties’ will no doubt be familiar to you. The concept has been viewed as a hindrance due to being shrouded by foggy terminology, as well as a distinct impossibility because of the diversity of digital objects in the world which, like their analogue counterparts, cannot be universally generalised or reduced to a series of measurable characteristics.

Cleaning an open reel-to-reel tape

In a technical sense, establishing a set of core characteristics for file formats has been important for initiatives like Archivematica, ‘a free and open-source digital preservation system that is designed to maintain standards-based, long-term access to collections of digital objects.’ Archivematica implement ‘default format policies based on an analysis of the significant characteristics of file formats.’ These systems manage digital information using an ‘agile software development methodology’ which ‘is focused on rapid, iterative release cycles, each of which improves upon the system’s architecture, requirements, tools, documentation, and development resources.’

Such a philosophy may elicit groans of frustration from information managers who may well want to leave their digital collections alone, and practice a culture of non-intervention. Yet this adaptive-style of project management, which is designed to respond rapidly to change, is often contrasted with predictive development that focuses on risk assessment and the planning of long-term projects. The argument against predictive methodologies is that, as a management model, it can be unwieldy and unresponsive to change. This can have damaging financial consequences, particularly when investing in expensive, risky and large scale digital preservation projects, as the BBC’s failed DMI initiative demonstrates.

Indeed, agile software development methodology may well be an important key to the sustainability of digital preservation systems which need to find practical ways of maneuvering technological innovations and the culture of perpetual upgrade. Agility in this context is synonymous with resilience, and the practical application of significant properties as a means to align file format interoperability offers a welcome anchor for a technological environment structured by persistent change.

Significant properties vs the authentic digital object

What significant properties imply, as archival concept and practice, is that desiring authenticity for the digitised and born-digital objects we create is likely to end in frustration. Simply put, preserving all the information that makes up a digital object is a hugely complex affair, and is a procedure that will require numerous and context-specific technical infrastructures.

As Trevor Owens explains: ‘you can’t just “preserve it” because the essence of what matters about “it” is something that is contextually dependent on the way of being and seeing in the world that you have decided to privilege.’ Owens uses the example of the Geocites web archiving project to demonstrate that if you don’t have the correct, let’s say ‘authentic’ tools to interpret a digital object (in this case, a website that is only discernible on certain browsers), you simply cannot see the information accurately. Part of the signal is always missing, even if something ‘significant’ remains (the text or parts of the graphics).

It may be desirable ‘to preserve all aspects of the platform in order to get at the historicity of the media practice’, Jonathan Sterne, author of MP3: Meaning of a Format suggests, but in a world that constantly displaces old technological knowledge with new, settling for the preservation of significant properties may be a pragmatic rather than ideal solution.

Analogue to digital issues

To bring these issues back to the tape we work we with at Great Bear, there are of course times when it is important to use the appropriate hardware to play the tapes back, and there is a certain amount of historically specific technical knowledge required to make the machines work in the first place. We often wonder what will happen to the specialised knowledge learnt by media engineers in the 70s, 80s and 90s, who operated tape machines that are now obsolete. There is the risk that when those people die, the knowledge will die with them. Of course it is possible to get hold of operating manuals, but this is by no means a guarantee that the mechanical techniques will be understood within a historical context that is increasingly tape-less and software-based.  By keeping our wide selection of audio and video tape machines purring, we are sustaining a machinic-industrial folk knowledge which ultimately helps to keep our customer’s magnetic tape-based, media memories, alive.

Of course a certain degree of historical accuracy is required in the transfers because, very obviously, you can’t play a V2000 tape on a VHS machine, no matter how hard you try!

Yet the need to play back tapes on exactly the same machine becomes less important in instances where the original tape was recorded on a domestic reel-to-reel recorder, such as the Grundig TK series, which may not have been of the greatest quality in the first place. To get the best digital transfer it is desirable to play back tapes on a machine with higher specifications that can read the magnetic information on the tape as fully as possible. This is because you don’t want to add any more errors to the tape in the transfer process by playing it back on a lower quality machine, which would then of course become part of the digitised signal.

It is actually very difficult to remove things like wow and flutter after a tape has been digitised, so it is far better to ensure machines are calibrated appropriately before the tape is migrated, even if the tape was not originally recorded on a machine with professional specifications. What is ultimately at stake in transferring analogue tape to digital formats is the quality of the signal. Absolute authenticity is incidental here, particularly if things sound bad.

