Pre-archive preservation and post-archive production

Posted By Joshua Ranger on May 02, 2012 08:22 am | Permalink
I think we can all agree that, while a pleasant theoretical diversion, the auteurist theory of media production is, in practical terms, bunk. Too many other people have a hand in a work's production for one person to take full credit. Likewise, no single person is entirely responsible for the management and preservation of a production's assets. There are too many links in the chain from conception to archive where decisions must be made, problems may occur, and decisions catalogued.

That said, however, I have to admit that in most organizations I've worked with, whether an institution or a studio, the content creator and content user wings don't really care much for the archives. Not that they don't care about preserving and accessing materials, but cultural differences and resource competition between these groups contributes to greater friction than should exist among people with the same end goal - the long term ability to easily access and use the audiovisual materials they create.

Certainly these different groups face different challenges and may have a different perception of the pathway one needs to follow to reach that goal. For a content creator, this means having materials close at hand and easy to work with, focusing on the end goal of a distributable project that may be on a deadline of a few hours. For the archivist - or collection manager, traffic manager, production assistant, or whomever in a company/studio is tasked with taking care of assets - there is a greater focus on creating catalog records or finding aids which are searched or consulted to find the exact (or general) location where the object is stored, retrieving the object, and providing access to a user, sometimes in a matter of minutes, hours, or (unfortunately) days. The archivist (I'll continue to use this as a broad term to keep things simple and avoid cornucopious lists) also needs to enable and execute strategies that ensure the preservation of the objects in question, strategies which are not always conducive to the righthere rightnow needs of production.

The great difficulty with audiovisual materials is the lack of findability and accessibility that arises due to poor documentation (often inherited at the point of deposit to the archive) or technical hurdles such as lack of playback equipment. This results in major backlogs in identifying content and a basic inability to provide access. That creates a situation in which potential users feel that archives are black boxes where materials go to die and archivists feel overwhelmed by piles of tapes they cannot play or even accurately describe. No wonder content creators feel it's better to just keep everything close at hand, even if they themselves do not recall what the asset contains or no longer have the capacity for playing it. And no wonder archivists wish everyone would just settle on one format and pleasepleaseplease write some basic information on the case or in a spreadsheet. Please.

The day-to-day, in the weeds nature of organizational politics and internal jockeying aside, I have seen these kinds of behaviors create serious issues for companies, ranging from legal settlement to lost opportunity. The common denominator in all is an inability to reasonably and affordably dig out of the mess created. Very often this results from an inability to define or keep in mind the long term value of their materials beyond the initial point of documentation or distribution. We all know the popular success stories where people did plan ahead: Desilu Productions retaining filmed copies of (and future rights to) "I Love Lucy", essentially creating the syndicated rebroadcast market...Neil Young's retention of his master recordings, unreleased live material, and other documentation, assets that are seeing fruition in his Grammy-winning Archives Vol. I box set...Disney's decades-long cottage industry (pre-home video boom) rereleasing films to theatres, and then in the early video market pushing a "We're opening up the vaults for a limited time" marketing approach.

We know these, but what about the stories where organizations faced greater struggles? A few years ago I worked with a large federal government department to establish an inventory of their textual, visual, and audio assets that had been created and stored in worldwide locations over the past 60+ years. The archives had struggled with managing the wide range of formats and standards used as there were no organizational wide guidelines on format selection and documentation. As a result they had trouble efficiently fulfilling access requests. More recent changes meant that things were greatly improving, but today's content creators preferred to retain their copies rather than deposit them. 

During the inventory I heard many stories about assets that were lost or simply thrown away during the frequent office moves the creator departments made; about people running out of storage space, not knowing what they had, or not having the equipment for playback anymore; and about creators feeling overwhelmed by having to manage so many tapes or files. In quantifying the massive number of assets and digging up "lost" collections that needed reformatting and preservation work, the administration itself was overwhelmed by the budget and personnel that would be required to perform this previously hidden and unaddressed work. Having failed to gain buy-in to or enforcing guidelines and processes in the past, they faced a situation where budgets would need to be compressed into a handful of years rather than spread out as a simple part of daily operations had they been addressed earlier.

In my archival training we were constantly told to document everything because what-will-happen-if-you-get-hit-by-a-bus-tomorrow-and-all-the-information-about-your-collections-was-in-your-head.  Go ahead and chuckle, but currently I'm working on a project for a New York City performance hall with 70 years' worth of concert and event material. Sadly, the audio engineer in charge of the recordings was in an accident and died on the way to work two years ago. For those two years, the collections sat, gathering more dust in their storage area and continuing the march to decay. The organization knows they have valuable content, but they had no idea how to tell what it was or how best to take care of it. So it sat, getting worse and, equally important, not able to be used to support the promotion of the organization's storied history or help fulfill its institutional mission. And once again, a preservation project is driven by a crisis mentality rather than through reasoned planning.

Though the discussion of these topics often devolves into a blame game, there is not a single party at fault here. Rather, balkanization at the department level, a lack of communication about expectations and abilities, and an unwillingness to compromise over what is possible or what is a priority (I must have this...I would like to have this...In an ideal situation I would love to have this...) in collaborative requirements lie at the core of these conflicts.

An aspiring auteur should have a knowledge of the various contributing roles to a production so they understand the impact of certain decision points and how to ask for or understand the creative/practical approach of those collaborators contributing at those points. Likewise, creators and caretakers need to understand the basics of each other's needs and roles so they can better ask for or support those needs and avoid the conflicts that hurt all points of production and preservation. Preservation not as a bug in amber, but preservation as planning ahead to enable continually usable assets for future productions or opportunities. Longevity is not an accident, but a result of healthy maintenance of all aspects of an individual or organizational body.

Joshua Ranger is Senior Consultant with AudioVisual Preservation Solutions.