Selection

‘Missing Believed Wiped’: The Search For Lost TV Treasures

Contemporary culture is often presented as drowning in mindless nostalgia, with everything that has ever been recorded circulating in a deluge of digital information.

Whole subcultures have emerged in this memory boom, as digital technologies enable people to come together via a shared passion for saving obscurities presumed to be lost forever. One such organisation is Kaleidoscope, whose aim is to keep the memory of ‘vintage’ British television alive. Their activities capture an urgent desire bubbling underneath the surface of culture to save everything, even if the quality of that everything is questionable.

Of course, as the saying goes, one person’s rubbish is another person’s treasure. As with most cultural heritage practices, the question of value is at the centre of people’s motivations, even if that value is expressed through a love for Pan’s People, Upstairs, Downstairs, Dick Emery and the Black and White Minstrel Show.

We were recently contacted by a customer hunting for lost TV episodes. His request: to lay hands on any old tapes that may unwittingly be laden with lost jewels of TV history. His enquiry is not so strange since a 70s Top of the Pops programme, a large proportion of which were deleted from the official BBC archive, trailed the end of ½ EIAJ video tape we recently migrated. And how many other video tapes stored in attics, sheds or barns potentially contain similar material? Or, as stated on the Kaleidoscope website:

‘Who’d have ever imagined that a modest, sometimes mould-infested collection of VHS tapes in a cramped back bedroom in Pill would lead to the current Kaleidoscope archive, which hosts the collections of many industry bodies as well as such legendary figures as Bob Monkhouse or Frankie Howard?’

Selection and appraisal in the archive

Selection of video tapes

Mysterious tapes?

Living in an age of seemingly infinite information, it is easy to forget that any archival project involves keeping some things and throwing away others. Careful considerations about the value of an item needs to be made, both in relation to contemporary culture and the projected needs of subsequent generations.

These decisions are not easy and carry great responsibility. After all, how is it possible to know what society will want to remember in 10, 20 or even 30 years from now, let alone 200? The need to remember is not static either, and may change radically over time. What is kept now also strongly shapes future societies because our identities, lives and knowledge are woven from the memory resources we have access to. Who then would be an archivist?

When faced with a such a conundrum the impulse to save everything is fairly seductive, but this is simply not possible. Perhaps things were easier in the analogue era when physical storage constraints conditioned the arrangement of the archive. Things had to be thrown away because the clutter was overwhelming. With the digital archive, always storing more seems possible because data appears to take up less space. Yet as we have written about before on the blog, just because you can’t touch or even see digital information, doesn’t mean it is not there. Energy consumption is costly in a different way, and still needs to be accounted for when appraising how resource intensive digital archives are.

For those who want their media memories to remain intact, whole and accessible, learning about the clinical nature of archival decisions may raise concern. The line does however need to be drawn somewhere. In an interview in 2004 posted on the Digital Curation Centre’s website, Richard Wright, who worked in the BBC’s Information and Archives section, explained the long term preservation strategy for the institution at the time.

‘For the BBC, national programmes that have entered the main archive and been fully catalogued have not, in general, been deleted. The deletions within the retention policy mainly apply to “contribution material” i.e. components (rushes) of a final programme, or untransmitted material. Hence, “long-term” for “national programmes that have entered the main archive and been fully catalogued” means in perpetuity. We have already kept some material for more than 75 years, including multiple format migrations.’

Value – whose responsibility?

For all those episodes, missing believed wiped, the treasure hunters who track them down tread a fine line between a personal obsession and offering an invaluable service to society. You decide.

What is inspiring about amateur preservationists is that they take the question of archival value into their own hands. In the 21st century, appraising and selecting the value of cultural artifacts is therefore no longer the exclusive domain of the archivist, even if expertise about how to manage, describe and preserve collections certainly is.

Does the popularity of such activities change the constitution of archives? Are they now more egalitarian spaces that different kinds of people contribute to? It certainly suggests that now, more than ever, archives always need to be thought of in plural terms, as do the different elaborations of value they represent.

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

Digital Preservation – Establishing Standards and Challenges for 2014

2014 will no doubt present a year of new challenges for those involved in digital preservation. A key issue remains the sustainability of digitisation practices within a world yet to establish firm standards and guidelines. Creating lasting procedures capable of working across varied and international institutions would bring some much needed stability to a profession often characterized by permanent change and innovation.

