Preserve and Protect
From January 7 to February 7, 2002, NAMAC convened an Internet salon that began to address the myriad issues involved in the preservation of independent media. Moderated by independent media arts preservationists Jim Hubbard and Mona Jimenez, it was an opportunity for personnel from a diverse group of media centers, museums, and archives to share their expertise, concerns, and experiences tackling an area that was referred to more than once as a "civic responsibility." The participants who entered the discussion represented organizations ranging from a small television station in Bethel, Alaska to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Each one offered a strong sense of the issues they face in maintaining historically important collections of work.
While some organizations have been dealing with the problem of preservation for years, many others have only recently realized that the work they have collected needs to be actively preserved for posterity. The salon therefore began with a focus on the necessary first steps for organizing a collection for preservation. Mona Jimenez explained the importance of establishing the ethos of the archive before its guidelines and goals can be fully shaped. Two questions need to be answered from the very beginning: What parts of the collection make it distinct and important? Will it be used by students, historians, and educators for research; by producers and activists in order to make further work; or for other specific reasons?
With this larger justification serving as an umbrella, Jim Hubbard began to discuss the practical details of what he called the " triage of a collection": organizing, caring for, and storing the materials. The first step of organizing can be as simple as systematizing the tapes through physical separations. This allows for a basic sense of what types of material are on hand - for example, original Beta masters, film elements, or VHS dubs used for research. After a general overview of the collection, the integral step of cataloguing can begin.
The catalogue is the essential point from which all preservation tasks can proceed. Of utmost importance is finding out what the collection actually includes - the types of programs as well as the materials those programs are on. This step involves separating masters from VHS dubs and film from video and then inventorying what is in the collection. Sorting can be combined with creating a simple numbering system, in order to have reference numbers for the catalogue, to get an initial tally of the items in the collection, and to note how they break down according to format. If a numbering system has not already been established, it is helpful to start numbering from the earliest titles. If one has been previously established, it is usually best to maintain this original system.
Hired interns can do the initial inventory work - getting basic information off cassette and film labels and inputting this information to a database. A person with more training can then check the records and add more pertinent information. It is advantageous to get the titles catalogued quickly, so that proper preservation can begin, but accuracy is important to the cataloguing process. As Jon Gartenberg, of Gartenberg Media Enterprises, Inc., in New York City, explained, "control over both filmographic and technical information about these moving images materials is the pivot upon which the other archival activities depend." Many members of the salon expressed concern about the abilities of their cataloguers to input correct information into the database, especially young interns who may lack the necessary knowledge and terminology. Kate Horsfield, of Video Data Bank in Chicago pointed out that she is the only person on her staff with experiential knowledge of all the early tapes in their archives.
These concerns partly reflect the standard concern that supervising interns may take as much time as actually doing the work oneself. Jon Gartenberg suggested that a pool of professional cataloguers be developed and established to handle proper database entry. In the meantime, salon members provided strategies to avoid problems with interns and to make cataloguing a tool with which to pass knowledge from one generation of media workers to the next. Toni Treadway, of the International Center for 8mm in Rowley, Massachusetts, suggested making "a giant chart in your workspace with snapshots of items and physical descriptions," and, if necessary, "a flow chart of elements, from camera original through all the production and postproduction steps right to distribution." Many other salon members stressed the importance of developing a glossary, with special attention to defining the language to be used for each field in the database. These data standards, and the proper training of cataloguers in the actual use of these standards, are key to establishing the continuity of information necessary for the cataloguing process. The final step of cataloguing is for a knowledgeable person in the organization to proofread the records.
Decisions about preservation priorities are made much easier if it can be determined whether or not a collection includes original masters, or even the only existing copy of work. One of the results of the scattered and often solitary nature of independent media making is that locating duplicate copies of work in other archives can be difficult. Lynne Davis, of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, related an anecdote about her search for films from the 1950s that were produced by Californian filmmakers under contract with various Hawaiian businesses. She described the existing copies of the films that she found in Hawaii as "mainly remarkable as examples of deterioration." At this time, however, no easy way exists to determine whether copies in better shape might be found in Californian vaults. Davis cited as a possible model the shared bibliographic databases used by research libraries in order to be able to lend or sell duplicate microfilms of brittle books. As a result of these shared databases, book material is easier to locate, and organizations do not waste valuable resources restoring or reformatting items that have already been addressed by other preservation bodies. Similarly integrating catalogues from media centers would be advantageous for making many preservation decisions, as preservationists would have a far better sense of the uniqueness of their collections and which materials may actually be in better condition elsewhere.
