Interview an Archivist: A Conversation with Chris Lacinak

By Joshua Koepke

In archival and preservation circles, the word “digital” often induces worry about costs, skills, and plans necessary for long-term preservation. For Chris Lacinak, the founder and CEO of AVP, the shift to digital preservation presents opportunities for preservation and connections to important work outside of traditional repositories. Chris explained this to me in a recent phone interview which I had the pleasure of leading.

Chris Lacinak Headshot

Recognizing the widespread lack of institutional ability to find internal solutions to preservation problems, Chris Lacinak started AVP in 2006. Serving both GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) and the private sector, AVP provides consulting services and innovative solutions for maximizing the usability of born-digital and digitized content immediately and over the long-term. The idea is to realize an institution’s own potential for digital solutions at scale, “I started AVP originally back in 2006 with the goal of helping organizations build internal capacity and capability for doing their own digitization and preservation in-house.” This includes calculating staffing, training, equipment, costs, and project length for specific institutions. Since AVP started, it has worked with a large client base including Stanford University, Indiana University, and Paramount Pictures.

Chris offers reassurance to preservationists and asset managers hesitant to embrace digital content. Costs to digitize and preserve materials, observes Chris, have dropped in recent years. In some areas, the costs have decreased nearly ten times the amount of just a few decades ago. Another major detractor to digital content, obsolescence, has not been as severe as anticipated, says Chris, “I went through that transition. I shared those concerns [rapidity of digital obsolescence], and that was a big concern of the field. To a large extent, while some of those concerns have borne out to be true, that rapidity of obsolescence has not been as severe as we once thought it might be.” The increased duration between obsolescence risks has allowed for more planning, strategizing, and execution of strategies. Longer obsolescence times, partnered with great toolsets, education, and evolution of practices within the field has made digital preservation, “… as manageable and realistic as the analogue domain.” Ultimately, Chris says, successful preservation comes down to proper planning regardless of format.

One particular challenge that presents itself to AVP has been the differences in terminology and labels between institution types. The wide range of organization types, from traditional archives to corporate asset management departments, make unique vocabularies for their particular operation. For example, “Some people use digital asset management systems that have digital preservation requirements, but they never use the word ‘preservation’ or anything like that and vice versa.” These labels – digital asset management and digital preservation – can obscure the true needs and goals of an organization. Thus, Chris turns his attention to analyzing the unique requirements of a particular organization. 

Additionally, Chris sees high potential in collaboration efforts between different parts of the preservation community and with unconventional partners outside of the industry. Drawing on his experiences with a broad segment of the industry, Chris has noticed communication breakdowns between types of organizations and different segments of the industry. As a field, we are currently too quick to dismiss potential solutions that could be adapted for use in different markets due to differences in terminology and industry, says Chris, “We don’t engage in deep conversations typically, where there is variance in terminology and vocabulary that give us reason to say ‘they’re not like me’.” By doing so, we limit important progress in digital preservation. 

Emphasizing the connections to other industries continued when asked what advice he would give to young professionals just starting out in archiving or preservation. Chris encouraged people to think broadly about related fields and transferable skills to other industries, “…broaden your horizons, as an archivist, a moving image archivist, you have a skillset that has a lot of value to organizations. There are a lot of organizations that you could be delivering value to”. He went on to say that many organizations that do not have archival departments, traditional archival positions, or even the same terminology, can greatly benefit from the archival skillset. This is echoed in AVP, which has found great success when expanding services outside of institutions with traditional archives (e.g., academia, government entities). Overall Chris thinks the outlook is bright for digital preservation professionals, sensing a demand for curation, management, and all aspects of preservation with the current mass creation of data.

Finally, looking towards the future, Chris is excited about the unconventional opportunities to apply and adapt the digital preservation skillset to challenges throughout the world. He spotlights current AVP projects that are outside of traditional archival labels, including work helping to fight deforestation in Brazil and advancing platforms for black news organizations. Projects he remarks that, “… you would just not think of as being the sorts of projects that you’d be able to work on in a traditional media and archiving route.” Chris is eager to see how the field can think critically about their skillset and form connections to other areas. To get into contact with Chris Lacinak or AVP, please visit: https://www.weareavp.com/.

IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Launches Exhibit of WWII Propaganda Film

In honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive has digitized 116 World War II propaganda films now available as part of archive’s “WWII Propaganda Films and IU: Audiovisual Production, Circulation, and Education” permanent online exhibition. The exhibition focuses on IU’s use of mass media to educate and inform American audiences during WWII.

The United States Coast Guard Song: Semper Paratus ; The Army Air Corps Song
The United States Coast Guard Song: Semper Paratus ; The Army Air Corps Song

This online exhibition is available for free to the general public and may be browsed by film title and subject. The original movies were distributed by Indiana University during and after the war years as part of the IU Bureau of Audio-Visual Aids and are now part of IU Libraries Moving Image Archive’s core collection of educational films, which is one of the largest such collections in the world.

Many titles in the exhibition are available online for the first time, such as “The Children See It Through,” a 1941 film produced by lauded wartime documentarian Paul Rotha that focuses on the life of British children during the war. The exhibition also features a wide selection of government-sponsored films and newsreels from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, with content including the purchase of war bonds, the growing of victory gardens, and the war efforts made by students of historically African American colleges.

