Brecht Declercq is Manager of Digitisation and Acquisition at VIAA, the Flemish Institute for Archiving in Belgium

There it is, lying next to you. Or maybe it is in your handbag or pocket. It may still be on your bedside table. Or your children are messing with it. Yesterday you used it to make some video clips. From your partner, your parents, your children, your BFF or just from the car before you. You probably didn’t think about it, but you documented your life in images and sounds. Some clips you erased quickly ... they better be not saved! Others are very valuable to you. Your 3-year-old granddaughter pressing a wet kiss on your camera lens. The champions celebration of the hockey team of a dear friend. Grandpa's voice at the birthday party ... three weeks before he died unexpectedly.

Do you ever think about it as digital heritage? Do you mind if it is all stored well? On that memory card, on your son’s hard disk, in the cloud perhaps? And what if that smartphone slips out of your pocket on the train, without you noticing? What if it falls off the table or worse ... in the toilet? Do you have a back-up of all that valuable material? Will all that content easily get transferred if you change your smartphone? Or is it lost without further ado? Not only for yourself, but also for your children. For everyone who comes after you. For society.

Someone else's computer

What, according to you, is worth keeping? How much should something be worth before you keep it? And how would you express that value? In the amount of smile or laughter that one clip can incite? In the number of tears? In the number of identity debates settled? Man has been able to record sound since 1860. Moving images have been recorded since the 1890s. In the 20th century images and sounds were documented for the first time. In the 21st century there is no medium that is more used, more sent, more shared, more watched and more listened to. It's all in the cloud ... oh excuse me, on the servers of Google, Facebook, Apple or Dropbox. Just someone else's computer, quoi.

But before the cloud, it was all saved on memory cards, USB sticks and video cassettes, yes you remember that. But what happened to your MiniDiscs? With your mixtapes on audio cassette? With that new Sash! album, illegally copied by a cute fourth-grader with his CDR-writer and Nero Burning ROM on his computer? Where are those mini-DVs, on which your uncle recorded all family weekends with his camcorder? Does anyone know anything about those VHSs on which we recorded The Fonz? Could you still play them, do you think? Does anyone even still have a VHS player?! If you find those clips on YouTube, they’re certainly in a very blurry state. Once it was such a source of entertainment, something we definitely didn’t want to miss. Now we seem to have lost it all. Getting it properly digitised? Should-a, would-a, could-a.

The value of the reuse

What you do for yourself, or what you sometimes have forgotten to do, that is what digital audiovisual archives do for society as a whole. They keep track of images and sounds, digitise, preserve and give access to them. Whether it is computer files or video cassettes, mix tapes or CD-ROMs, mini-DVs, VHSs, vinyl records, VCR cassettes, Betamaxes, audio tapes. Films of 8 to 70 mm wide, 78 rpm disks, wire recordings and wax cylinders. And since their content covers almost every aspect of society in one way or another, you can also do a lot with it. You can sit on the sofa with your daily portion of nostalgia, but you can also use it in the classroom. To show that everything that is in the news today has already happened before, and how we dealt with it at the time. You can learn another language, or how a new country arises. You can study old music with it, or create new music with it. You can use it to see the climate change. Or the zeitgeist. Or the television news. You can help dementia patients with it. Or lost tourists. More than ever, the value is in use.

You may never have thought about it, but 29th November is World Digital Preservation Day. This is the time to emphasize how important digital archives are in our society. Media literacy, fake news, mass storage, artificial intelligence, the identity debate, big data, new privacy legislation, ... these are all hot topics that digital audiovisual archivists work on each and every day. And it’s not that surprising. Because today, audiovisual is the world's most important medium. How we manage, document, preserve and give access to all of this, that’s where we ask just a little bit of your attention for.

Scroll to top