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Would Anyone Like Some Corn With Their Preserved Media?

October 3, 2011: The day that the program in Media Preservation (and its sister program in Digital Preservation) rose from the fertile Illinois soil like a new crop of sprouting corn.  Ok, well maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but let’s just say it was the start of a new era for the Preservation and Conservation Department of the University Libraries at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).  A tad over one year into starting the program from scratch I can certifiably say that it’s been a challenging yet successful start.  To be honest, the media landscape around here feels a bit like the nearby cornfields of Illinois: vast, flat, endless…Like you can see forever.

Josh Harris examining the video tape collection of the Chemistry Studio, a highly neglected collection found to contain over 800 original recordings.

The Libraries of UIUC create a unique environment within which to start a program of this type.  The collections of the libraries are recognized around the world for both their size and depth.  In fact, UIUC maintains the 5th largest library in the United States and more specifically, is the largest public university library in the US and the 2nd largest academic library in the country (only Harvard is larger).  The media preservation program is the first of its kind since the library’s founding in 1867 and while bits and pieces of media work have been done by individual repositories over the past, no formal or directed approach to the preservation of these collections had been undertaken in any way.  While this is a surprise to some, it really isn’t to most of us in the preservation game since we are well aware of the low importance that has been historically placed on media as compared to other, more “respected,” forms of documentation.

We feel fortunate that this program was able to get its start during such turbulent and economically difficult times for public universities.  With the move to electronic collections (such as e-journals and e-books) many academic libraries have slashed the staff and budgets which were tied to traditional paper-based preservation practices (such as binding).  Here at Illinois these funds stayed within the Preservation and Conservation Department and were re-allocated to focus on newer disciplines such as media and digital preservation.  This is a very promising sign of the library’s and campus’ commitment to the stewardship of both A/V and digital collections.

Working in the main library parking lot on a 103 degree summer day, Josh works to triage boxes of moldy 1/4″ audio tapes found during the media census.

Because we are part of the Preservation and Conservation Department we may differ in some respects to media programs that are part of digital collections or digital content creation units.  Our responsibility is to ensure that media collections in all forms are maintained and preserved throughout a library system which consists of over 25 independent and autonomous units (Several of the units have been recently consolidated down from over 35).   A characteristic of the environment within the libraries at Illinois is that there is no repository that solely collects film, sound or media.  Like many institutions (and I think probably very much the case at universities in general), media is a part of everything but is not the whole of anything!  This can create wide ranging and highly varied situations in terms of collection organization and storage conditions across the institution.

No disposable media: Ryan Edge reveals the result of an experiment to recover flexi discs folded inside periodicals for 25 years. The disc was successfully played after this process.

While we are about mid-way through our first large reformatting project (a collection of over 3000 lacquer transcriptions disks from WILL radio), at this point we (“we” being myself and a graduate assistant Ryan Edge) are really just trying to get an idea of the landscape and how we should design preservational services to best meet the needs of the libraries.  Much of this involves building relationships with personnel within the repositories, getting a sense of their individual situations and trying to figure out what is known (or not known) about the collections.  So while digital reformatting is one important function it is not necessarily the sole function of the unit.  While we are well aware that migration is a likely outcome for long-term preservation and access, we know that strategic prioritization and widespread collection conservation will also have to take place in order to ensure collections are still around to be reformatted in the future.  We are currently in the initial design phases of new facilities for the entire unit which will give us the opportunity to be well-positioned within the institution for tackling these preservation challenges.  New labs and facilities are being planned for media preservation, computer removable media reformatting, brittle book preservation and binding.

We’re not just content to keep this at the library level however.  I currently sit on the steering committee of a grassroots group known as the Center for Multimedia Excellence, the goal of which is to foster collaboration between media professionals at the campus level.  Using inspiration from Mike Casey and the team at Indiana University, we are currently neck deep in the second phase of a campus-wide media census whose goal is to produce accurate data regarding collections held across the entire university.  Zak Boerger has been traipsing all over campus visiting departments in search of analog media of any and all types, and with over 85 departments visited to date we are quite pleased with the results thus far.  Once we have this data we will be better prepared to create services and determine future preservation actions for the University’s audiovisual heritage.

Press basement

Audio collections surveyed during the media census located in the basement of the University Press Building. Zak Boerger counted roughly 80,000 unsupervised A/V items stored at this location.

Essentially, the campus is much larger version of the library itself: that is, heavily de-centralized and fiercely independent.  As expected, some folks have been excited and eager to participate in the census while others have not.  As expected, some folks are worried and concerned about their collections while others are not.  We know at this point it will be impossible to count everything, but with substantial data in hand we feel confident that we will be able to draw some solid conclusions about the state of legacy media on this campus.

Let’s face it, media has not only been used by a lot of people, its been neglected (and often abused) by a lot of people.  We actually feel we’re pretty lucky we’ve been given the opportunity (and funding from the library) to do this census now.  We can only imagine what we would’ve found if the census had been done 20 or 30 years ago!

Universities are a beast unto themselves and carry with them a very unique set of characteristics and challenges.  It is excellent to see media preservation starting to take hold at these institutions and it would be great to see the trend continue.  Collaboration is a popular word on the college campus and we hope to use our program to foster relationships that better the field as a whole and helps all of us tackle the future in the smartest way possible.

// Joshua Harris
Media Preservation Coordinator
University of Illinois Libraries


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