Additionally, the exhibition includes instructional films intended for limited audiences, such as a film instructing engineering students on how to build a B-26 medium bomber. Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, Bing Crosby and Dylan Thomas are among the many credited performers and creators of the films.

A selection of films from the exhibit
A selection of films from the exhibit

“These films offer a unique window into American history and demonstrate the important role that film archives play in preserving and providing access to our shared cultural heritage,” said Rachael Stoeltje, head of the archive. “Without the Moving Image Archive and the IU Libraries’ commitment to preservation and access, this digitization project and the exhibition likely would not have been possible.”

This digital collection and exhibition are part of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive’s continued commitment to digitizing and providing online streaming access to archival motion picture film collections and to raising awareness among the general public of the wide variety of films available at IU. By providing free online access to these films, IU Libraries Moving Image Archive also hopes to promote a deeper understanding of the ways in which governments and filmmakers presented the many aspects of wartime life through the use of moving image recordings.  See more information here.

A Conversation with Simona Monizza, Curator at EYE

The EYE New Filmmuseum in Amsterdam
The EYE New Filmmuseum in Amsterdam

In late February, 2013, I had the pleasure of speaking with Simona Monizza, Curator at the EYE New Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, formerly known as the EYE Film Institute. The museum embraces, exhibits and teaches about film on multiple levels. It serves as a space with both permanent and rotating exhibits and there are film screenings daily. EYE is devoted to film archiving, restoration and collecting.

Although she has worked with EYE for over 13 years, Monizza’s role with the institute has changed somewhat over the years. After graduating from the Selznick School in Rochester, NY, she worked for one year with the British Film Institute and then moved to Amsterdam to work for the EYE Institute as a restorer. Working as a film restorer her duties were quite diverse. She was in charge of doing all of the prep work for multiple projects. This involved collecting any materials which might have information about a title, comparing different film elements, writing condition reports, deciding the best path to take for a particular project, working alongside the restorers at Haghefilm and overseeing quality control. As there was a flurry of projects going on at this time, she was often overseeing multiple film projects in various stages simultaneously. At this time, both Haghefilm and EYE were located in the same building. She said it was really great to be working side-by-side individuals in this amazing lab. There was one year in which they restored 400 films. Given the copious amount of time and energy it takes for just one film, this is truly astounding.

Interactive exhibit at the EYE Film Museum
Interactive exhibit at the EYE New Filmmuseum

EYE has a large collection of silent, amateur, experimental, animation and mainstream films including the largest collection of Dutch films in the world. Each genre has its own Collection Specialist who works closely with that particular collection. EYE is continuing to add to their existing collection of 40,000 films, which Monizza is directly involved in. After working as a Collection Specialist, she is now the Curator of the Experimental Film Collection. For film, this involves preserving, collecting and cataloging. If there is a particular filmmaker whose films they want to have in their collection, she will actively go to them and try to get their material. This entails going to their house to check the condition of the film elements, creating an inventory and a contract. There have been many times when filmmakers don’t know where a lot of their elements are or their collections are very disorganized which only adds to the complexity of her role and tracking down crucial bits of information. At times there is a lot of sleuthing involved. Her focus however, is more on film collections not just individual titles. She said this is a very time consuming but exciting process because there are always new and interesting things to be discovered. Other times filmmakers approach her to see if their works can be taken in to EYE’s collection. In addition she develops programs at EYE to showcase these newly acquired films and finds ways to connect people to the exhibits. EYE also has a distribution branch which filmmakers can submit their films to. A jury watches these films once a month and can select titles they would like to integrate into their existing collections.

She discussed the difficulty in deciding what to digitize from their collection. “It’s not easy, some collections are easier to digitize than others” she stated, “and the experimental ones offer many challenges in this regard due to their material characteristics.” In order for films to be digitized, copies must be in good condition.

“The state of the film determines its preservation path. At the moment we still preserve on film but also digitize for access. Under access we understand many things, like making Digital Cinema Packages for distribution of short films, or giving online access to part of our collection through some websites.”

Many reversal prints need to be graded, which is another time consuming step that takes place in their lab. EYE is currently not able to scan nitrate or Super 8 films. As they are in many archives, things in the digital realm are progressing rapidly. Demand for immediate access is on the rise and EYE must try and keep up with people’s needs.

EYE receives roughly 80% of their funds from The Netherlands’ government. This contrasts largely to how archives are operated in the United States, which rely heavily on grant funding and donations for projects. In recent years however, not as much money has been devoted to restoration projects and more weight is being put on EYE to find their own funding sources.

Given that her background is in analog work, Monizza is not as excited about the future of digital worrying that it may replace analog completely.

“Both technologies are used in our restorations and the best results come from the combination of both, but it hurts to see so much knowledge and expertise on film disappear so quickly.”

As many individuals do, she feels that there is often more talk about what should be done about the death of film than there are actions being taken to prevent it. As her role has changed over the years and she has adapted, she is certain that she will continue to do so and carve out her own niche in the film world. Her last words of advice for anyone entering this field were to learn as much about the digital aspects of film preservation as possible, without forgetting what film is.

~Asia Harman

Lauren Sorensen: Analog Video Hero

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.

Lauren Sorensen of the Bay Area Video Coalition
Lauren Sorensen of the Bay Area Video Coalition

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.

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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.

~Leanne Mobley