In fact, a standardized national cataloguing system for independent media has been in development for the past ten years, through various organizations like the National Moving Images Database, a project of the American Film Institute s National Center for Film and Video Preservation, and the New York state-based Media Alliance. The work has been furthered by the Independent Media Arts Preservation s (IMAP s) development of a Machine-Readable Catalogue (MARC) template for independent media that uses the cross-platform software FileMaker Pro. The template is offered for a sliding fee based on organizational budget and provides a standardized catalogue that organizations can modify for their needs. By encouraging standardization and the cataloguing of archival material, IMAP hopes to enable the development of a "union catalogue" which would merge storage information from various collections across the continent. Plans are in effect to begin development of the union catalogue by the end of this year.
The potential of a union catalogue makes the IMAP template an important project; the fact that it is a pre-existing template for use by resource centers makes it extremely beneficial. Media arts centers could save resources by adopting the template for their own film and video archive, rather than developing in-house databases. However, Mona Jimenez pointed out that the template has not been adopted with as much enthusiasm as she had originally expected. There seems to be a number of reasons for this. Sherry Miller Hocking of the Experimental Television Center in Newark Valley, New York, suggested that a larger educational push for the template is needed, as many organizations have not thought about database compatibility before. In other cases, organizations are slow to use the template because they are either still in the sorting stages of the preservation process or are evaluating whether their older databases can be incorporated into the IMAP template.
Migrating data from one database to another can be a difficult problem. Jon Gartenberg explained that often migration is not only a problem of computer formatting but also a question of "how well the data structures have been thought through in the first place, and how accurate the original catalogue data is to begin with." Even with the well-developed information categories of the IMAP template, the importation of an old catalogue often must be repeated a few times in order to work out bugs in the system. Occasionally, it is easier to re-enter the data by hand, though Jim Hubbard encouraged preserving as much original data as possible because the "cataloguing history" is also an important context for each individual film or video.
As intellectual control of the assets in an archive is gained through sorting and cataloguing, early decisions about storage can also be made. One of the prime decisions is whether to concentrate on improving conditions at the current storage site or to move the collection to a professional storage space. Many organizations are too small to be able to afford the professional staff and climate-controlled long-term storage facility necessary for the best possible preservation job. This realization has caused some organizations to consider looking to outside possibilities, including passing off their collections to larger institutions with already-established facilities. This is often a difficult decision to make. Mike Martz at KYUK-TV in Bethel, Alaska, cited his small public television station s collection as an example of one that may well be better cared for at a university archive, such as the one in Fairbanks. The issues he faces in considering this option - in particular, the loss of localized control of the archive - are familiar to many organizations seeking an appropriate home for their collection. Mona Jimenez mentioned that IMAP has considered collecting sample donation and storage agreements, as a useful resource for understanding the various issues around this topic and as a way to share strategies.
If an organization decides to keep materials in its own archive and maintain responsibility of its own media storage site, the next step is to set up the archive for long-term preservation. As Allan Goodrich of the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston explained, "an archives primary responsibility is to provide as cold and dry a storage environment for its materials as it can afford." Although what individual archives can afford will vary widely, certain measures can be taken by every archive. The first is to move items out of potentially harmful areas, recognizing, as Toni Treadway put it, that "media materials like people-comfortable space." This means making sure media are not stored in damp basements or direct sunlight or, particular to film elements, near any film that is suffering from "vinegar syndrome." Secondly, it is important to monitor temperature and humidity several times a day and invest in ways to prevent too much fluctuation of these. In the end, proper storage of materials is the vital link of preservation. As Hannah Frost of the Stanford University Libraries in Palo Alto, California, stated, "preservation by prevention is more cost-effective than having to reformat when the material has reached a critical stage."
Once the collection has been properly catalogued and storage decisions have been made, archivists can begin to determine their priorities for restoration of the at-risk elements or the most important pieces of their collection. Priority should go to works that were made on obsolete formats or that have been stored in conditions now leading to their decay. Even with these simple guiding statements, prioritizing what should be saved first may still be difficult. Esther Figueroa, of Juniroa Productions, Inc., in Hawaii, related her experience archiving hours of documentary outtakes, illustrating that original unedited footage may sometimes be of greater value than the final product. By way of another example: While a collection s original masters usually are given priority, if a VHS dub turns out to be the only existing copy of a particular program, decisions about its preservation would take precedence.