In 1969 The EIAJ-1 video tape was developed by the Electronic Industries Association of Japan. It was the first standardized format for industrial/non-broadcast video tape recording. Once implemented it enabled video tapes to be played on machines made by different manufacturers and it helped to make video use cheaper and more widespread, particularly within a domestic context.

Close up of tape machine on the 'play', 'stop', 'rewind' button

The introduction of standards in the digitisation world would of course have very little impact on the widespread use of digital technologies which are, in the west, largely ubiquitous. It would however make the business of digital preservation economically more efficient, simply because organisations would not be constantly adapting to change. For example, think of the costs involved in keeping up with rapid waves of technological transformation: updating equipment, migrating data and ensuring file integrity and operability are maintained are a few costly and time consuming examples of what this would entail.

Although increasingly sophisticated digital forensic technology can help to manage some of these processes, highly trained (real life!) people will still be needed to oversee any large-scale preservation project. Within such a context resource allocation will always have to account for these processes of adaptation. It has to be asked then: could this money, time and energy be practically harnessed in other, more efficient ways? The costs of non-standardisation becomes ever more pressing when we consider the amount of the digital data preserved by large institutions such as the British Library, whose digital collection is estimated to amass up to 5 petabytes (5000 terabytes) by 2020. This is not a simple case of updating your iphone to the next model, but an extremely complex and risky venture where the stakes are high. Do we really want to jeopardise rich forms cultural heritage in the name of technological progress?

The US-based National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA) National Agenda for Digital Stewardship 2014 echoes such a sentiment. They argue that ‘the need for integration, interoperability, portability, and related standards and protocols stands out as a theme across all of these areas of infrastructure development’ (3). The executive summary also stresses the negative impact rapid technological change can create, and the need to ‘coordinate to develop comprehensive coverage on critical standards bodies, and promote systematic community monitoring of technology changes relevant to digital preservation.’ (2)

File Format Action Plans

One step on the way to more secure standards is the establishment of File Format Action Plans, a practice which is being increasingly recommended by US institutions. The idea behind developing a file format action plan is to create a directory of file types that are in regular use by people in their day to day lives and by institutions. Getting it all down on paper can help us track what may be described as the implicit user-standards of digital culture. This is the basic idea behind Parsimonious Preservation, discussed on the blog last year: that through observing trends in file use we may come to the conclusion that the best preservation policy is to leave data well alone since in practice files don’t seem to change that much, rather than risk the integrity of information via constant intervention.

As Lee Nilsson, who is currently working as a National Digital Stewardship Resident at the US Library of Congress writes, ‘specific file format action plans are not very common’, and when created are often subject to constant revision. Nevertheless he argues that devising action plans can ‘be more than just an “analysis of risk.” It could contain actionable information about software and formats which could be a major resource for the busy data manager.’

Other Preservation Challenges

Analogue to Digital Converter close up What are the other main challenges facing ‘digital stewards’ in 2014? In a world of exponential information growth, making decisions about what we keep and what we don’t becomes ever more pressing. When whole collections cannot be preserved digital curators are increasingly called upon to select material deemed representative and relevant. How is it possible to know now what material needs to be preserve for posterity? What values inform our decision making?

To take an example from our work at Great Bear: we often receive tapes from artists who have achieved little or no commercial success in their life times, but whose work is often of great quality and can tell us volumes about a particular community or musical style. How does such work stand up against commercially successful recordings? Which one is more valuable? The music that millions of people bought and enjoyed or the music that no one has ever heard?

Ultimately these questions will come to occupy a central concern for digital stewards of audio data, particularly with the explosion of born-digital music cultures which have enabled communities of informal and often non-commercial music makers to proliferate. How is it possible to know in advance what material will be valuable for people 20, 50 or 100 years from now? These are very difficult, if not impossible questions for large institutions to grapple with, and take responsibility for. Which is why, as members of a digital information management society, it is necessary to empower ourselves with relevant information so we can make considered decisions about our own personal archives.

A final point to stress is that among the ‘areas of concern’ for digital preservation cited by the NDSA, moving image and recorded sound figure highly, alongside other born-digital content such as electronic records, web and social media. Magnetic tape collections remain high risk and it is highly recommended that you migrate this content to a digital format as soon as possible. While digitisation certainly creates many problems as detailed above, magnetic tape is also threatened by physical deterioration and its own obsolescence challenges, in particular finding working machines to play back tape on. The simple truth is, if you want to access material in your tape collections it needs now to be stored in a resilient digital format. We can help, and offer other advice relating to digital information management, so don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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