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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A rose by any other name

For a couple of years now I’ve contributed to this blog on behalf of the Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA). Today I’m penning this guest post from my new position as archivist for the Smithsonian Channel. For those who don’t know, the Smithsonian Channel is a television channel that showcases non-fiction programs highlighting America’s historical, cultural, and scientific heritage. Many of our original documentaries are based around the Smithsonian Institution’s staff, collections, exhibits, and research initiatives.

My first job was in documentary TV production, and I worked in that field for some years before finding my way into archives. So in many ways, returning to the production world was a kind of homecoming. But initially, I wondered if it would be a jarring change, going from a more traditional moving image archives with miles of 16mm and 35mm film to an almost entirely digital, production-oriented environment. What I’ve found, though, is that archival practice is archival practice. The specific tools we choose and the details of the policies we implement will vary according to the archives’ mission and the users’ needs, but the underlying goals are the same: know the collections, enable access to the collections, and keep the collections safe.

This clip, which features Ansel Adams prints from the National Museum of American History's Photographic History Division,
is from the series, Stories from the VaultsThe series goes behind the scenes at the Smithsonian to explore the vast collections
not currently on exhibit and share the tremendous knowledge held by curators and collections staff.

The only big difference is the form of the archival records I now care for. The HSFA has a wide variety of media in its collections, not just film but also audiotape and nearly every type of videotape produced for the consumer and professional markets. The Smithsonian Channel, by contrast, has a rapidly growing collection of file-based High Definition (HD) video in a variety of codecs and wrappers, as well as several current HD videotape formats. 

It’s exciting and challenging to work with this file-based material, as workflows and best practices are still being developed across multiple diverse fields, including archives, broadcast, and independent media producers. As far as I can tell, most traditional archives are not yet having to deal with this material in large amounts, but it won’t be too long before accessions of digital media start coming in. Hopefully some of the lessons learned by broadcast and production archives will be of help to cultural heritage organizations in determining the right tools for managing file-based video. Hopefully, too, the long view taken by the cultural heritage sector will influence policy and practice in broadcast and production. This is already happening, from what I’ve seen, as media creators realize that while digital video has many wonderful advantages, it is also more fragile than tape or film.

There are a number of great organizations and initiatives working to share knowledge and increase discussion and collaboration amongst archives, studios, broadcasters, filmmakers, scholars, and other users and creators of moving images. I’ve learned a great deal from conferences organized by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and Presto Centre. SMPTE and the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative (FADGI) are identifying best practices and working on specifications for technical standards. Of course, this kind of sharing happens at both macro and micro levels; I’m always learning from my fellow archivists, from librarians and conservators, and from the creators of the moving images I care for.

The last collection I processed for the HSFA was the edited films of anthropologist Jerome Mintz, which were shot on 16mm film. When I wound those last few rolls of film onto archival cores and placed them in their new, vented cans, I wondered, sadly, how long it might be before I handled actual film again, or if I ever would. I still love film and would love to work with it again, but working with digital collections has reinforced the reason I got into this field to begin with – I love the moving image and its unique ability to tell stories and convey feelings. One of the first collections I worked on at Smithsonian Channel was the raw footage for Skateboard Nation (below). If I had any lingering doubts about my new work environment and the terabytes of video files awaiting me, this fantastic footage and amazing interviews with Native American skaters put that all to rest. Whether printed onto film, conveyed via analog video signal, or encoded in 1s and 0s, it’s the content that matters. It's all equally sweet.


The Smithsonian Channel documentary, Skateboard Nation, was inspired by an exhibit on
Native American skateboard culture at the National Museum of the American Indian called Ramp It Up.


Karma Foley, Smithsonian Channel

With thanks to SIRIS Blog coordinator, Cecilia Peterson, and Courtney Esposito at Smithsonian Institution Archives for this opportunity to contribute to the SIRIS Blog as a guest blogger.

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