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Recordings at Risk: What’s at Stake and What We Can Do

Ten to fifteen years. That’s the length of time preservationists like Mike Casey say we could have to reformat twentieth-century audio and audiovisual content in collecting institutions before degradation and format obsolescence (a.k.a. Casey’s “evil twin-headed monster Degralescence“) render that content lost forever. Those are scary numbers, especially considering the enormous amounts of time-based media our libraries, archives, and museums currently hold. A 2014 study done by AVPreserve and the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) estimated that there are over 250 million “preservation worthy” sound recordings in U.S. institutions that have not yet been digitized; about $20 billion would be required to reformat that audio so we can save it for future use. And that doesn’t count the wealth of film and video that are at risk.

Most information professionals are aware of the challenges of preserving time based media: costs of preservation reformatting are high, collections are large, too much remains in backlogs, and the specialized expertise required to handle audio and audiovisual formats responsibly is far too scarce. For these reasons, far too often busy archivists, librarians, and curators put off dealing with these parts of their collections for another time. The trouble is, that time is running out.

Last week, CLIR had the great privilege of being able to announce a project that has been almost a year in the making. Thanks to the generous support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in 2017 we’ll be issuing the first in a series of four requests for proposals for first audio, then audio and/or audiovisual, preservation reformatting, through a new program we’re calling Recordings at Risk. We expect to award $2.3 million through this program over the next two years. If you’re interested, visit the program web page and take a moment to sign up for the email distribution list to make sure you’re among the first to hear of new developments.

Archivists and special collections professionals already familiar with CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program may want to know how Recordings at Risk is different from what we’re already doing. The Hidden Collections initiatives have funded first cataloging, and now digitization, of all types of rare and unique materials for several years now, and many of the projects funded through that program have focused on audio and audiovisual formats.

So what are the key differences between Hidden Collections (HC) and Recordings at Risk?

  • Just as the name implies, Recordings at Risk (RaR) will focus exclusively on audio and audiovisual media that are at high risk of loss in the near term through degradation and obsolescence. HC supports the digitization of any type of material.
  • RaR (next to Casey’s twin-headed Degralescence, picture a growling, hungry T-Rex: “RaaaaR!”) will be smaller, leaner, and faster! RaR grants will be more modest than HC, the application will be shorter, and we’ll be running two single-step review processes per year for the next two years. Our primary rationale for this approach is inclusivity. The vast majority of collecting institutions have at least some quantity of time-based media that is too valuable to lose. We want to encourage those professionals who have been putting off dealing with these materials for too long to get ready to to tackle this problem, before it is too late.
  • The priorities for RaR will be slightly different from HC. Our “core values” for HC are Scholarship, Sustainability, Collaboration, Comprehensiveness, Connectedness, and Openness (we define what we mean by each of these words on the HC For Applicants page). For RaR, reviewers will also be looking at the potential impact on scholars and the public (read: Scholarship), as well as a thoughtful plan for long-term preservation of digitized content (read: Sustainability), but equally important will be the urgency to get the work done right away. The other HC values, while still ideas we want applicants to take seriously as they apply to their particular circumstances, will not be as strongly emphasized. Legal and ethical issues can be complicated for audio and audiovisual materials and completely open access is not always possible. Reformatting for the purposes of preservation, coupled with strategies for creating access that is as open as possible within legal and ethical constraints, will be the order of the day.

Over the next two months, CLIR staff will be working industriously along with our partners at NEDCC to prepare our pilot call for preservation reformatting of magnetic audio media, which we expect to issue in January. There is much for us to do, and there are many questions we won’t be able to answer fully before we have our application ready and staff in place. We appreciate your patience with us as we pull ourselves together. In the meantime, take a moment to reflect on what top-priority audio and audiovisual digitization projects might be on your organization’s to-do list. Start reading up on media preservation [1] and send us your suggestions of good resources we might not know about, so we can share them with others: Talk through how you might approach preservation reformatting at your institution in a responsible, cost-effective way. Talk to scholars and others who might find your materials valuable and useful. Together, in the new year, we can be ready to attack that twin-headed monster together (“RaaaaR!”).

Christa Williford is director of research and assessment at CLIR.

[1] The ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation, which CLIR published last year, is a practical introduction to audio preservation and includes extensive bibliographies of authoritative sources as well as a link to AVPreserve’s Guide to Developing a Request for the Digitization of Audio. Additional CLIR publications relating to media preservation and copyright, published over the last 20 years, can be found at Film Preservation Guide, published by the National Film Preservation Foundation, is an excellent introduction to film preservation and also includes a very useful bibliography.

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