The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
What are You Watching?
The Smithsonian Channel collection of videos that the Smithsonian Institution Archives is preserving is so varied and, at times, so out of the ordinary, that many times per week I’m asked, "What are you watching?" Topics include: the use of insects in forensic science; (too many) airplane crashes that shaped modern-day aviation safety; the real story behind Hollywood blockbuster films, such as The Silence of the Lambs; and, of course, TITANOBOA!, the approximately 2,500-pound Paleocene-era snake discovered in Columbia. . The Smithsonian Channel’s productions draw from the Smithsonian's museums, collections, and professional expertise to explore the history of our planet, life and culture.
A major part of my internship at the Archives involved the preservation of Smithsonian Channel digital content. Though we've received video material from other Smithsonian entities, such as the National Museum of Natural History and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, digital material submitted in obsolete formats will prove a trickier challenge. Starting with the still-playable Smithsonian Channel DVDs is a good test case to develop this new workflow.
It’s been a unique opportunity to participate in the praxis, or ideas becoming practice, necessary to preserving and making accessible the wealth of digital materials people are generating. With the proliferation of smartphones and the means to share video through such venues as YouTube, Vimeo, Vine, Instagram, or Snapchat, there has been an explosion in the amount of content to watch, but also an increase in the number of video formats that archives need to manage and preserve. Not an easy task for sure, but the Archives has been tackling the problems associated with digital video for quite some time now.
At the start of the summer, I had one personal archival project on my to-do list: organize and sort the many Spotify playlists I amassed but didn't alphabetize when I was busy with coursework. However, if we add VHS and digital recording to the mix, I'll return home with a new digital archives preservation agenda. Personal archiving methods are a super-hot topic right now, so the most important thing that I’ve learned about preserving video from my time here at the Archives is the importance of collaboration in the form of open-source software development. Cultural heritage organizations, such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and academic institutions are developing programs collaboratively, as well as relying on users for feedback and/or improvements to the software. For example, a consortium of Illinois universities developed a project, "Preserving (Digital) Objects with Restricted Resources," to suggest sustainable digital preservation solutions. The outcome was a directory of preservation tools—a mix of open source and commercial—recommended by the preservation community.
It's been great to see how the digital preservation community rises to the challenge of creating software programs that pay attention to preservation needs. Have you ever tried to simply copy an audio or video file from one location to another, but found that the video won't play? Preserving all the files that accompany a video are key to making sure the video plays properly. The Library of Congress' creation of the BagIt specification helps solve this problem by creating a "bag" that captures and contains all the related elements of a transferred video file. Being able to "bag" a set of files ensures full file transfer and future playability with the right tools.
What we've found with developing a workflow for the Smithsonian Channel programs is that no one tool covers all of the necessary steps for preserving video. Some of the steps include ingesting or transferring of the video for preservation work, running a checksum, bulk renaming the files to follow standards, and embedding metadata.
In assessing your video preservation needs, have a look around at some of the digital preservation tools available, bearing in mind that some are recommended for institutional use. Jumping in and spending hundreds of dollars for fancy software that doesn't always do what it says on the package isn't something that institutions can afford to do and, likely, neither can you.
I'm returning to my archives program with a new sense of the cooperation and flexibility required to create from scratch a process for keeping up with our evolving digital preservation needs. And, thanks to the Smithsonian Channel's vivid creations, I now have a reservoir of weird and wonderful information for a winning bar trivia strategy.
- Digital Video Preservation: Identifying Containers and Codecs, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Digital Video Preservation: Further Challenges for Preserving Digital Video and Beyond, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Digital Video Preservation: Continuing the Conversation, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smithsonian Channel on YouTube
- Accession 12-610, Smithsonian Channel, Productions, 2011, Smithsonian Institution Archives