Preserving cultural heritage: digital audiovisual archiving

It’s never been easier to create images or record sounds. From phones to drones, more and more types of audiovisual equipment are available than ever before. And more audiovisual material is being created every day. YouTube reports that in May 2019 more than 500 hours of material are being uploaded to the site every minute. Which all means more potential need for audiovisual archiving.

What should happen to all that material in the future? Much of it may be ephemeral and of little value outside the personal sphere. However, a lot may well have relevance to the broader community and cultural heritage more generally. This is a question that the audiovisual industry is wrestling with. Given the increasing use of digital technology to record our lives, how do we decide what to preserve when it comes to preserving cultural heritage?

Why preserve cultural artefacts with audiovisual archiving?

Dr Bob Pymm, an adjunct senior lecturer in audiovisual archiving at Charles Sturt University, sees the impulse to preserve as an important one – for individuals and for society generally.

“Audiovisual material, whether created for information or entertainment, forms an important part of our culture. It shapes us and reflects us. We can read a newspaper about an event, but it doesn’t give us the depth of emotional response that we can get from the audiovisual media. The audiovisual provides more information, more emotion than text ever can. It adds another dimension to experience and memory – both individual and collective.

“Think of 9/11. The image on the news of the planes hitting the towers is much more emotive than simply reading about it. Audiovisual content provides a more experiential way of interacting with culture and history. Home movies are another example. Watching them can spark a wide range of emotions that you wouldn’t get from, say, diaries or letters.

“Around 80 per cent of Australia’s silent film heritage has disappeared. The nitrate film that movies of that era were recorded onto simply wasn’t preserved. At the time, no-one could see the benefits of preservation. We see things differently today – do we want 80 per cent of today’s cultural production to disappear?”

How has digital production affected audiovisual archiving?

The need to preserve remains just as true for digital material as it does for vinyl records and old film canisters. The modern world does, however, have its unique challenges when it comes to preserving cultural heritage, as Dr Pymm explained.

“In the digital world, while it is easier to produce audiovisual material, the technology makes it difficult to preserve it for the long term. Technological products are reliant on software, passwords, different file formats. These things all have the potential to change. Take the film Avatar. It had its own software created to run it. So what happens when the expertise around that software goes? Or encryption keys are not retained? Or the software itself is lost or tightly controlled by one organisation?

“Archivists need to liaise more with producers, ideally at the beginning of creative projects. They need to work with creators to plan for the long-term security of projects. It can cost a lot to make, say, a feature film. So preserving it for the future not only adds to cultural heritage, but also allows the creators to potentially make money from it over a longer period.

“Today, in Australia, if you get government money to make a feature film, as part of the requirements you have to donate a version to the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. And that includes all the digital components. But what about all the other material out there – including the thousands of hours on YouTube and other platforms? Perhaps, somehow, we need to encourage creators to make preservation of their work a key component of its creation.”

How has the role of the curator changed?

The sheer volume of material currently being produced also throws up, for Dr Pymm, some fascinating questions about how, when it comes to preserving cultural heritage, that material is both organised and accessed.

“The biggest challenge for audiovisual archiving in the future will be the sheer volume of material, especially digital material. So much is produced these days. What is significant? How do you determine what should be preserved? Previously, in the days of just physical media, in terms of controlled storage, space to house items was a major issue for most archives. Thus, to some degree, this influenced the volume of material acquired for long-term preservation.

“Now, we have the technology to store huge amounts of digital material. But the key question is should we therefore just preserve everything? In the digital world, do we downplay the role of the curator? Do we just acquire vast amounts of material and let the user to trawl through and decide what is significant?

“The September 11 Digital Archive in the United States is an interesting case in point. And perhaps it is one that signals what the future may look like. The collection is completely uncurated. It is all digital media, and anyone can contribute anything at all to the archive. That means that while there are files of the famous footage from television news, there are also rants and raves from conspiracy theorists, poetry that people have recorded about the atrocity, and so on.

“That is more cost-effective as an archiving enterprise. You don’t need staff to curate and sift the material. They even wrote their own software to allow online submissions. And it’s up to the users what they access. Is this what the future of audiovisual archiving looks like?”

Do you want to help secure Australia’s cultural heritage?

If you want to play a role in preserving this aspect of our cultural history for the future, the Graduate Certificate in Audiovisual Archiving at Charles Sturt University is the best place to start. Contact us today to find out more.