The Threat of Degralescence — Part II: Call to Action

In my last post, I talked about how degralescence is threatening to make a lot of audiovisual material inaccessible in the near future (15-20 years). All this talk of gloom and doom for AV material is depressing, but all is not yet lost. Although we may only have 15-20 years, it may just be enough time to save these materials. At the Music Library Association’s Annual Conference in Atlanta, I was able to attend a talk that discussed audiovisual preservation from two perspectives: a small music library with a staff of about 3 (Westminster Choir College), and a large research university that has a large staff and an equally large collection of AV items (Indiana University). Both show that all is indeed not lost, but skill, time, and effort are required.

The WCC library’s presentation (titled “Digitizing on a Shoestring”), discussed the librarians’ work with digitizing their collection. When they set out, they used a NEH assistance grant to estimate the cost of reformatting and preserving the AV materials. The estimate came back at $650,000—way too much money for a library of WCC’s size. Therefore, the two intrepid librarians decided to forge ahead on their own. They read published standards about digital preservation of AV items, looked at what other institutions were doing, and hired an audio technician. At the conference, they were happy to announce that their expenditures were less than $30,000, most of which was dedicated to the audio technicians pay check. Since there are so many free or low cost Content Management Systems and audio digitization software out there, most of these costs were negligible.

Planning was a key factor in the success of this project, as was reading up on current practices in the field. This goes to show that for some projects, expertise is not required, as long as you’re willing to do the legwork.

After this was a discussion about preservation within a completely different setting – Indiana University. Here, the University holds around 560,000 items, 180,000 of which are at serious risk. Digitizing these items would be a Herculean task, and, as such, the university administration produced a strategic plan to digitize all material held by the university. Part of this project required AV specialists to analyze and prioritize materials across the university. In the words of Mike Casey: “Who has what, are those items unique or rare, how much do they have, and in what condition?” A large part of this effort is in deciding what materials get priority over others. To this extent, IU has developed a scientific ranking system that gives a 0-5 score to items based on their research value and condition or risk (0: this has low value and/or low risk, 5: high value and/or high risk). These scores are then combined, and reviewed by curators. Then items are selected for preservation.

IU has contracted with an outside company that specializes in AV digitization and preservation to do the actual digitization due to the sheer size of the collection. Although all institutions may not be able to have an outside company digitize for them, institutions could definitely use the ranking and prioritization system to help make selections for preservation.

The takeaway: AV digital preservation is difficult, but possible, and getting institutional support for the effort is imperative to making it work.

Don’t let degralescence get you down!


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