Identifying and describing audiovisual content

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This page is a translated version of the page Het identificeren en beschrijven van audiovisueel materiaal and the translation is 100% complete.
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English • ‎Nederlands

As an artist or arts organisation, you may well have created or collected lots of audiovisual content over the years. Audiovisual items can relate directly to your own activities and were produced in the creation process; others can come from another artistic activity or production entirely. These other items can be a bit less obvious and may have entered your archive via a third party – or even be completely unrelated. Collections of audiovisual content are valuable, but not all items are equally interesting or relevant.

In the best case scenario, the whole audiovisual archive and collection is stored together in the same location – with all the contents and date of creation carefully noted on the carriers. But this is very often not the case, and the collection could be spread across different locations or labels might have gone missing over time.

There's also a very wide variety of types of audiovisual carriers (the physical media on which the signal or recording is saved)[1] (link in Dutch) – with different devices required to play them. With a bit of luck, you might know someone who has the right equipment that still works, but all too often you come across carriers that you don't know how to play – which is a shame because they will undoubtedly have some heritage value or hold a personal interest. Audiovisual objects are more vulnerable than paper archive documents, and you need to take the right precautions to keep them accessible and consultable. Digitisation is usually the most suitable option for this.

It is important to first describe your audiovisual content – also if you're digitising it – for its continued storage and management. This gives you a better overview of your audiovisual collection and its most important or valuable items. This article clearly explains how archive and collection managers who don't specialise in audiovisual content can describe their content in a simple yet effective way. Describing the content also allows you to assess the personal or heritage value of parts of your archive and collections, make informed decisions about what and how you want to store something moving forward, and determine what you might want to digitise.

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Create a global overview

The first step is to gain an overview of your audiovisual content. Ideally, your entire collection is well organised in one place, but items can often be spread across different cabinets, boxes or even rooms in practice. It's also possible that audiovisual content that belongs to the archive and/or collections is at an employee's house, or being looked after by volunteers or elsewhere, resulting in it not always being clear how large or complete your audiovisual archive or collection is.

An overview of the size, layout and condition of your audiovisual archive and/or collections is necessary to gain a clear picture of the audiovisual content's status. It means you know where all the materials are located, ensures you don't forget or lose anything, and makes it easier to trace any missing items. The overview also serves as the basis for all the subsequent steps and decisions with regard to managing and describing your audiovisual collection.

Creating an overview doesn't need to be complicated or time-consuming. The most important thing is that you observe everything properly and note everything down in a structured way. You can use this template worksheet to get started. This template was drawn up with the intention of charting a whole archive – so not just the audiovisual content – but you can also use it just for your audiovisual collection. For more information about mapping out your archive and/or collections, see the Classify your archive and collection(s) article.

The first thing to make a note of is the physical location of (a part of) your audiovisual materials, e.g. 'Top shelf of brown cabinet in rehearsal room technical area'. Do this as completely and with as much detail as possible. Don't forget that more recent audiovisual content isn't always stored on a physical carrier, and can also be digital. In this case, record the physical location of the (external) hard drive that the files are stored on.

Note down a brief description as the title (e.g. 'audio recording of live performances'). Then describe the scope (e.g. '18 CDs') and date (e.g. '2002-2005'). You can also describe the content in a bit more detail (e.g. 'unedited live recordings of various performances on tour in Flemish cultural centres between 2002 and 2005'). Try to also gain a first impression of the physical condition of the materials and note it down (e.g. 'stored in plastic boxes, some of which are cracked'). Finally, you can also check whether and how components are ordered (e.g. 'chronological'). These steps will give you a good overview of your audiovisual archive and collections.

Your overview can potentially bring a number of problems to light which you might be able to resolve quickly and easily. Perhaps the artistic director's cellar, where all the VHS tapes are stored, is too damp and it would be better to keep them in the rehearsal room's technical area? Maybe somebody has some empty CD boxes to replace the cracked ones? Or is that external hard drive the only place where the recent audio recordings are stored, so another copy needs to be made?

The overview is also an important first step towards describing your audiovisual archive and/or collections at item level.

Make a description at item level

Why register and describe?

Registering items or creating an inventory is one of the first steps that audiovisual collection or archive managers need to undertake at the start of a digitisation project. See the article on Digitising audio and video recordings. Digitising film, audio and video is expensive, so it's not feasible or sensible to digitise every audiovisual item in your archive or collections. But registering all the items in a spreadsheet helps you to better assess which items are important or valuable and which aren't. This enables you to prioritise films, tapes and other carriers, and make a clear selection of what definitely need digitising.

With digitisation in mind, it's important to register the audiovisual media's technical properties rather than a detailed description of the content. This technical information allows you to determine exactly which carriers are in the most urgent need of digitisation. So start by describing the carrier that is storing the work, not its contents. An absence of clear labels can result in some carriers' content only being identified once it has been digitised.

Registering details such as the video tape format, runtime and recording standard is important for determining the quality of the end result and the precise requirements for the digitisation equipment needed. It also makes it possible to determine which playback devices and cleaning procedures will be necessary for the carrier digitisation – information that is essential for calculating how much it will cost.

When the carriers come back from the digitisation lab, the registered information will also ensure they are still identifiable and can go back in their usual storage place.

How do you go about it?

Generally speaking, there are three approaches to describing objects at item level. The distinction between these three methods is based on the fact that the audiovisual content and its carrier are separate from each other even though they can never be separated physically. The most basic registration that you can do is for all carriers, and this is sufficient in the majority of cases. There are also other, more specialised approaches based on the item's content or a combination of carrier and content. We will only look at the most basic registration here, but you can find more detailed information about the methods based on the item content and carrier and content combination on the CEST website (links in Dutch).