Developing guidelines will direct the energy of the preservation process in an efficient and productive manner. Again, this is a matter of deciding what is important about the collection and what makes it valuable for future generations. Hannah Frost introduced the concept of a decision-making matrix drawn from the brittle-book movement in the library sciences as a possible tool for developing priorities. She gave an in-depth description of what such a matrix would entail:
Imagine a flow chart, which begins with a question such as, "Based upon the institution s collection-development guidelines, is the item important to retain?" If the answer is no, then defer action or de-accession. However, if the answer is yes, follow the arrow to a second question such as, "Is the item physically damaged or does it show evidence of physical deterioration (e.g., vinegar syndrome)?" and so on.
She pointed out that the linearity of the flow chart may not be adequate to represent the multiple factors that exist in media preservation, though a similar matrix could establish a system of sorting through the priorities of a collection. Such a document can become an important part of the institution s framework and aid not only in training new staff but also in applying for funding, acquiring similar materials from other sources, and making long-range plans for the organization s preservation efforts.
While many of the preservation guidelines rely on objective decisions based on factors such as the condition of material, criteria based on value are a lot more complicated to navigate. Decisions based on artistic or research value are especially difficult, as they rely on an ability to ascertain the interests of future scholars, curators, and producers, each with an interest in different parts of a collection for their projects. At the same time, these decisions are essential in planning where to direct the limited resources available for preservation projects.
One strategy that organizations use is to base preservation on exhibition, i.e., by exhibiting preserved works. Steve Seid, a proponent of this at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California, calls this strategy, "a short-cut through the labyrinth of value and a way to join preservation with access." Salon participants generally agreed that this was a good strategy for funneling money and resources into the preservation of older work. It also can be used as a tool to educate the public about the importance of preservation work. However, there was some concern that, for those institutions where exhibition is a larger part of their mandate, this strategy will be the main determinant of what is preserved in their collections. Hannah Frost suggested that it was important to "evaluate the health and stability of their entire collection in order to develop a comprehensive and holistic approach to preservation." That way exhibition, while an important consideration, will not completely drive the necessary decisions about the preservation practices of the collection.
As the ability to manipulate images becomes possible on a more and more minute level, preservationists are finding that they are now able to "clean up" a degraded video or film to an incredible degree. Salon members devoted a bit of time discussing the ethics of this type of remastering and whether it was more important to fix problems induced by the aging of a program or to maintain the "warts" of aging. There was a tendency among participants to favor preserving glitches and errors as long as these did not seriously impede the legibility of the piece. As Steve Dye, of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, put it, "the frailties of a particular medium may be exactly what the maker had in mind when creating the piece." The remastering of a piece should take place with the artist s consultation, if possible, as it is important to maintain an accurate reproduction of the original work. This can cause problems when the artist engages in what Jon Gartenberg calls "retrospective intent," where he or she wishes to change the work in the process of preserving it. In order to manage this, he stresses how important it is to "research [the artist s] creative development, then to note what iteration of each object we are preserving, and finally to fully document the ensuing restoration decisions."
Though an artist may occasionally be an impediment to the preservation project, he or she can usually provide a lot of information as to the context of their work. This contextualization is an important part of preservation, as it reveals the value of the work during the period when the work was made. Esther Figueroa encourages the interviewing of artists, which not only provides a background for future research into the work but also validates the artist, encouraging him or her to be more aware of and responsible to the needs of preserving his or her work. Because a living artist can provide much to assist the understanding of his or her work, decisions about which work should be preserved first should take into account the health and availability of the artist. Priority should be given to work whose maker is able to assist in preserving the work and explaining its context.
Perhaps one of the most active discussion topics was the preservation of old video-based programs and films that have been transferred to video - which usually involves some measure of reformatting to a more recent video format. The projected demise of Betacam SP, a key format for preservation, has caused a reevaluation of which format would be most appropriate for ensuring longevity and access. (It should be noted that the reformatting stage should follow the full cataloguing of an archives collection. As Toni Treadway cautioned, "remastering off bad elements is a waste and a disservice to the maker, the subject, and future viewers.") The general agreement was that reformatting should use a range of formats. San Francisco s Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), which offers video preservation services, recommends mastering to Digital Betacam for the archive copy, Betacam SP as a dubbing master, and VHS for viewing. DVD is also an appropriate medium for viewing purposes, but not for preservation. Formats that involve any sort of compression should be avoided if possible, as this amounts to an immediate loss of a large amount of visual information. DigiBeta and Betacam SP are recommended not only because they are sturdy and well proven but because they are broadcast industry standards. Mirroring the broadcast industry s decisions is important because its economic drive inspires market longevity. Preservationists should plan for migration of formats every ten to twenty years, as formats grow obsolete and are replaced by newer ones.
