Andrea Walker

Andrea Walker

Last updated on 24 October 2019

Andrea Walker works in Special Collections at the University of Cape Town Libraries, South Africa

At-Risk Material in UCT Libraries’ Special Collections

This year, the first that UCT Libraries is participating, the theme for World Digital Preservation Day is At-Risk Digital Materials. It’s as if it was tailor-made for us. Even though I work in the historic, beautifully restored Jagger Library, I spend most of my time these days down in the basement, 2 or 3 stories underground (it’s hard to measure that when you’re on the side of a mountain). Right at the bottom is our AV archive. I’m currently undertaking an audit, to determine not only what’s there, but also what the exact format is, and when the material was recorded, among other things. Why? Because these materials only have a limited lifespan. Some of them were kept in less than ideal conditions before being deposited with us, and it shows. Most of them are in formats that are no longer easily accessible.

Walker 1In collaboration with UCTL’s Digital Library Services, we’re going to be using the completed audit to prioritise the digitisation of these AV materials in order to both make them accessible and preserve them. I’m going to take you through some of the different material we have using the DPC’s Bit List of Endangered Species. While not everything belongs there, because not everything I’m going to be discussing is digital, it all needs to be digitised before we lose access to it completely, and this is a very useful way of assessing which items have the most urgent digitisation needs. Almost all of the material I’ll be discussing comes in some form of a legacy format. We’re talking 1/4-inch audio tape reels, Umatic video cassettes, a variety of different Betacam formats, the various DV formats, VHA tapes, CDs, DVDs … I have a long and extensive list. Which is also colour-coded, as you can see from the extract on the right.

Walker 2In the practically extinct category we have all our film reels. Kept in a special cold room, these reels date from as far back as the 1930s, as well as including more recent material. They’re not digitised yet, and I’m labelling them practically extinct because there’s no likelihood of their becoming digital. We have neither the capacity nor the equipment to view these reels, never mind digitising them. For now, the best we can do is preserve them physically.


Walker 3In the critically endangered category are items that have not been well preserved physically, and so are prioritised for digitisation. This includes material that has started to grow mould, or items that are broken and have the tape exposed. Also, small items such as flash drives that may end up lost, and floppy and stiffy disks that may contain items in file formats that are no longer supported. And anything that the donor has written “files corrupted” on, just in case there’s a way for us to save that data.

Walker 4Everything else is in the endangered category. These items are physically well-preserved, but they’re fairly old and won’t last forever. Most of these date from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. They need to be digitised and preserved, but they can wait until we’ve dealt with the critically endangered material.

So what are we doing about this? Are we just doing an audit, digitising them in order of risk and then making sure they’re backed-up and have good file names? Why no, that is decidedly not the plan. We currently use AtoM for our digital finding aids, and we’re in the process of implementing Arkivum (Usability and Preservation modules) to handle our digital preservation needs. What does that mean? It means that we’re going to have software that automatically checks the integrity of our digital items. We’re going to have easy access to derivatives for our researchers and other users because AtoM will migrate well to Arkivum. And while DLS starts on the digital preservation side of things, I’ll be working on the curation of the collections, producing finding aids, and engaging with researchers that may want to use the material that we’re working so hard to preserve.

And it’s not just for Libraries! The intention is for the entire university to make use of this service. UCTL will be offering support, training, and assistance to the university community in order to ensure that their research, their history, and their artefacts are all archivally described and digitally preserved. In parallel, we will also soon be launching an exhibition platform that will enable our community to showcase their digital collections and share their stories with a global audience.

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