The moral of this story, if there can be one, is that with any act of transmission, the recorded signal is liable to change. These can be slight alterations or huge drop-outs and everything in-between. The agile software developers know that given the technological conditions in which current knowledge is produced and preserved, transformation is inevitable and must be responded to. Perhaps it is realistic to assume this is the norm in society today, and creating digital preservation systems that are adaptive is key to the survival of information, as well as accepting that preserving the ‘full picture’ cannot always be guaranteed.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 1 comment

Mistress or master? Digitising the cultural heritage of women’s movements

U-Matic video case with lettering 'mistress copy' The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) is full of quirky examples of how womyn tried to wrestle culture from the sordid grip of male domination.

Part of this process was reinventing the world in wimmin’s image, word and song; to create and reclaim a lasting herstory in which sisterhood could flourish.

A recent U-Matic video tape transfer conducted in the Great Bear studio offers a window into this cultural heritage. 

State Your Destination was a film made by Bristol-based 80s feminist film collective Women in Moving Pictures (W.I.M.P.S.), whose complete archive is stored at the Feminist Archive South.

We previously migrated another film by W.I.M.P.S called In Our Own Time, screened at the recent Translation/ Transmission Women’s Film Season which took place at Watershed.

The way women shirked the language of patriarchy is evident on the tape box. We digitised the ‘MISTRESS’ copy, not the master copy.

Seeing the mistress copy today is a reminder of the way gendered language influences how we can think about cultural forms.  The master copy, of course, in conventional understanding, is the finished article, the final cut. The master of the house – the person in charge – is gendered male. Yet is this still the case?
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Writing about a similar issue almost thirty years later, sound theorists Jonathan Sterne and Tara Rodgers seem to think so:

‘If we find that audio-technical discourse renders signal processing in terms of masculinist languages of mastery and domination of nature, can we help but wonder after its broader social implications? Does it not also suggest a gendered set of relations to these technologies? It is any wonder we still find the design, implementation, marketing, and use of audio-signal processing technologies to be male-dominated fields? [To change things] it will require fundamentally rethinking how we model, describe, interact, and sound with signal processing technologies’.

For feminist women who felt systematically excluded from certain kinds of cultural and economic activity, the gendering of language was an extension of violence they experienced because they were women.

Making the tape a MISTRESS may help rectify the problem, as does crossing out the very idea of a master copy.

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

reel to reel audio tape restoration and digitising of Manchester Oi! band State Victims

Often the tapes we receive to digitise are ‘forgotten’ recordings. Buried under a pile of stuff in a dark, cold room, their owners think they are lost forever. Then, one day, a reel of the mysterious tape emerges from the shadows generating feelings of excitement and anticipation. What is stored on tape? Is the material in a playable condition? What will happen to the tape once it is in a digital format?

All of these things happened recently when Paul Travis sent us a ¼ inch AMPEX tape of the band he played in with his brother, the Salford Oi! punk outfit State Victims.  The impetus for forming State Victims emerged when the two brothers ‘split from Salford bands, Terrorist Guitars and the Bouncing Czechs respectively, and were looking for a new musical vessel to express and reassert their DIY music ethic, but in a more vital and relevant way, searching for a new form of “working-class protest.”‘

The tape had been in the wilderness for the past 30 years, residing quietly in a shed in rural Cambridgeshire. It was in fairly good condition, displaying no signs of damage such as mould on the tape or spool. Like many of the AMPEX tapes we receive it did need some baking treatment because it was suffering from binder hydrolysis (a.k.a. Sticky Shed Syndrome). The baking, conducted at 49 Celsius for 8 hours in our customised oven, was successful and the transfer was completed without any problems. We created a high resolution stereo 24 bit/ 96 kHz WAV file which is recommended for archived audio, as well as a MP3 access copy that can be easily shared online.

Image of tape post-transfer. When it arrived the tape was not wound on neatly and there was no leder tape on it.

Image of tape post-transfer. When it arrived the tape was not wound on neatly and there was no leder tape on it.

Finding old tapes and sending them to be digitised can be a process of discovery. Originally Paul thought the tape was of a 1983 session recorded at the Out of the Blue Studios in Ancoats, Manchester, but it became apparent that the tape was of an earlier recording. Soon after we digitised the first recording we received a message from Paul saying another State Victims tape had ‘popped up in an attic’, so it is amazing what you find when you start digging around!

