Save our Sounds

Video Tape Preservation – The Final Frontier

The UK’s audio collections have Save Our Sounds.

The BFI recently launched Film is Fragile to support film preservation in the UK.

Yet something is missing from these impassioned calls to preserve audiovisual heritage.

As 2015 draws to a close, there is no comparable public campaign focused on the preservation of videotape.

For James Patterson, from Media Archive for Central England (MACE), this is a ‘real issue and one we need to address as a sector much more widely.’

The UK is unique in this regard. In Australia, for example, the approach to audiovisual preservation appears more integrated (if no less fraught!)

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia make no distinction between audio and video tape in their Deadline 2025: Collections at Risk position paper. It is the endangered status of all magnetic tape collections that are deemed a preservation priority.

umatic-betacam-sp-in-great-bear-studioPreservation Specifics

From experience we know that the preservation of videotape brings with it specific challenges.

It cannot be subsumed into a remit to preserve moving image archives in general.

A key point to consider, outlined by the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Preservation Strategy, is that videotape preservation must account for the mutability of the medium.

‘Film formats have changed little in the last 50 years. Videotape, however, has seen many changes and various formats have come and gone. Videotape formats are in a constant cycle of change, driven largely by the market interests of the manufacturers of the hardware. Any preservation strategy for archival materials must be prepared to embrace a culture of format migration as the commercial market develops and new formats become the industry standard. The only variable is when, not if, collections require to be transferred.’

Machine Provision

It is worth reiterating what public campaigns to preserve audio and film heritage make patently clear: recordings on magnetic tape have a finite lifespan, and the end of that lifespan is alarmingly near.

Many archivists cite a 10-15 year window after which obsolete media must be transferred if recordings are to remain accessible.

In years to come, one of the biggest challenge for the preservation of video tape in particular will be sourcing working machines for all the different formats.

In a recent hardware inventory conducted in the Great Bear studio, we noted that video tape machines outnumbered audio tape machines by 40%. This might be comforting to hear, and rest assured, we are well stocked to manage the range of possible video tape transfers that come our way. Yet this number becomes less impressive when you consider there are over 32 different video tape formats (compared with 16 audio), with very little degree (if any) of interoperability between them.

In comparison with audio tape, and in particular open reel formats which can be played back on a range of different machines, video tape offers significantly less flexibility.

The mechanical circuitry of video tape machines can be immensely complex. Due to the vast market turnover of video formats, these machines often used ‘immature’ technology.

To put it bluntly: proportionally there are less videotape machines, and those machines were not built to last.

Viewed in this light, the status of video tape archives, even compared with audio tape, seem very precarious indeed.

The cultural value of video tapeSony-BVW-75P-maintenance-manual

Why, then, has video tape been persistently overlooked?

Why have we not received calls to ‘save’ video tape, or confront its undeniable ‘fragility’?

Patterson believes that videotape, in comparison to film, has historically been perceived as a ‘broadcast thing,’ or used predominantly in amateur/ domestic settings.

The perception of videotape’s cultural value affects both the acquisition and preservation of the medium.

Patterson explains: ‘Public film archives rely on people depositing things because there is no money for acquisition. If people find rolls of film they have the sense that it might be interesting. Videotape, especially video cassettes, don’t make people think in the same way. If people have a box of VHS cassettes, they are less likely to see it as important. Even at the point when home move making became more democratised, the medium they were using seemed more throwaway.’

The relatively small amounts of video tape collections being deposited in regional film archives is, James believes, a ‘public awareness issue.’ This means they ‘don’t see nearly enough or as much videotape’ as they want. This is a pity because amateur collections may hold the key to building a varied, everyday picture of regional histories uniquely captured by accessible videotape technologies.

single-rack-of-seven-video-tape-machinesDespite comparatively uneven acquisition, ‘most regional archives have significant quantities of videotape.’ In MACE these are ‘mostly broadcast’, deposited by ITV Midlands, on formats such as Beta SP, 1”C, uMatic, VHS and smaller quantities of digital video tape. MACE’s material is migrated to digital files on an order-by-order basis—there is no systematic plan in place to transfer this material or place them in a secure digital repository post-transfer.

Technical capacities

Film and Moving Images archives are regionally dispersed across the UK, and responsibility for caring for these memory resources, on a day-to-day basis, is currently devolved to these locations.

This has implications for the preservation of challenging mediums, such as videotape, which require specialised technical infrastructure and skills, not to mention the people power necessary to manage large amounts of real-time transfers.

There is also the comparative difficulty, until recently, of video digitisation, as Dave Rice explains:

‘Archival communities that focus on formats such as documents, still images, and audio have had longer experience with digitisation workflows, whereas the digitisation of video (hampered by storage sizes, bandwidth, and expenses) has only recently become more approachable. While digitisation practices for documents, still images, and audio include more community consensus regarding best practices and specifications, there is much greater technical diversity regarding the workflows, specifications, and even objectives for digitising archival video.’

This point was echoed by Megan McCooley, moving image archivist at the Yorkshire Film Archive. She told me that preserving film stock is relatively manageable through careful control of storage environments, but preserving video is more challenging because of the lack of firm ‘protocols in place’ to guide best practices. It is not the case that videotape digitisation is simply ‘off the radar’ and not seen as an issue among moving image archivists. Rather the complexity of the process makes systematic video digitisation ‘harder for regional archives to undertake’ because they are smaller, lack specialised technical video facilities, and are often dependent on project-based funding. Patterson also commented that within regional archives there is a ‘technological knowledge gap’ when it comes to videotape.

Are the times a-changing?

There is the sense, from talking to Megan and James, that attention is beginning to turn to video preservation, but until now other projects have taken precedence.  This is the case for the BFI’s national Unlocking Film Heritage project where the main stipulation for digitisation funding is that nominated titles must originate on film.

Yet the BFI, as strategic leader in the field of moving images heritage, is currently planning a consultation on what needs to happen after the end of Digitisation Fund Phase Three: Unlocking Film Heritage 2013-2017.

For James there is no question that there is a ‘serious case that needs to made for videotape.’

Given the complex technological and cultural issues shaping the fate of videotape, it is clear there is no time to waste.

*** Many thanks to James Patterson from MACE and Megan McCooley at Yorkshire Film Archive for sharing their perspectives for this article***

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

Save Our Sounds’ £9.5 million boost

british-library-sound-archivesThis 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

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-gearYes 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.

dcc-backview

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 / Video Archives, Audio Tape, Video Tape, 0 comments