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Why Prioritize?

Priority is a function of context

-Stephen R. Covey

Several lively conversations at the Association of Moving Image Archivists conference a few weeks ago centered on the selection for preservation process. Why prioritize—can’t (or shouldn’t) we save it all? That was one viewpoint, further refined by: Why prioritize? Digitize it all—it takes more resources to prioritize than to just get it all digitized.

Context matters. Within the context of IU Bloomington’s media preservation work we see the following answers to the question of why prioritize:

Lots of stuff
Our campus owns more than 560,000 audio, video, and film objects. At that scale, we are not convinced that it takes more resources to prioritize, particularly if prioritization is completed at the collection level and digitization is done at the object level using preservation principles.

No guarantees
Economic slowdowns and recessions happen and result in cutbacks or loss of funds. We are working for stable funding but, even if successful, there may be no guarantees over the course of 15 years or more. Better to get what you really want preserved digitized now.

Some recordings are falling apart
Most media formats are actively degrading, some catastrophically. In a short period of time we will lose the opportunity to digitize some items with full fidelity or at all.

Some machines are falling apart
Obsolescence is hitting media formats hard. It is increasingly difficult and expensive to find playback machines, spare parts, repair expertise, and even playback expertise. On an international level, there is talk that there are no longer enough playback machines with enough head life to digitize existing holdings of some formats. This is only going to get worse.

Administrative view
Our administration wants us to prioritize, to engage in a process where we decide what is most important and make choices. But there is also the added value that this process of selection for preservation will encourage an appraisal (a closely related archival function) mindset, which leads to more focused collection development going forward. Another way to put it: acquiring new collections with criteria for long-term preservation in mind from the beginning.

Some parts of prioritization can be completed by skilled, supervised graduate students whereas preservation transfer (digitization) in our context usually requires more highly paid engineers.

We hate to admit it, but some of our stuff may simply not be worth preserving. For example, large collections of common, commercial, and circulating VHS tapes and DVDs are valuable for student entertainment but perhaps not for long-term preservation. And, every unit holds collections that they consider to be the cream of the crop. These items deserve to be preserved first with others of lesser value going second as resources permit.

IU Bloomington is embarking upon a campus-wide media prioritization process beginning spring semester 2012. See the next post for an overview of our proposed process.

// Mike Casey

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