Like many other bands connected to the Manchester area, the digital artefacts of State Victims are stored on the Manchester District Music Archive (MDMA), a user-led online archive established in 2003 in order to celebrate Greater Manchester music and its history. The MDMA is part of a wider trend of do it yourself archival activity that exploded in the 21st century due to the availability of cheap digital technologies. In what is arguably a unique archival moment, digital technologies have enabled marginal, subcultural and non/ anti-commercial music to widely circulate alongside the more conventional, commercial artefacts of popular music. This is reflected in the MDMA where the artefacts of famous Manchester bands such as The Smiths, The Fall, Oasis and Joy Division sit alongside the significantly less famous archives of the Manchester Musicians Collective, The Paranoids, Something Shady and many others.

Within the community-curated space of the MDMA all of the artefacts acquire a similar value, derived from their ability to illuminate the social history of the area told through its music. Much lip service has been paid to the potential of Web 2.0 technologies and social media to enable new forms of collaboration and ‘user-participation’, but involving people in the construction of web-based content is not always an automatic process. If you build it, people do not always come. As a user-led resource, however, the MDMA seems pretty effective. It is inviting to use, well organised and a wide range of people are clearly contributing, which is reflected in the vibrancy of its content. It is exciting that such an online depository exists, providing a new home for the errant tape, freshly digitised, that is part of Manchester’s music history.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments

Digital Optical Technology System – ‘A non-magnetic, 100 year, green solution for data storage.’

‘A non-magnetic, 100 year, green solution for data storage.’

This is the stuff of digital information managers’ dreams. No more worrying about active data management, file obsolescence or that escalating energy bill.

Imagine how simple life would be if there was a way to store digital information that could last, without intervention, for nearly 100 years. Those precious digital archives could be stored in a warehouse that was not climate controlled, because the storage medium was resilient enough to withstand irregular temperatures.

Imagine after 100 years an archivist enters that very same warehouse to retrieve information requested by a researcher. The archivist pulls a box off the shelf and places it on the table. In their bag they have a powerful magnifying glass which they use to read the information. Having ascertained they have the correct item, they walk out the warehouse, taking the box with them. Later that day, instructions provided as part of the product licensing over 100 years ago are used to construct a reader that will retrieve the data. The information is recovered and, having assessed the condition of the storage medium which seems in pretty good nick, the digital optical technology storage is taken back to the warehouse where it sits for another 10 years, until it is subject to its life-cycle review. Group_47_DOTS

Does this all sound too good to be true? For anyone exposed to the constantly changing world of digital preservation, the answer would almost definitely be yes. We have already covered on this blog numerous issues that the contemporary digital information manager may face. The lack of standardisation in technical practices and the bewildering array of theories about how to manage digital data mean there is currently no ‘one size fits all’ solution to tame the archive of born-digital and digitised content, which is estimated to swell to 3,000 Exabytes (thousands of petabytes) by 2020*. We have also covered the growing concerns about the ecological impact of digital technologies, such as e-waste and energy over-consumption. With this in mind, the news that a current technology exists that can by-pass many of these problems will seem like manna from heaven. What can this technology be and why have you never heard about it?

The technology in question is called DOTS, which stands for Digital Optical Technology System. The technology is owned and being developed by Group 47, who ‘formed in 2008 in order to secure the patents, designs, and manufacturing processes for DOTS, a proven 100-year archival technology developed by the Eastman Kodak Company.’ DOTS is refreshingly different from every other data storage solution on the market because it ‘eliminates media and energy waste from forced migration, costly power requirements, and rigid environmental control demands’. What’s more, DOTS are ‘designed to be “plug & play compatible” with the existing Linear Tape Open (LTO) tape-based archiving systems & workflow’.

In comparison with other digital information management systems that can employ complex software, the data imaged by DOTS does not use sophisticated technology. John Lafferty writes that at ‘the heart of DOTS technology is an extremely stable storage medium – metal alloy sputtered onto mylar tape – that undergoes a change in reflectivity when hit by a laser. The change is irreversible and doesn’t alter over time, making it a very simple yet reliable technology.’

DOTS can survive the benign neglect all data experiences over time, but can also withstand pretty extreme neglect. During research and development, for example, DOTS was exposed to a series of accelerated environmental age testing that concluded ‘there was no discernible damage to the media after the equivalent of 95.7 years.’ But the testing did not stop there. Since acquiring patents for the technology Group 47,

‘has subjected samples of DOTS media to over 72 hours of immersion each in water, benzine, isopropyl alcohol, and Clorox (™) Toilet Bowl Cleaner. In each case, there was no detectable damage to the DOTS media. However, when subjected to the citric acid of Sprite carbonated beverage, the metal had visibly deteriorated within six hours.’

