you're reading...

On Death and Media Preservation (Why Things Are Not As They Seem)

Guest Series Introduction

While we’re not ready to call it a trend just yet, the Indiana team has noticed movement on media preservation issues at a number of academic institutions, particularly within library systems. Maybe it’s hiring a media preservation specialist, building a digitization lab, or developing an outsourcing workflow but the intent is the same: Active engagement with critical media preservation and access issues such as degradation, obsolescence, research and instructional use, and the short window of time available to preserve high value holdings. To gain a better idea what is happening on the ground, we asked several practitioners to blog about developments at their institutions. Every Monday for the next five weeks or so we will publish a guest post from a university actively addressing media preservation. Does this look like a trend? Join us on Mondays and see what you think! – Mike Casey, Media Preservation Initiative

Bear with me for a moment while I reminisce… I studied Latin in high school. I remember one afternoon looking across the hall from my desk in Latin class and seeing the Spanish kids watching “Mi Vecino Totoro,” a Spanish dub of the Miyazaki film “My Neighbor Totoro,” and it hit me then and there how stark of a contrast my high school language experience had been. Meanwhile, us Latin kids were drilling our declensions out of Wheelock’s Latin and hearing about the practical benefits of a classical education, one of which apparently is knowing how to cauterize a wound without infection when you don’t have medical insurance (despite my Latin teacher’s claim that it wasn’t so bad when he did it, I’m not that in love with the ancient world to ever consider the option). The Spanish kids always used to ask us Latin kids why we even care to study a dead language.

Stefan Elnabli, Moving Image and Sound Preservation Specialist at Northwestern University Library’s Digital Collections Department, performing film inspection

When I began studying film in college and then focusing my education in moving image archiving and preservation throughout graduate school, I heard similar questions from my peers. “Film is dead, why are you studying it?” or “Everything is on DVD now, isn’t analog media dead?” I know Halloween is around the corner and this may be Samhain inspired moroseness, but apparently since high school I’ve surrounded myself with death. Do I have a secret obsession with dead things??? I’m not a psychoanalyst, but as Moving Image and Sound Preservation Specialist at Northwestern University Library’s Digital Collections Department (NUL-DC), I have to resoundingly say “no!”

Format death to me is not necessarily obsolescence, but total loss. We are still able to use our archival media in dynamic ways through preservation and presentation technologies. In that sense, the materials I work with are not dead at all, they are very much alive, but they need to be preserved and shared with the world before they degrade totally. Facing this situation, NUL-DC has been making leaps and bounds in reformatting materials for preservation and access both in-house and with the help of professional vendor services ever since the library began prioritizing audiovisual preservation not too long ago.

Trippy 16mm frame from an orphan film entitled “Moog Synthesizer” part of the General Motion Picture Collection housed by Northwestern University Archives. Research into the film’s production history revealed that the Moog player is Stephen Syverud who established the Electronic Music Studios at Northwestern University.

Our in-house services are primarily for access and provide digitization for a variety of legacy formats including 16mm film (optical and magnetic), 3/4″ U-matic, VHS, Video8/Hi8, Betacam SP, DVCam, audiocassette, LP and a variety of audiovisual formats that have come and gone in the past two-and-a-half decades. We are in the midst of expanding these services to include open reel audio and video formats, and acquiring professional capture hardware and signal monitoring equipment to ensure that we most faithfully reproduce the signal and image of these archival materials to high standards of preservation. Until we reach that point, we send materials for preservation reformatting to trusted vendors. I would be remiss not to mention the high monetary costs relating to staff-time, reformatting labor, and digital storage, all of which have factored into our prioritization and pace toward preserving and making accessible our growing collections of archival media.

In the past two years, NUL-DC has digitized for preservation and access over 350 hours of archival film, video, and audio. As a result, our collections are becoming more visible on campus and our media reformatting services are generating new interest among faculty and researchers.

16mm frame from “Spanuth’s Original Vod-A-Vil Movies” part of the Hans Spanuth Collection housed by the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections

Just two exciting things about this work have been collaborating with various departments in the library whose missions intersect with the conservation, preservation, and presentation of our archival media collections, and seeing more requests from faculty and researchers to utilize these collections in the classroom and for personal research. While the library currently utilizes a streaming infrastructure to deliver content to classrooms that is satisfactory for viewing, we are beginning to see requests for more dynamic interactions beyond just online viewing. Such feature requests include clip-making, video annotation, and the ability to incorporate media into digital portfolios or dossiers. With digital humanities growing throughout academia, these types of interactive toolsets are expected to be delivered by NUL-DC.

Addressing this demand for dynamic interaction with our archival media, Northwestern University Library has teamed with Indiana University, supported by funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, to develop an open-source system that enables libraries and archives to manage and make accessible audiovisual collections.

16mm frame from “Northwestern vs. Colgate, 1949” part of the Northwestern Wildcats Football Film Collection housed by Northwestern University Archives

The project is called Avalon Media System, and while it is led by Northwestern University Library and Indiana University, it has become a collaboration of educational institutions, cultural institutions, and open source software communities. Avalon Media System is rather exciting because it is being developed as an open system with the ability for integration in a variety of digital infrastructures, as well as the fact that it is being developed for libraries, archives, and researchers as the primary users. This means that Avalon Media System will be feature-packed with tools for research, including but not limited to rich metadata support, authentication and authorization mechanisms, clip-making, playlist creation, and video annotation. The system is still in its early phase of development with a first release planned for February 2013, but for a sneak peak at what it can offer in its current form and to see some digitized films from Northwestern University Library’s collections, visit <https://wiki.dlib.indiana.edu/x/mhaKHg>. Or if you are interested in more information about the system, please visit <www.avalonmediasystem.org> or email me.

“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” – George Eliot

// Stefan Elnabli
Moving Image and Sound Preservation Specialist
Northwestern University Library
Digital Collections


3 thoughts on “On Death and Media Preservation (Why Things Are Not As They Seem)

  1. What is the relationship between death metal and dead media?

    Posted by artifactatlas | 10/30/2012, 1:01 am
  2. I would highly recommend Jonathan Sterne’s “The Audible Past,” particularly the last chapter, for a very thoughtful discussion on the relationship between death (intellectual, mechanical, and cultural) and media


    Posted by brnco | 11/08/2012, 9:15 pm


  1. Pingback: Asbtract: On Death and Media Preservation (Why Things Are Not As They Seem) by Stefan Elnabli | A/V Intern - 04/27/2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s