Michaela Hart

Michaela Hart

Last updated on 30 November 2018

Michaela Hart is Senior Archivist for the Department of Health and Human Services Victoria, Australia

What better way to celebrate World Digital Preservation Day than tell a story about global superstar David Attenborough? I hope folks will let me know if I’ve drawn the bow too long.

This case study demonstrates some of the complexity of working with audio-visual material, and how this archivist was able to justify watching a 40-year-old documentary on a Friday afternoon. I am working on a project to digitise magnetic tapes that were acquired by our archives during the 1990s when most of the psychiatric intuitions were closing. Some of the tapes contain recordings with clients on them, but this particular accession contains educational material, recorded seminars, and talks.

Over the last 40 years the tapes have been housed in numerous, dubious conditions, so there was a chance that there might not have been any salvageable material on them. A case needed to be made to justify the risk of spending the money on digitisation but ending up with little to show.  Also, while we had clear documentation of the provenance of the tapes, and each was labelled, it wouldn’t be until they had been digitised that we would be able to do a full appraisal

Some of the technical details:

The tapes are in a collection of 8 boxes, each containing between 9 and 18 tapes. There are V-60H, U-Matic, KCA60 and KCs20. These have been digitised into Encoded MP4 (access) and WAV (preservation). At the moment the files are being stored on a 16TB NAS drive and a 16 TB External Drive, as well as on the vendor server. These are spread across three locations.

This brings me to last Friday. When I sat down to look through each file I was pleased the quality of the masters was excellent, and they reflected what was on the labels. When I was about halfway through I realised what I was watching was a very young David Attenborough from the 1979 season of Life on Earth. I can just picture one of the staff realising they had forgotten to set the recording at home and picking a tape at random to record the show, not thinking of the archival dilemma they were creating. 

My first instinct was to discard the anomalous recording to retain a complete set of record type, but my archival training kicked in and a little voice cried ‘but original order’. On discussing it with other colleagues we also decided that while a nature documentary wasn’t strictly a government record, the preservation of this recording told a much richer story than an absence would, regardless of how that absence was recorded. 

My next challenge has been to build a case around what happens to the physical tapes. I realise this might be entering problematic terrain, but I’m one of those archivists who place value on the material worth of the tapes, and their covers. As a government agency we are bound by the destruction authority set out by our State Archives Authority but there are no guidelines about what to do with the boxes beyond capturing any information from them. In the absence of any clear standards developed around how to capture the material value of container objects, my blue sky thinking option would be to add an image, to be either added as a form of descriptive metadata or separate but related object.

The final task (acknowledging that with digital preservation there is no such thing) will be to embed digital preservation into the post project continuity plan. I am working to raise the profile of the collections we have digitised, and to ensure the importance of their preservation is understood within the department. Perhaps I’ll write about that next year. 

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