Time-based media and digital preservation


Way back in May last year I posted about one of the many challenges we’ve faced in the Countryside21 project – conducting a survey of the time-based media (TBM) in the MERL Archives. There were three stages to the survey: 1) identifying what TBM there is, 2) finding it, and 3) developing an action plan for its conservation.

It felt like we spent a good part of the summer rummaging around in the Archives, moving boxes, opening tins and doing an awful lot of counting, but we eventually got there and have, fingers crossed, found all the TBM. Having not fully understood how the Archives work in terms of duplicates (films have master copies, viewing copies and preservation copies – all of which are kept in different locations and not always obviously labelled) we opted for keeping really detailed notes of what we found, in the hope that someone else would know what it all means, and this has proved a sensible plan!

We have now come up with totals for all of the different types of media – e.g. audio cassette tapes, reel to reel tapes, CDs, DVDs, film (8mm, 16mm etc.), floppy disks, gramophone records, videos (VHS, betacam, umatic etc.), hard drives etc. – and are working out what to do next. Some things we can transfer to a digital format in-house. I’ve managed to dig out an external floppy disk drive from home and have been converting those. I was quite surprised that a Windows7 computer was able to read a floppy disk from the 1990s. Other things will need specialist equipment to transfer and will have to be done externally. But obviously we have to prioritise as these things are very costly.

To help us in this process, several of us (Felicity and me, and two of the University archivists) went on a digital preservation training course, run by the Digital Preservation Coalition. Digital preservation was described as ‘the series of managed activities necessary to ensure that digital materials remain accessible beyond the limits of obsolescence’. The course focused on the preservation of born-digital material (material that has only ever existed in digital format) rather than digital surrogates (hard copy things which have been digitised). The vast majority of the digital material at MERL is digital surrogates, but there were still many useful points for us.

These included the need to think about what it is you want to achieve through preservation, and the need to think in terms of who will use the data, rather than in terms of preserving data itself. Another point was that you need to maintain software, hardware and people, all of which change, in order to preserve digital material. We were introduced to different approaches to digital preservation (migration, emulation, hardware preservation, etc.) and different tools for doing it, and also to methodologies for conducting risk assessments and developing preservation plans. And a really key point was that OK is sometimes good enough, i.e. don’t wait for perfection in digital preservation, just get started!

Another Countryside21 challenge


Countryside21 is a project full of challenges – mostly conceptual ones, in that it we’re largely working in unfamiliar territory and it takes us quite a while to get our heads around each of the things we’re supposed to be doing. As mentioned in previous posts, the project has numerous strands of activity involving a variety of tasks. One of those is to carry out a survey of the time-based media in the MERL archives. Before we started the project, I had never heard of time-based media (TBM). The Tate, which has a really interesting page on its website about the conservation of TBM art, defines it as media which ‘depends on technology and has duration as a dimension’, although this definition could be extended to include anything which is vulnerable to deterioration. TBM includes film, video, audio, slides, transparencies, discs, and computer-based technologies such as digital files.

The world of technology is constantly changing, with many TBM formats and the equipment needed to view them becoming obsolete. For this reason, it is desirable to transfer the TBM to newer formats. The aim of the survey is to find out exactly what TBM we have and develop an action plan for its conservation. There are three stages to the survey:

Step 1 – Identify the TBM.  After several days of solid work I have just finished this stage, which has involved looking through the hard copy accessions registers for any mention of TBM and then conducting endless searches on Adlib for any term which might bring up TBM. Hopefully this has captured most of it, but there will inevitably be some that have slipped through – either because it wasn’t mentioned in the register, hasn’t been catalogued in detail on Adlib, or because I don’t fully understand how things on the archives side of MERL work!

Step 2 – Conduct the survey. This will involve finding out exactly what we have by looking through box after box of archive material to see what type of media, what format, how much of it there is, its age, and its condition. This is going to require some research into old media formats – I only go back as far as the cassette and the VHS! It’s also going to require some research into understanding where things are kept in the archives.

Step 3 – Develop an action plan for conserving the TBM. I don’t really know what this will involve, but I think it will be up to the archivists rather than Felicity and me.

As with almost everything we’ve done so far relating to Countryside21, this strand of activity has taken quite a bit of time for me to get my head round. Hopefully I’m starting to get to grips with it but I think conducting the survey will prove quite a challenge!