The world is changing every day. So does technology. Who could imagine 20 years ago that good old vinyl records, that have been around for nearly a century will vanish almost overnight? Well, not quite yet, vinyl made a bit of renaissance recently, but mostly as a thing of nostalgia and fashion. There will surely be some vinyl geeks keeping the market semi-alive for some time, but let’s be honest, there are more convenient methods of storing and playing audio today. We are witnessing the same thing with CD’s and DVD’s. Slowly but surely they are giving way to more convenient media as usb flash drives, mobile phones (as both storage and playback devices) and SD cards. What’s next? Probably nothing physical anymore. Cloud-based solutions for storing audiovisual files is already a today’s reality. The law of nature, or call it the law of fashion, is always the same – here today, gone tomorrow.
Books and other printed matter are facing the same fate. Newspapers in their paper formats will probably totally disappear in the next couple of decades. Books will probably be around for much longer, for their cultural heritage and people’s affection more than anything else. It’s pretty clear what to do with the paper sources in term of preservation. Loads of books and manuscripts are being digitized every day. Some global projects, like Google Books are making yesterday’s dreams come true today.
Preservation, in case of books and other paper materials is well attended to. Life span of paper sources, if stored properly, is hundreds of years. We all can see governments spending billions of dollars worldwide building state-of-art libraries and book storage facilities and it is great.
Audio and moving image are an entirely different story. Original audio and video have limited life and start deteriorating in as little as 10 years. Though archives of sound and moving image do all they can to keep the precious tape original as long as possible, it is unlikely that magnetic tape will still be playable after another 100 years.
The challenges in AV digitization can be separated into 4 main groups.
Group 1. Maintaining obsolete equipment or building new, capable of playing old formats for preservation purposes.
Usually a combination of both is taking place. Well-maintained old equipment sourced by the archives, often through online marketplaces, like Ebay. It is possibe to modify the old VTR’s leaving mechanics in and changing electronic parts to modern-day ones, adding video and audio capturing devices, making the equipment PC compatible outright. Not an easy task by itself, it is however doable by skilled technicians and it pays off, as having good equipment is a crucial part of AV archiving process contrubuting to the high quality of digitization required for archival purposes.
Group 2. Choosing the right format for digitization, that offers the highest quality, being compatible with various platforms and playback equipment and being potentially compatible with tomorrow’s equipment. Technology is changing fast and what seems to be nearly perfect today can be not good enough tomorrow. This is an ongoing challenge. There is a call for developing universal archival standards. At the moment, each archive makes its own decision.
Group 3. Preservation of originals. It has been mentioned before that this challenge is unlikely to be resolved completely. Some mediums, like gramophone records, for example, have proved to keep very well, being perfectly playable after 100 years of storage. Some, like magnetic tape will probably won’t last that long. Having tapes digitized in the highest possible quality and being able to use them on future-day equipment is a must.
Group 4. Direct access by public – cloud based solutions. Being great idea in general, cloud solutions are usually provided by third parties, commercial organizations. There is a certain amount of risk of them eventually going bust for one reason or another, potential loss of data and often the need for the source archival material to be re-encoded into a lighter, consumer acceptable format.
Those interested in exploring the topic further are advised to download and read US National Recording Preservation Plan, an admirable fundamental work that outlines more challenges and possible solutions in AV Digitization and preservation.
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