The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Tag! You're Saved!
You know that sinking, then maddening feeling: you need to find something you’ve carefully put away, but can’t remember where you’ve stored it or how you characterized or labeled it. That common problem, when it’s blown up to institutional scale, explains why coming up with the appropriate terms and then applying descriptive metadata to collection items has become such an essential task for archivists, particularly as the quantity of digital information being stored away for future access grows exponentially.
The daunting task and cost of digitizing and characterizing vast amounts of historical materials—including documents, still and moving images, audio files, and objects of all sorts—explains why stories about organizations that can actually afford to deal with that challenge stand out. One recent example, an article by John Branch for The New York Times, described how Major League Baseball (MLB) started, one year ago, to digitally tag the noteworthy aspects of every one of the 2400+ games that are played and recorded each season. That kind of industry recall, of course, wasn’t always the case. In late September, for example, the fantastic story of how a unique kinescope recording of the historic seventh game of the 1960 World Series turned up in the basement wine cellar of the late crooner/actor/video pioneer Bing Crosby, startled sports fans. Soon enough, they’ll be able to witness what some consider to be the best game in World Series history, when the MLB broadcasts the recording this December.
Until recently, this famous clip of Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the 1960, which won the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was the only record of the game that existed.
But now that professional baseball has become such a huge money-making industry and digital technology allows for it, it’s clear that nobody’s going to have to wait around fifty years to memorialize or monetize a good thing. In 1998, Major League Baseball began to systematically keep full broadcasts of games, and that archive now contains around 160,000 hours of material, with an additional 10,000 more hours of content expected to be added with each passing year. While fans don’t have access to this archive yet, in the future they might, as will coaches, players, umpires, advertisers, licensees, and broadcasters.
Last year, MLB Productions began to put together teams of “loggers” whose job it is to select from over 500 tags—words or phrases ranging from “home run” to “animal” (should a squirrel run out on the field), to “drinking” (should a shot show someone in a stadium taking a sip of beer). Loggers also time-stamp each pitch, note the camera angles that were used, and transcribe the content of important play-by-play calls. This season, between April and November, loggers will use about five million button clicks to tag every play in every game. Pretty impressive. If only we could get some of them to intern for us, off season . . .