Robust indeed! DOTS is also non-magnetic, chemically inert, immune from electromagnetic fields and can be stored in normal office environments or extremes ranging from -9º – 65º C. It ticks all the boxes really.

DOTS vs the (digital preservation) world

The only discernible benefit of the ‘open all hours’, random access digital information culture over a storage solution such as DOTS is accessibility. While it certainly is amazing how quick and easy it is to retrieve valuable data at the click of a button, it perhaps should not be the priority when we are planning how to best take care of the information we create, and are custodians of. The key words here are valuable data. Emerging norms in digital preservation, which emphasise the need to always be responsive to technological change, takes gambles with the very digital information it seeks to preserve because there is always a risk that migration will compromise the integrity of data.

The constant management of digital data is also costly, disruptive and time-consuming. In the realm of cultural heritage, where organisations are inevitably under resourced, making sure your digital archives are working and accessible can sap energy and morale. These issues of course affect commercial organisations too. The truth is the world is facing an information epidemic, and surely we would all rest easier if we knew our archives were safe and secure. Indeed, it seems counter-intuitive that amid the endless flashy devices and research expertise in the world today, we are yet to establish sustainable archival solutions for digital data.

256px-Dictionary_through_lens (2)

Of course, using a technology like DOTS need not mean we abandon the culture of access enabled by file-based digital technologies. It may however mean that the digital collections available on instant recall are more carefully curated. Ultimately we have to ask if privileging the instant access of information is preferable to long-term considerations that will safeguard cultural heritage and our planetary resources.

If such a consideration errs on the side of moderation and care, technology’s role in shaping that hazy zone of expectancy known as ‘the future’ needs to shift from the ‘bigger, faster, quicker, newer’ model, to a more cautious appreciation of the long-term. Such an outlook is built-in to the DOTS technology, demonstrating that to be ‘future proof’ a technology need not only withstand environmental challenges, such as flooding or extreme temperature change, but must also be ‘innovation proof’ by being immune to the development of new technologies. As John Lafferty writes, the license bought with the product ‘would also mandate full backward compatibility to Generation Zero, achievable since readers capable of reading greater data densities should have no trouble reading lower density information.’ DOTS also do not use propriety codecs, as Chris Castaneda reports, ‘the company’s plan is to license the DOTS technology to manufacturers, who would develop and sell it as a non-proprietary system.’ Nor do they require specialist machines to be read. With breathtaking simplicity, ‘data can be recovered with a light and a lens.’

It would be wrong to assume that Group 47’s development of DOTS is not driven by commercial interests – it clearly is. DOTS do however seem to solve many of the real problems that currently afflict the responsible and long-term management of digital information. It will be interesting to see if the technology is adopted and by who. Watch this space!

* According to a 2011 Enterprise Strategy Group Archive TCO Study

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments

Digital Records of the First World War

Across the world, 2014-2018 will be remembered for its commitment to remembrance. The events being remembered are, of course, those related to the First World War.

A soldier being presented with a medal, during World War I. He is standing in front of four men on a small platform. One is reaching over and pinning a medal to the soldier's lapel, another is reading from a list. More soldiers are standing to the side of the platform. This is an example of an uplifting image which would reassure those at home that their 'boys' were being recognised officially for their efforts. [Original reads: 'SCENES ON THE WESTERN FRONT - Presentation of medals What is most intriguing about the centenary of the First World War is that it is already an occasion for growing reflection on how such an event has been remembered, and the way this shapes contemporary perceptions of history.

The UK government has committed over £50 million pounds for commemoration events such as school trips to battlefields, new exhibitions and public ceremonies. If you think that seems like a little bit too much, take a visit to the No Glory in War website, the campaign group who are questioning the purposes of commemorating a war that caused so much devastation.

The concerns raised by No Glory about political appropriation are understandable, particularly if we take into account a recent Daily Mail article written by current Education Secretary Michael Gove. In it Gove stresses that it is

‘important that we commemorate, and learn from, that conflict in the right way in the next four years. […] The war was, of course, an unspeakable tragedy, which robbed this nation of our bravest and best. Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.

The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.’

Gove clearly understands the political consequences of public remembrance. In his view, popular cultural understanding of the First World War have distorted our knowledge and proper values ‘as a nation’. There is however a ‘right way to remember,’ and this must convey particular images and ideas of the conflict, and Britain’s role within it.

