I recently spoke with Lauren Sorensen, Preservation Project Manager at the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco. Lauren graduated from the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at New York University and has since worked for the National Digitization Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), Canyon Cinema, San Francisco Cinematheque and now BAVC. Below she discusses preservation of analog videotape, working with artists and non-profits, and the future of moving image preservation.
What are your main job responsibilities as Preservation Project Manager?
My main responsibilities presently are preservationist for analog videotape for non-profits, archives, museums and libraries; preservationist and project manager for Dance Heritage Coalition partner project Dance Preservation & Digitization Project (formerly Secure Media Network), a digital repository of dance-related moving images; advising clients on collection care and handling; managing our collection assessment services; and metadata specialist.
What formats do you work with the most?
At this point in my work at BAVC, I’m not doing as much on the ground digitizing work, but I am definitely seeing the urgency now for preserving 1/2″ open-reel videotape, the first “portable” format financially (and physically) accessible to artists and non-profits such as dance companies and artists. We also work with Hi-8, Umatic and VHS quite a bit. I work advising our clients and building workflow for digital preservation, and I feel that is where my role at BAVC is headed moving forward. I often work with 10-bit uncompressed in a Quicktime *.mov wrapper, which is the preservation codec and wrapper we recommend to our clients currently for digitization from an analog source.
What is the most rewarding thing about your work?
For the Dance Heritage Coalition partner project, it is mainly discovering all the amazing possibilities associated with digital preservation and open source and the movement to open access; it can be very intimidating at first, but the software tools out there are really powerful and accessible if a little time is taken to learn. I feel like learning about these tools, because the standard now for analog videotape preservation is digital file, helps our smaller clients and I’m able to advise artists and those preserving their personal collections and I feel really good about being able to assist in that process.
Another rewarding thing about working at BAVC is that artists come in wanting to work on their personal legacy and life’s work. Sometimes we are able to put them in touch with an archive but there’s a complexity around that- even though their legacy videotape might be better cared for at an archive with temperature and humidity control or access to server storage, an artist may not want to let go of their work. While this is completely understandable, many times analog videotape is so unstable that it will not last over the course of one lifetime. So we often end up discussing more around the complexities of caring for video outside of a traditional setting, a very involved but ultimately very rewarding conversation, when we can do something to come to the service of this part of our constituency.
How does content influence your work?
One aspect of the digitization process where content matters is in monitoring the signal and identifying between what was captured in the original recording and what are artifacts in transfer. We’re a partner on the A/V Artifact Atlas project and have just recently taken over maintenance of the wiki, which we will work on updating over the next two years, thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Additionally, there are instances especially with artist-made videotapes when it is unclear if something like sync loss or artifacts are original to the intention of the work; in this case, we work closely with the archivist and sometimes the artist, to determine the intention and how that fits into the preservation process.
In the Videotape Preservation Handbook, Jim Wheeler writes:
“It is assumed that there is intrinsic value in the recorded information or content and little, or no, intrinsic value in the original physical item itself.”
Would you agree that in the field of moving image preservation, there is no intrinsic value in the physical item?
We definitely come across artists who will use tape cases as art objects, and many times there are “traces” of what was produced before, such as metadata intrinsic to the value and provenance of the piece, so I would not agree with Wheeler’s statement especially regarding the community that we serve. Recording and maintaining this kind of legacy metadata is very important for digital preservation.
I’m constantly blown away by the amount of time and money involved in moving image preservation. Are there ever times where you wonder “is this worth it”?
I definitely have moments when I question the selection of content by curators or archivists we work with, but the work we receive in our role as fee-for-service digitization provider is coming from a particular context, where I don’t necessarily have the depth of understanding that the curator might have about what the history or value of that tape might be. Additionally, one of the really exciting aspects of analog video preservation is that many times the content for selection is based on tape labeling and how consistent or well-recorded metadata was in the original production. For example, BAVC received a Hi-8 video documentation of water freezing from the science museum in San Francisco for transfer. There was some challenges in terms of patience as a technician to have one-to-one supervision in transferring, but I can definitely see the value of what they are doing in preserving a tape like that — it was the opening of a major exhibition and Hi-8 is a volatile format. I think it will get easier and less expensive as tools are developed and people actively work on making the digitization activities we pursue streamlined. It helps that as a field we’re moving into the digital world, where we can make code and scripts work for us to make tasks less expensive and time-consuming.
Any predictions about the future of your field?
For analog video digitization, the recommended preservation format is digital; and with the fate of Kodak, I think the future is that a lot of moving image archivists are going to have to add digital preservation skills and tools to their bag of tricks. Digital preservation and archives is an exciting field to move into, I think, it’s just important to not be intimidated, dive in and try out sample files. I think the digital world gives our community a great opportunity in thinking about new ways of approaching what’s being preserved.