Sony s recent announcement about the gradual cessation of production of their high-end Beta SP decks and, potentially, the rest of their players and tape stock was a major concern for salon members, especially because many NAMAC organizations have either not transitioned to Beta SP or have only recently done so. While Beta SP appears to be on its way out, it was generally agreed that the format has at least another five years of good use. The concern will be more for the organizations that have not been able to transition to Beta SP yet, as DigiBeta has a much higher cost. The potential obsolescence of this format also adds weight to an observation from Richard Hess, of National TeleConsultants, that "preservation reformatting of videotapes to other videotape formats - especially those close to or beyond "half life" - [is] a treadmill of expenditures and work with no end in sight."
One option that Richard Hess introduced as a potential media-archiving solution is data storage. Many commercial organizations, such as Sony and CNN, are embracing this. Rather than requiring media migration when formats reach obsolescence, heavily-managed digital archives rely only on keeping their hardware up to date. The data, the program itself, maintains its original file form. Digitizing work into an archive is a solution that potentially could be shared amongst organizations. This kind of dense archive thrives on scale; costs could be greatly reduced by increasing the volume of work added to an established professional archive. The appeal of this option will perhaps increase as prices come down and compression becomes less of an issue.
Building on the strength of the dialogue generated by the salon, members started discussing future directions and possible ways to collaborate. The most pressing need is still education. Sherry Miller Hocking identified the two necessary streams of education as "the wider culture which may not know of or value the work of independent media makers because of our relative invisibility ; and our colleagues and co-workers who may be uninformed about current issues and practices." Although places like IMAP have created workshops and training programs like Mona Jimenez s "Introduction to Media Preservation," these workshops are not widely available. Sherry Miller Hocking suggested the possibility of a workshop tour through various cities, where participants could bring their catalogues or their plans for preservation to be evaluated. An on-site visit by a preservation expert is considered to be the best possible training opportunity because it allows for advice that is specific to the collection. NAMAC s Dan Schott pointed out that NAMAC provides small matching grants through its National Peer Technical Assistance Program which could be used toward a preservation consultancy. Other salon members pointed out that places like the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Experimental Television Center have grants available for this type of technical assistance.
Another important focus for future action is on the actual equipment used for preserving work. IMAP has been raising money to develop an online guide of equipment sources, parts, technicians, and manuals. Standby Media announced that it was setting up a nonprofit remastering facility in New York City modeled on BAVC s. A suggestion also was made for an actual equipment repository. Steve Seid explained that the value of a repository was that it would "[retain] the hardware base to retrieve tapes, [historicize] the technical path our tapes followed (after all, the equipment is part of the aesthetic vocabulary) and [sustain] that ancient but dying art of craft knowledge of the past."
In addition to a repository for equipment, there was some discussion about the possibility of developing a shared storage space for work. Mona Jimenez related that she had looked into developing a cooperative media storage facility in an old supermarket in upstate New York but never got the funding to fully assess the demand for such a space. This idea was not discussed extensively on the list, but the potential is still there to develop this idea further as a collaborative solution.
While the discussion revealed the arduous task facing those engaged in the preservation of independent media, it also revealed the large amount of work that people have already done to make their historical collections both accessible and enduring. IMAP s imminent development of a trial union catalogue will provide greater momentum for the education of the independent media field as to the importance of preservation. Mona Jimenez encouraged salon members to expand our partnerships in preservation beyond our immediate field in order to be better advocates for sustaining our collections. The important thing to remember in media preservation is not only to incorporate more than one approach - whether it is frequently migrating tapes, maintaining a contextualizing library, or exhibiting restored work in public settings - but also to make use of the multiple resources that are being built or are already in place throughout the greater preservation community.
CHRIS KENNEDY is a freelance writer and the distribution director at V tape in Ontario.
© 2002 National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture. All Rights Reserved.