If you do not know the exact content of your audiovisual archive and/or collections, it's advisable to start with the carriers that you have described as a whole in your overview (e.g. the 18 CDs mentioned above) and to register them one by one using the information that you can identify (e.g. any writing on the box, on paper in the box, on labels, etc.). This allows you to provide a good description of the carrier despite the lack of information about its content.

A simple model currently in use in Flanders to describe audiovisual carriers is the one employed by meemoo, Flemish Institute for Archives. This model doesn't start with a description of the items' contents, but of the physical carriers.

Finding out what type of audiovisual format you have is an important first step in this method for providing descriptions. Meemoo has designed a photo guide (in Dutch) to help you determine whether you're dealing with audio or video, and the analogue or digital format involved.

The www.knowyourcarrier.com/ website is another helpful tool which uses a decision tree to help you determine your carrier type. It also helps you find out whether the content on your carrier has any heritage value and if it's worth digitising. Last but not least, it includes guidelines for good storage and a form for making specific requests to digitisation companies.

A spreadsheet such as Excel isn't just suitable for creating an overview of all your audiovisual content; it also allows you to describe your audiovisual archive and collections based on your carriers at item level. This template includes the most important elements that you need to register, together with an explanation and example. The columns contain the types of information that you want to describe. Add a new row for every carrier.

Carrier information

  • Type: audio, video or film;
  • Format: it's important to know exactly what carrier formats you are storing. Certain types of formats are very similar to each other, but not interchangeable, e.g. compact audio cassette, 1/4" open reel audio, CD, DAT, MiniDisc, VHS, Betamax, Video2000, Hi-8, Video8, MiniDV, ¾" U-matic, Betacam SP or digital Betacam;
  • Original carrier number: if your audiovisual archive and/or collections are already ordered and numbered, you can assign a number to each carrier to help you identify it more easily afterwards;
  • Carrier location: the place where you store the carrier. If no location number is available, information about the physical location is important to be able to find the item again.

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Content references

  • Title: provide a brief description in the title field of what you know about the carrier contents, i.e. the work. This might be nothing more than what is written on the label. Copy the exact descriptions across as you find them, even if you don't know what something means at first, e.g. apparently insignificant abbreviations. The meaning could become clearer when you can view or listen to the contents, or someone else might be able to offer clarification later based on the description. If there are multiple titles on the label, include them all, separated with a semicolon. And if the title is unknown, enter 'Unknown';
  • Related documents in box: if the carrier packaging also contains (paper) documents, enter '1'; if it doesn't, enter '0';
  • Stored by another organisation: if you suspect that the work on the carrier has been preserved by another organisation, enter '1'; if you think it hasn't, enter '0';
  • Preserving organisation: if you know that the work on the carrier is being preserved by another organisation, enter the name of that organisation.

Technical properties

  • Make: the carrier make/brand;
  • Date: the date of the recording on the carrier. Even though it might seem strange to consider the date as part of the technical description, it can add important information in combination with the format and the make for the later digitisation. If you cannot work out when the content (the work) was copied on to the carrier, the date that it was created often offers good guidance as an alternative. Always note the date in the same way, preferably yyyy-mm-dd (year, month, day). If you only know the year, simply note e.g. '1998-xx-xx';
  • Playback time: the total carrier playback time. It is advisable to always note the total playback time for the carrier and not the length of the content run time. It's possible, for example, that there might be writing on a label stating that a recorded lecture lasts for 30 minutes, but there could be 15 minutes of empty space on the carrier first, or maybe the recording started while the audience was still arriving. There might even be another relevant recording following on from the initial recording, of another activity that isn't noted on the original label. So if you only digitised the first 30 minutes, you would miss some of the content. Always note the playback time in the same way, preferably hh:mm:ss (hours:minutes:seconds), so a carrier with playback time of an hour and a half (90 minutes) is noted as '1:30:00';
  • Deterioration phenomena: audiovisual carriers deteriorate, sometimes even faster than paper documents. Note down any signs of decay as much as possible because these can determine the priority with which an item needs to be digitised. Common problems include mould, cracks, tears, a vinegar smell, or a white powdery substance on magnetic video and audio tapes (these are the first signs of so-called 'sticky-shed syndrome', the decomposition of the binding layer on these tapes). If there don't appear to be any signs of deterioration, note 'None';
  • Recording speed: for ¼" audio tape, note the speed at which the tape was recorded in cm/s, e.g. 2.38 cm/s, 4.76 cm/s, 9.53 cm/s, 19.05 cm/s, 38.1 cm/s, 76.2 cm/s, etc.;
  • Reel/cassette: for ¼" audio tape, indicate whether the tape is wound on a reel or cassette;
  • Noise reduction: for audio cassettes, note the type of noise reduction used, e.g. Dolby A, Dolby, B, Dolby C or Dolby S;
  • IEC type: for audio cassettes, note the type of IEC, e.g. EIC type I, II, III or IV.


Authors: Nastasia Vanderperren (meemoo), Rony Vissers (meemoo), Bart Magnus (meemoo), Florian Daemen (AMVB)

  1. See: R.Vissers, Verzeker de bewaring. Aflevering audiovisueel materiaal, 2014 (https://s3.amazonaws.com/verzekerdebewaring/aflevering_audiovisueel_materiaal.pdf), p.3.