Digitisation and re-interpretation

While the remembrance of the First World War will undoubtedly become, if it has not already, a political struggle over social values, digital archives will play a key role ensuring the debates that take place are complex and well-rounded. Significant archive collections will be digitised and disseminated to wide audiences because of the centenary, leading to re-interpretation and debate.

The BBC are facilitating discussions through features on their significant commemoration site, including an interesting consideration of the enduring influence of poet Wilfred Owen. Jisc and Oxford University have also collaborated to create an Open Educational Resource supporting new directions in teaching the First World War.

If you want a less UK-centric take on remembrance you can visit the Europeana 1914-1918 Website or Centenary News, a not-for-profit organisation that has been set up to provide independent, impartial and international coverage of the Centenary of the First World War.

Images from Europeana website

Other, less ‘curated’ resources, abound online. For example, the Daily Telegraph has digitised every newspaper published between 1914-1918, with each edition being ‘published’ on its centenary date. The British Library’s excellent timeline series include one relating to the First World War. Significant parts of the National Archives’ First World War collections are available to access online, including copies of war diaries, Victoria Cross and service registers for members of the Army, Navy, Airforce and War Nurses. You can also listen to ‘Voices of the Armistice,’ a series of recordings relating to Armistice Day. Similar to the Soldier’s Stories Audio Gallery on the BBC, these recordings are not the oral testimony of soldiers, but actors reading excerpts from their diaries or letters.

Oral Testimonies of the First World War

Large amounts of digitised material about the First World War are paper documents, given that portable recording technologies were not in wide scale use during the years of the conflict. 

The first hand oral testimonies of First World War soldiers have usually been recorded several years after the event. What can such oral records tell us that other forms of archival evidence can’t?

Since it became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, oral histories have often been treated with suspicion by some professional historians who have questioned their status as ‘hard evidence’. The Oral History Society website describe however the unique value of oral histories: ‘Everyone forgets things as time goes by and we all remember things in different ways. All memories are a mixture of facts and opinions, and both are important. The way in which people make sense of their lives is valuable historical evidence in itself.’

We were recently sent some oral recordings of Frank Brash, a soldier who had served in the First World War. The tapes, that were recorded in 1975 by Frank’s son Robert, were sent in by his Great-Grandson Andrew who explained how they were made ‘as part of family history, so we could pass them down the generations.’ He goes on to say that ‘Frank died in 1980 at the age of 93, my father died in 2007. Most of the tapes are his recollections of the First World War. He served as a machine gunner in the battles of Messines and Paschendale amongst others. He survived despite a life expectancy for machine gunners of 6 days. He won the Military Medal but we never found out why.’

Excerpt used with kind permission

If you are curious to access the whole interview a transcript has been sent to the Imperial War Museum who also have a significant collection of sound recordings relating to conflicts since 1914.

The recordings themselves included a lot of tape hiss because they were recorded at a low sound level, and were second generation copies of the tapes (so copies of copies).

Our job was to digitise the tapes but reduce the noise so the voices could be heard better. This was a straightforward process because even though they were copies, the tapes were in good condition. The hiss however was often as loud as the voice and required a lot of work post-migration. Fortunately, because the recording was of a male voice, it was possible to reduce the higher frequency noise significantly without affecting the audibility of Frank speaking.

Remembering the interruption

Adventure and Action Amid the rush of archive fever surrounding the First World War, it is important to remember how, as a series of events, it arguably changed the conditions of how we remember. It interrupted what Walter Benjamin called ‘communicable experience.’ In his essay ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’, Benjamin talks of men who ‘had returned from the battlefield grown silent’, unable to share what had happened to them. The image of the shell-shocked soldier, embodied by fictional characters such as Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, was emblematic of men whose experience had been radically interrupted. Benjamin went on to write:

‘Never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly than the strategic experience by tactical warfare, economic experience by inflation, bodily experience by mechanical warfare, moral experience by those in power. A generation that had gone to school on a horse drawn street-car now stood under the empty sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile human body.’

Of course, it cannot be assumed that prior to the Great War all was fine, dandy and uncomplicated in the world. This would be a romantic and false portrayal. But the mechanical force of the Great War, and the way it delayed efforts to speak and remember in the immediate aftermath, also needs to be integrated into contemporary processes of remembrance. How will it be possible to do justice to the memory of the people who took part otherwise?

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments