Digital preservation is more than technology

Posted By Joshua Ranger on July 06, 2012 11:28 am | Permalink
Yes, it's early July, but I am going to talk a bit about April's NAB and a discussion that evolved from the show. I love the NAB conference; always have. I wound my way into media archiving and preservation after starting off as an audio engineer. That work and that career decision are still at the core of the passion I have for the work I do now. I love archival consulting, but man, give me a pile of equipment, a wiring diagram and some cables to run, and I'll throw on my tie gun holster and be there.

I still get to do that on occasion with various clients, but I spend a bulk of my time critically assessing the systems, formats, tools and workflows under consideration in preservation environments, comparing where they succeed and where they fail in meeting functional requirements, and what degree of success or failure is needed or acceptable.

Which is one reason I love NAB (Oh, and the NAB app, too. What a useful tool that was this year. Thanks, NAB!). The chance to check out all that amazing gear and see what fascinating technology is in development without immediately analyzing (and problematizing) the impact on archiving is a pure joy. Though this year there were a number of promising trends toward more intelligent storage solutions and trends that better support a preservation environment.

I was seeing greater collaboration and interoperability between vendors, and a related growth of systems enabling an SOA/micro-services approach rather than all-in-one. And given the archival field's struggles with storing and managing video content, the increasing maturation of MXF and the growth of LTFS (along with its data integrity solutions) are heartening. It also seems that the metadata functionality in various systems is beginning to better address the complex relationships among assets and technical descriptions, something incredibly important to preservation when trying to track all the versions, parts of content of multiple tapes, multiple works on single tapes, work copies, dubs, and so on that media production creates.

But - and I guess this means I'm becoming more archivist than engineer - I can't help myself. Especially after having attended the NY SMPTE chapter NAB wrap session. Don't get me wrong, it was a great session and there were three excellent speakers on hand, but none of them uttered the word metadata, nor touched on asset management. I'm not sure how we can discuss media production and distribution (not even getting to preservation) without considering those issues today. Outsourced Repository solutions - a major area of need and development considering the size and cost of storage for video files - were only mentioned in passing, and they were pitched as a solution that would take care of all of your archiving needs, including format migration, a phrase that is both ambiguous and inaccurate.

My concern here is that, though these solutions provide storage with robust data integrity, redundancy, the potential for geographical separation, and the ability to scale, that merely makes them a set of tools used to perform defined tasks - tasks that are a piece of a larger media workflow. Saying that these services do all of your archiving is akin to saying that a camera does all of your production, or that an NLE does all of your post. The words parked behind "all of your" consist of technology, people and policies. With this in mind, the outsourced solutions provide a good chunk of technology and some of the underlying storage management policies for archiving, but alone it falls woefully short of a solution for providing all of your archiving.

In this same vein, the discussion of archiving came up a couple of times, but I was taken aback by the nature of the conversation in the room. Although the session was full of folks working with file-based workflows, the repeated logic for assessing the "archive-ability" of something was the expected length of time that the storage media would last. This focus on the media takes the conversation back 10 years, when the prevailing mode was to stick tapes and discs on the shelf (and typically forget about them until forced to reformat). The tenor of the session was friendly, and I respect the other attendees, so there was no reason to make things contentious. However I had to fight the urge to scream out, "It doesn't matter how long Blu-ray discs will last." Or, "Who cares that LTO tapes can last 30 years."

The reality is that this model is antiquated, and that the file formats being placed in these storage media, and the systems surrounding the storage media will be long obsolete before the media itself is. This is especially true concerning the primary focus of those in the room - acquisition. Acquisition formats tend to shift frequently and there is often limited control over what is submitted, thus many organizations have to be prepared to accept any number of formats regardless of their archive-ability.

Similarly, in the session's discussion of repositories, the focus was on how a repository would migrate from format to format. By format, the speaker meant the storage media, which is great and necessary, but it doesn't address the migration of obsolete file formats to more sustainable formats, normalization versus obsolescence monitoring at the point of ingest, and the controlled metadata that needs to be in place and travel with the files throughout migration and/or transcoding.

I'm very happy that the technology is improving (and clients are very happy to finally start hearing that the technology is catching up to what they need), but what these two events have made me realize we need to underscore is the human factor in digital production and digital preservation. For decades the great cultural fear of the digital has been the loss of soul, of humanity, of control, but those fears are unfounded.

People create. People decide. People take action. The problem is in not understanding where those decision points are in the use of a technology and ceding control to the default or to automation. The technology is not The Solution, but a solution for enacting or enabling policies, guidelines, workflows, and creative acts, which we define and establish.

NYC-based Joshua Ranger is senior consultant with AudioVisual Preservation Solutions (