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Is Preservation Cost Prohibitive?

September 8th, 2010 · 2 Comments


This is a big question for our AMPed Blog. The topic came up in a staff meeting talking about comments we have heard from local archives. When you talk about the costs for archival supplies, HVAC maintenance, staffing, reformatting, yearly examination for any degradation, rotating films, tapes, etc., the budgets can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, easily. Does this add up to one answer, which is pure migration?

The topic also came up roughly on the AMIA listserv early in 2010. Had we as archivists made a horrible error in judgment by focusing on cool storage instead of migration? Though I mentioned that in an earlier blog post, I have to say that the issue has remained on my mind ever since.

When I lecture, I tell my students that I take the responsibility of archiving very seriously. As few as 6% of the silent films ever created still exist. We are the last pass for not only artifact preservation but content preservation. This is akin to the push and pull of access copies and long-term preservation copies.

Can we afford to save everything? No. That has historically been accepted in the profession. Maybe there is a new question now, which is can we afford to save the originals?

Before you think I have jumped overboard to pure technology and left my archival skills behind, look at your budget. Where are your numbers headed? Where do you expect your budget money to be focused in 2011? 2012? Look at what grant money is out there. Is the money trail focused on preservation or digitization? Look again at your originals and think, how many of them need to be preserved as an artifact?

If I can find money to migrate more of those formats that do not have an artifactual value, isn’t that more ethical than keeping it in storage with bare access and a bleak future? As the AMIA listserv discussion mentioned, if we don’t migrate it now, there may be no way in the future to do so. Now or never has never been more real to me.

With budgets tight, can we continue to afford to optimally preserve the originals, migrate periodically and preserve the transitory /digital copies? That is a tall order and one that some archivists do not want to openly discuss.

I am not pushing for throwing originals out, as the original artifacts have historical value, but does a ¾” videotape have the artifactual value of a Victorian diary? Is content migration more important than spending a lot of time on a fragile and low quality original? Some examples of every media need to be saved as artifacts but does each one need the effort that other more important original formats deserve? For instance, if you have a script copy with original notes from a director or a master copy on film or a master ¾” videotape or several b-roll copies with no markings are they all equal? I would argue that those with a historic fingerprint need all the best archival tools for long-term preservation but some of the multimedia archive originals like 5 1/4” floppies and ¾” videotape might be great candidates for content migration and less appropriate for long-term storage.

The other thing that we struggle with is that many of the A/V originals just will not hold over time. The tapes will not make it to their 100th year like black and white film or photographic prints. Let’s face it, we all age. Even if you put me in cold storage, eventually my organs and joints will fail! So the best that you can do is a genetic clone one day, the worst is take an oral history in current technology and plan for the migration of my brain’s content. I am okay with that. Migration of oral histories allow for the “living history” for generations.

I can not make tape last four generations and I certainly can not foresee how to assure operational machines in twenty years, forty years and even ten for some. So the choice to make a stellar digital copy, is not really a choice but a necessity.

I still think that cold storage for the originals is the other side of the issue, but I wonder if our professional reality now, is that the originals are not going to be as big a priority for A/V archivists as migration is.

This is completely counter to what I was taught in graduate school and what I have practiced my entire professional career, but at my core I am a realist. We have to look at where the money comes from and when our equipment, copy media, and original formats will fail.

Can we focus on the content migration for certain formats and still be good practicing archivists? Is this giving up? Should we be fighting harder to change how funding comes to us? Should we work harder as a coalition with manufacturers? Do we even have the money en masse’ to make it financially sound to push for equipment/format stability? Do we need to be realists and move with the technology of the time?

Maybe a list is needed of the media that even if original, have a transitory nature and little intrinsic value. The list might be easier than we think as the two formats that I listed above were treated as transport medium from the beginning, whereas other formats such as film were meant to be the original and were treated better as far as description and care.

I struggle with this and fear the ensuing conversation but I also fear not having this conversation.

Interesting related sites on digital preservation:
Long-term preservation costs – some figures
Digital Preservation Cost Centers Digital Preservation Committee
Comparison of Methods & Costs of Digital Preservation
Keeping research data safe (Phase 1)
When will digital preservation come to an end?
Why Digital Preservation is Important for Everyone
Preservation Assessment and Planning
CARLI Preservation Working Group – Webliography

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Category: Archiving Challenges · Preservation