Friday, 1 August 2014

What is the role of the national archive in the digital age?

By Amanda Malel Trevisanut

What is the role of the national archive in the digital age? This was a key problematic addressed by attendees at the History, Cinema and Digital Archives Slow Conference, convened by Jill Matthews, and supported by the ANU Humanities Research Centre and the National Film and Sound Archives (NFSA).

Archivists, especially those working within national and sub-national institutions, are increasingly burdened by the cheap and convenient availability of archival material on Youtube and other such platforms. It is, ostensibly, difficult to justify the public expenditure on maintaining film, television and sound repositories within this digital context. A number of proposals were outlined for how archival institutions might adapt to this new digital environment, the most forceful amongst these was the call for a shift towards a user-centred approach.

Ian Christie (Birbeck College, London) made the case that as explicitly State-funded institutions, film archives need to appeal to the nationalist project that underwrote their establishment in the first instance. For example, archivists can curate exhibitions showcasing the unsung cultural heritage preserved within their walls, such as the BFI’s recent restoration and touring of the Hitchcock 9. Another suggestion was making archival material accessible to documentarians, and facilitate the creation of new content of national significance, in the tradition of the 1973 documentary series The World at War. As Christie rightly indicated however, while high profile events such as restoration projects have an unparalleled ability to attract renewed State investment, these processes are often time consuming and prohibitively expensive. As such they cannot singly resolve financial woes insofar as the finance that they attract is absorbed by a given project, and this diverts money and attention from the core activities of archival institutions (that is, to preserve and provide access to films which they archive).

For Thomas Christensen, curator at the Danish Film Institute (DFI), platforms like Flickr need not undermine the role of archivist, but rather, they provide new opportunities for such national institutions to facilitate public access to cultural heritage. For instance, when Christensen receives requests for certain films, he takes the opportunity to digitalise and post those films to Flickr as a means of providing access to said films (providing of course, that they are orphaned films and films not otherwise covered by copyright).

While copyright is in Australia is somewhat trickier than in Denmark, NFSA CEO Michael Loebenstein similarly holds that institutions must adapt their role to accommodate the needs and expectations of the public. Specifically, Loebenstein is an advocate of utilising crowdsourcing model to not only facilitate public access to the collections, but also collaborate with the citizens to film the significant gaps in knowledge regarding the NFSA’a holdings. The potential of this approach to resolve some of the issues encountered by the NFSA was reinforced in the course of Bronwyn Dowdall’s insightful presentation. Whilst elucidating copyright restrictions on content produced before the Copyright Act of 1968, a conference attendee used the Shazzam app to name a musical track that had here-fore-to mystified staff of the NFSA and which undermined its attempts to secure permission from rights holders to make the film publicly available.

Crowdsourcing aspirations are promising solution to access, however in the short-term, appears to conflict with copyright legislation. The challenges of providing access dovetails with another recurrent conference theme raised by Victoria Duckett, regarding the frustration of many researchers at not being able to access the archives onsite or remotely, or indeed, to use their expertise to help the NFSA resolve some of the mysteries associated with its archival collections.

The other essential function performed by archivists is of course, the preservation of cultural heritage. While digitalisation holds new opportunities to provide access, it is not the solution to the significant impediments to preservation. The future accessibility of digitalised and born digital content is contingent on strategies for overcoming technological obsolescence, and the appropriate level of finance to ensure the constant migration of content as digital technology evolves. This is in addition to building storage facilities (which assumes a significant material presence). Thus it is important that archives also continue to employ a variety of preservation strategies. Under the right conditions film is an extraordinarily durable medium, and can be preserved for a significant length of time. For instance, using the cold storage system developed by the DFI and adopted by the BFI, film can last in excess of 2500 years (at minus five degrees Celsius). This however, again returns many institutions to the issue of inadequate finance.

Keep an eye out for part two of the History, Cinema and Digital Archives conference roundup, next week. For an overview of conference proceedings, and the thoughts of other attendees, you can search the twitter stream using the hashtag #cadh

Amanda Malel Trevisanut is an early career researcher with the School of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. She currently works as a research assistant to the Digital Humanities Research Incubator, is a co-convener for THATCamp Pedagogy (Melbourne, Oct 10-11th, 2014). She has recently completed her PhD SBS Independent: Productive Diversity and Counter-Memory.

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