Those of us who work with the Media Preservation Initiative are frequently queried: “How do you get people to collaborate?” Good question. Many of the small archives and special collections that make up our 80 units with audio, video, or film on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University are used to going it alone. They are located in different places on campus and often removed from other units with preservation problems. Their budgets come from different schools or colleges or other administrative units. They frequently don’t know each other.
After all, how would the staff member in charge of preserving the basketball game tapes know the person who saves tapes of the Archives of the Languages of the World? What have archivists of the Archives of African American Music and Culture to do with the people who work in the Central Eurasian Studies Department or the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction where tapes are accumulating each day that need to be preserved?
In Indiana University’s case, the thing that first brought this odd assortment of collections together was a recognition that none could cope with the immense scale of the task. They were barely coping with the day-to-day tasks. There was no way they could contemplate rapid and massive digitization.
Meeting and Listening
The collaboration started tentatively. Sound Directions, an audio preservation project based at the Archives of Traditional Music and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, collaborated with the IU Libraries’ Digital Library Program and the Center for the Study of History and Memory to produce a widely publicized series of events in spring, 2008. This included a lecture on building an audio preservation system at IU Bloomington, an open “media meeting” of campus units holding audio and video, and tours of the preservation studios at the Archives of Traditional Music. The purpose of these meetings was to initiate a conversation about media preservation issues on the Bloomington campus. The room in the Indiana Memorial Union was packed. Many people who came had not met one another before. Yet when the presenters began reporting on best practices for digitization, the group had a shared interest in solutions that were outlined.
The following fall, then Dean of the Libraries, Pat Steele and I began a series of monthly meetings where we invited those same 80 groups together. And at those meetings we listened. We encouraged people to tell what often became impassioned stories of lovingly taking collections of great intellectual and emotional worth that they now feared they would not be able to properly preserve. People listened with fascination, for example, to stories of the Orson Welles discs at the Lilly Library that were dangerously close to not being playable. [Click here for our previous post on this project.]
But we kept talking. At one point we brought in large easels with paper for taking down notes. Sometimes we broke up into small groups and reported back to the larger group at the end of the meeting. But we kept talking. We were encouraged by the Dean of the Library, by the Vice Provost for Research, Sarita Soni, and ultimately by our Provost Karen Hanson.
Bring in the Administration
Toward the end of the year, we invited in the Provost and the Vice Provost for Research to meet with us and to share our concerns and to ask for a proper and careful survey of the exact scope of the problem that felt so looming and large.
The next year the Provost charged a task force with working for a year to define the problem and survey the issues. We sent a small team into each of the 80 units to interview them, to actually look at the tapes and films, to count and to sample them for condition. Besides collecting data, we asked for stories and we heard them again, but now in much greater detail. We also focused on building relationships, knowing that we would need strong connections between the various units as we moved beyond the media census. Mostly we listened, being careful not to overwhelm with our ideas of what “should” be done, yet sharing our vision when appropriate of what we hoped to build on campus. We helped the special collections discover the extent of their time-based media. So the conversation shifted to small circles of people. But it continued.
As our team moved around they met many people who learned of their search for media. One day a maintenance inspector from the Office of Risk Management told the team that he knew of discs that were scattered on the floor of the attic in Franklin Hall. Would they like to see them? Indeed they would, and up they crawled to find piles of lacquer discs in disarray in this otherwise abandoned space. What they discovered was a collection of radio programs produced by Indiana University in the 1940s and1950s called School of the Sky. And of course they proceeded to rescue them.
Now one of our collaborators is a maintenance inspector. And he was duly proud of the role he had played. On the day the task force presented the results of the survey to the Provost and Vice Provost for Research, that inspector was sitting in the front of the room following the presentation with rapt attention.
We continue to talk as we build the media preservation initiative. Our conversations move in a variety of circles—large and small, separate and overlapping, specialized and non-specialized. But we work to build trust and transparency, empowering small units through offering large-scale shared services and a shared vision.
// Ruth M. Stone