On Monday, I was thrilled to attend a workshop entitled Digital Preservation for Video, presented by Linda Tadic for Independent Media Art Preservation (IMAP) . The workshop was held in San Francisco at the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC). The scope of the event was to cover some of the key considerations in digitizing video and creating a digital preservation program at the DIY level (i.e. without a huge IT department backing you up). A few of the institutions represented by attendees included BAVC, the Pacific Film Archive, the California Institute of the Arts, the California Academy of Science, the Sierra Club, the San Francisco Symphony, and the California Film Institute.
Prior to this workshop, I hadn’t had a great deal of exposure to the digital preservation challenges of moving visual materials. In fact, I confess that I hardly knew anything about the current physical formats used for video storage, nor much about the hard work that is necessary for digitizing them. Most of the attendees have done their share of digitizing moving images (or of outsourcing the digitization), and I think that most of us were there to explore the answers to the question of “now what?”
The Move to File-Based Video Storage
Physical moving image storage formats are on death row. We spent the bulk of the morning going over the characteristics of different physical media and their expiration dates, which served as an effective motivator for digitization and instilling all but panic among the attendees.
Unlike paper, the magnetic tapes, reels, and discs that moving images are physically stored on are on a very tight deadline; aside from succumbing to format obsolescence, most of the media is reaching the end of its life expectancy, after which the images on them will simply not exist anymore. To give some examples of formats that I was more familiar with, the life span of VHS is approximately 15 years, while MiniDV, DVCam, and Video are 5-10 years. This illustrates a point that in some cases, it isn’t necessary to digitize the oldest things first.
Digitization is arguably the increasingly best preservation option for some of these formats, and it is important that the road to digitization doesn’t result in a dead end. That is why we need to ensure that once digitization has occurred, there is a digital preservation plan in place to ensure that the video content will continue to survive, especially since the original physical sources of the content will be dead in short while.
Indeed, we are observing a shift from format-based physical video storage to the file-based storage of digital video content. Preservation will no longer be about making the tapes last as long as possible, but by caring for the digital files representing the content that the tapes once held.
Preservation Concerns for Digital Video
I appreciate how Linda was adamant in reminding us that digital preservation is not a one-time fix for digital video longevity. She was very clear in telling us that it requires a constant guardianship consisting of a deliberate, scheduled management of the digital files. To use her phrasing, there is no “store-and-ignore” solution. Preservation activities involve keeping file formats current so that they can be accessed by the software of the now. It also involves exercising the hard drives that your files may be stored on and not letting them sit idle for more than 6 months. It requires diligent updating of the files’ accompanying preservation metadata so that changes to the files can be tracked and managed.
Linda also stated what nobody likes to hear about digital preservation: that there is no one way to do things, and that there is no one set of instructions to follow that will help you save your content. As with all file types, the preservation decisions you make will depend on your content, your files types, your storage, and your intended access methods. So, in the case of making storage selections and creating a plan, knowledge is power. I’ll try to summarize some of the key points covered.