If you have audiovisual assets in your collections, chances are you’ve heard the news: all your AV will self-combust by 2028.
Fine, this may be a slight exaggeration, but the underlying message is true: experts agree that magnetic media, through a combination of degradation and obsolescence will either be impossible or far too expensive to digitize at scale by 2028-ish. This doom and gloom prognosis has been the topic at various conferences for the last few years so I’m sure it’s not new to you.
You may not realize that a lack of intellectual control is also a very large threat to your audiovisual assets. Sure, it may not seem quite as sexy as hydrolyzing binders and a dearth of quality cassette decks (we work in a strange field, my friends), but the threat is REAL. Look at it this way: if you don’t know what you have, how can you plan to preserve it? How can you prioritize assets for preservation? How can you know which assets are exhibiting signs of content loss? And perhaps most importantly, how can you advocate and fundraise for the preservation of your super important, groundbreaking, life-changing audiovisual assets if you don’t know what they are???
Well, you can’t. No donor or administrator is going to give you money to digitize…something. So the first step in preserving your audiovisual collections is creating an item level inventory.
What Do I Document?
At the absolute minimum, you will need to assign each item a unique identifier and record its format.
A unique identifier is paramount in responsibly shepherding your assets through a digitization project. It will allow you to keep track of what you are sending out the door to a vendor and what you are (hopefully) receiving back from that vendor. It could also help you to match the physical object with the resulting digital files. You can use existing identifiers if you have them or you can assign new identifiers as you create your inventory
Format (e.g., VHS, audio cassette, CD, etc.) is also an extremely important data point to capture when preservation is your end goal. Knowing an asset’s format will better allow you to determine digitization project requirements and receive more accurate quotes from vendors. A controlled vocabulary works great here.
Okay, so now that you’re done with your invent-JUST KIDDING! If you’re taking the time to go through each individual audiovisual asset in your collections, it would be a great idea to capture as much metadata as possible. This will allow you to make more informed decisions and help to avoid duplicating efforts by having to go back through all of these assets at a later date to capture all the information you skipped the first time around.
This is an opportunity for you to carefully think through what metadata you would like to capture for your audiovisual assets*. You can start with existing data models your institution already uses or you can start from scratch. In my experience, I prefer to capture the following fields at a minimum:
- Unique identifier
- Location: Where is this asset stored? This will help you to find it at a later date, say once it’s been selected for digitization.
- Media type: Is it audio, video, or film? This higher level designation can help you to group assets when planning for digitization. Also super easy to record based on the format!
- Title: Depending on the level of description you may or may not have, this may be your best bet at determining the content of the asset. Also just a good thing to have! No title? You can use something like [Untitled] here.
There are many more optional fields you can choose to document in your inventory. You may have fields that are specific and important to your institution — grab ‘em. You can also read a bit more about optional fields in a super-not-boring chapter I wrote on the subject for NEDCC’s Fundamentals of AV Preservation textbook. The more you can capture here, the better, but it’s also important to think through both what might be helpful for a future item record and when talking to a vendor.
How Do I Document?
There are a number of tools you can use to create your inventory. If you already use a particular tool or cataloging system, feel free to use that provided it can be customized to account for your new data model.
AVCC is a free, open-source web app (developed by the Library of Congress, METRO, and us!) that allows users to create item level records. As a web app, it can be used by multiple people at once (hi interns!) and the customizable templates and controlled vocabularies ensure clean, uniform data.
The Preservation Self-Assessment Program (PSAP) is another free online tool developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This app is extremely helpful for those of us without a lot of experience with the preservation of audiovisual materials. There are built-in prioritization schemes that could help you with your efforts.
You can also use spreadsheets! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this simple approach and as a bonus, there’s little to no learning curve as most of us are very familiar with using them. Just plug in the fields you wish to capture and go. But be sure to create and use controlled vocabularies to make your data as clean as possible!
I’m positive there are many more options out there that are also great to use. Do your research and pick one that works best for your collection’s needs.
Go forth and advocate. Now that you’ve put in the hard work and have much more information about your collections, you are much better equipped to move forward with their preservation. Talk to your administrators about the gems you have. Apply for preservation grants. And now that you know more about content, you might even be able to find some content-specific foundations that might be interested in what you have. And once you have that $$$, you’re in a great position to start conversations with digitization vendors. But don’t dally! Remember, all of your audiovisual assets will burst into flames in 2028.
*Please note that an inventory entry is NOT a catalog record. Do not feel bogged down by the process because you feel you need to execute full, complete catalog records for each asset. Inventories are about capturing easily accessible, interpretable data that is right there on the asset itself.
I mentioned using controlled vocabularies before: controlled vocabularies just make it easier to parse your data at a later date. And by controlled vocabularies, i mean any controlled list, it doesn’t have to be an Official, Approved List. Make it up yourself, but stick to it!