September 28, 2010

When I was nigh about 8 or 9 years old, I decided I wanted to learn Russian. This wasn’t an idea that just floated into my head out of nowhere — as a Cold War child, the Soviets were very much front and center in my consciousness. (Though that situation also may have been because I am a communist anchor baby and the brain implants I received were just doing their work.) I could pretend to a precocious nobility here and claim that this desire arose from some sort of personal glasnost. However, the fact is, I was a punk who had already supped on a steady diet of Mad and Cracked, and learning Russian sounded very anti-establishment to me.

Of course, living in a Northwest logging town, it wasn’t as if there were regular Russian classes available, so I turned to the only resource I knew — the children’s section at the County Library. Probably not surprisingly (there must have been earlier anchor babies than I), there was a Russian picture-book dictionary in the stacks, which I happily added to my pile of Mad back issues, Ray Bradbury, and Encyclopedia Brown.

When I got home, I found the prospect to be more difficult than I had imagined. Seems that Russian uses a different alphabet, don’t you know. Luckily, there was a handy transliteration chart in the back that showed what the Cyrillic letters were equated to in American. This was obviously the key I was looking for that would allow me to translate English words into Russian. If D=Д, O=О, and G=Г, then ДОГ was DOG.

I tested my new found knowledge by applying it in reverse, taking the Russian words from the picture dictionary and transforming them into English. To my frustration and confusion, it didn’t work. How could ‘собака’ be ‘dog’? I had already figured that word out. It didn’t make sense. After a few more attempts, I put the defective book aside and moved on to something more immediately satisfying, like Pixie Stix or something.


Eventually I figured out the difference between translation and transliteration — that or I was highly skilled at buffaloing my foreign language teachers — but it wouldn’t be the last time I would have to deal with overcoming a conceptual shift in order to learn a new skill. I think about this a lot not only because the speed of changing technologies has presented a steady stream of shifts within my lifetime, but also because of the huge conceptual shifts that are a part of media archiving and preservation practices. Of course we all are quite familiar with the differences between best practices within traditional paper archiving and those required for time-based media — though we surprisingly still have to hammer away at those to be acknowledged.

Of great help along with that hammer have been other tools developed over the years to specifically address the needs of media preservation: The AD Strips and other resources developed by Image Permanence Institute, the FACET tool and guidelines out of Indiana University, optical scanning of mechanical audio carriers developed through collaboration of Library of Congress and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the development of new metadata schemas such as PBCore that better address the variability of how media is produced and used. It seems almost banal to mention them now, like writing an ode to a ratchet set, but isn’t that a whole lot better than trying to make do with a couple pairs of pliers in a space that’s too close to get very much leverage or movement in?

Which now makes me think, maybe it isn’t entirely a reconceptualization of ideology that is important here, but also a initial conceptualization of tools and processes. We are working towards the same basic goal — getting the nut off the bolt; establishing access to and maintaining existence of an object and its content — but the avenues towards that endpoint are quite different. Which now makes me think about the current major conceptual shift in archiving and preservation: the shift in practices dealing with analog media to those dealing with file-based and born digital media. Perhaps the struggle to establish standards and practices is not entirely a problem of thinking about the management of digital objects differently than physical objects, but also an issue of not having a full set of tools for inspection and management.

We make use of a number of tools such as dvgrab, ffmpeg, DATXtract, Live Capture Plus, MediaInfo, and PBCore, but most of these were not developed specifically for archiving needs. As a result, AVPS has made the development of tools and resources a major component of our work. We have been involved in developing DVAnalyzer, which allows a user to inspect and analyze the quality of a DV stream captured over firewire from DVCam; BWF MetaEdit, which allows a user to view and edit the embedded metadata in a Broadcast WAV file; PBCore Instantiationizer, which automates the creation of PBCore instantiation elements based on the embedded metadata in file-based assets; and a number of other internal tools or resources in development that can be used to assess or manage file-based collections.

Of course we aren’t the only ones working on this. For example, METRO’s new book Digitization in the Real World is full of strategies and methodologies for digital collection management, and the Dance Heritage Coalition has been doing innovative work on the development of online cataloging utilities and access. What is needed is a greater allocation of efforts and resources directed towards developing these new tools before too much is lost. The make up of digital media will not allow us to wait 50 years before addressing persistence and continuing access. Мы должны подействовать теперь, comrade.

— Joshua Ranger