Feels like heaven? Five major challenges for audiovisual archives in the era of ‘full digitisation’

Brecht Declercq, credit Marcin Oliva Soto

Brecht Declercq

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“In an age where global audiovisual communication has become a highway of social media traffic, audiovisual records offer us the opportunity to transcend the limitations of time and place. Audiovisual archives convey messages from one era to another. It is the audiovisual archivist’s responsibility that the messages captured are reliable, authentic, persistent and complete.”

This quote comes from the Call for Papers of the Joint Conference of the International Federation of Television Archives (FIAT/IFTA) and the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) which is currently ongoing online. When reading this statement one might think that the digital transformation has lead audiovisual archives beyond the classic challenges of archive management. Nothing could be further from the truth. In my opinion, audiovisual archives today face five major challenges.

The first challenge I’d put forward in the era of full digitization is … digitization. Analog audiovisual carriers, especially magnetic tapes, degrade rapidly. But maybe worse: the players are becoming obsolete, spare parts are no longer available and specialized knowledge disappears. Experts agree that these two effects combined will make large-scale digitization of audiovisual carriers effectively unaffordable sometime between 2023 and 2028. This two-headed monster that Mike Casey (Indiana University) called ‘Degralescence’ is almost defeated in some places in the western world. But elsewhere it got the help of its villain accomplices Dissension and Austerity. FIAT/IFTA’s annual Timeline survey showed in 2019 that even in prosperous Europe almost half of the audiovisual archives is not yet halfway done with getting their collection digitised. In 2019 the UNESCO Information for All Programme (IFAP) together with IASA surveyed magnetic tapes collections worldwide. While the results are being processed fear has it that millions of carriers are still waiting to be rescued. When it comes to audiovisual digitization, it is time to shift the efforts not one but two gears up.

With the digitization race still on, a second huge challenge is awaiting us. The written terms we formulate our queries in aren’t there in audio or video, so textual description is required to make audiovisual archives searchable. Furthermore, the exploding amount of audiovisual material produced by humankind also has huge archival impact. Describing all images and sounds manually is no longer an option. Since 25 years or more it has been anticipated that algorithms could take over this task. No wonder that audiovisual archives were amongst the first ones to jump on the bandwagon of artificial intelligence. But the conversations on this topic have an interesting parallel with teenage sex: everyone talks about it, but hardly anyone really knows how to do it. Still many think that all the rest are doing it, so they claim that they are doing it too. When push comes to shove, according to a FIAT/IFTA survey from 2017 only one out of ten audiovisual archives already leaves archival description tasks to the computer.

When it comes to making their mark online, audiovisual archives have to deal with a third, tough challenge: copyrights, ethical and privacy rights. It might not always seem so, but most audiovisual archives would definitely love to show and tell more online, because the value is in the use. But a first hindrance is called copyright, preventing audiences worldwide to get online access to the archives they oftentimes funded through their tax payments. On the other hand many archives are heavily pushed to look for sources of revenue beyond the eternal government subsidies or grants, such as … archival sales. Add to that: the recent tightening of privacy legislations, for example in the EU. If faces and voices are considered personal data, trying to obtain consent for just about every fragment they’d like to publish online becomes an immense challenge for European archives. At the FIAT/IFTA conference in 2018, Gianna Bianchi-Clerici, member of the Italian Privacy Authority, said what many thought but no one dared to say: GDPR legislation is de facto impracticable for audiovisual archives.

The fourth challenge I’d like to raise is about digital preservation. The digital storage infrastructures of many audiovisual archives are comparable to those of major banks. Evidently also the required competencies of audiovisual archivists are rapidly changing. It is all about digital sustainability, system documentation, avoiding vendor lock-in, fighting file format obsolescence via large scale migration operations, etc. Digital operations can be done on a much larger scale than manual ones, but ‘digital’ is not a synonym for ‘no effort required.’ At least one iron law of the analog archive also applies in a digital one: nothing is ever preserved, everything is just being preserved.

The fifth and final challenge is less visible than the others, but all the more sensible. It’s about legitimacy and repositioning in a changing social and political landscape. Audiovisual heritage is probably the only kind of tangible heritage of which by far the largest collections are acquired, stored, digitised, managed and used by institutions who rarely have it in their mission to do so: broadcasters and other media organisations. But heavy financial pressure often urges them to refocus on their core business and decrease archival investments. Still, their archives often sharply show the internal contradictions of society, relativizing the present through a confrontation with the past. Especially public broadcasters’ archives can be a defiance to those wanting to impose simple solutions for complex problems. This means that a strong shield for the protection of democracy is threatened.

Notwithstanding the five challenges outlined above, audiovisual archives are above all a treasure trove of great opportunities. Their unique value for our society today is in the combination of two major assets: the story-telling power of the past stored on tangible and virtual vaults, and the imaginative power of sounds and moving images. These two together can transform each audiovisual archive into a laboratory where these strengths can jointly be expressed to the fullest, a gold mine of the individual and the collective memory.

Brecht Declercq, FIAT-IFTA General Secretary