Registration and identification of video and audio tapes for digitisation at Damaged Goods

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The dance company Damaged Goods wishes to have its audiovisual archive digitised to preserve it for the future, and for reference purposes. In an initial phase, the material was inventoried according to the registration model of the Flemish Institute for Archiving (VIAA). You can read in this pilot project about how the registration was managed.

Status

  • Definition of problem: May – June 2014
  • Determining the method: June 2014
  • Registration of video tapes by PACKED vzw: July 2014
  • Registration of video tapes by volunteers: November 2014

Definition of the problem

Meg Stuart is an American choreographer and dancer who lives and works in Brussels and Berlin. In 1991, she was invited by the international dance festival Klapstuk in Leuven to create her first full-length performance, Disfigure Study, with which she launched her artistic career in Europe. In 1994, she set up her own dance company [1], Damaged Goods, in Brussels.

Over the years, the dance company has produced a large number of video and audio tapes with recordings of rehearsals, improvisations, performances, music etc. The videos, which have significant heritage value, were recorded on various analogue and digital devices, e.g. VHS, Hi8, Betacam SP, Video8, DAT and MiniDV. Of some performances, such as Disfigure Study, Damaged Goods only has a single recording.[1]

In the audiovisual archive, there is often no distinction made between archive and reference copies. This means that some archive copies are not only used for long-term storage, but also for reference. Use for reference purposes increases the likelihood that the medium will become worn or damaged. In addition, the quality of the media deteriorates because of changes in their chemical composition. This is particularly true of audio and videotapes, but also of CD-Rs and DVD-Rs. This deterioration is accelerated by the lack of optimal storage space (an attic room with fluctuating temperatures and relative humidity). Furthermore, Damaged Goods does not possess playback devices for all the different types of analogue and digital media in its audiovisual archive. Technological evolution also means that playback devices and the accompanying media can become obsolete.

A member of staff at Damaged Goods noticed that the quality of the videos was declining. The MiniDVs were still playable, but the fear was that on some tapes, the image and/or sound were missing. In 2014, Damaged Goods contacted PACKED vzw for advice. It became clear that steps needed to be taken both to keep the material safe for the future, and to make sure that it remained available for reference. To achieve this, digitalisation seemed to be the most appropriate option.

Method

Determining the problem

Damaged Goods wants to preserve its digital archive for the future. Threats to this preservation are:

  • the deterioration of the digital and analogue video and audio tapes;
  • the disappearance of the necessary playback devices;
  • the far from ideal storage, which accelerates the deterioration of the media in the audiovisual archive, namely in an attic space that gets extremely hot in summer.

The best solution for preserving the content of the tapes and keeping them accessible is digitisation [2]. This involves producing first archive files, and then reference files. An archive file is a digital copy of the highest possible quality – preferably of a high enough quality to replace the original should it be destroyed or damaged; a reference copy is a digital copy that is used to make a video or audio recording available digitally (online). In addition to this, there is sometimes a reproduction file. This is an intermediary/archive file that is used to make different sorts of reference files. Due to economic considerations, the decision is often made to use the same specifications for the different types of files. This saves not only storage space, but also transcoding time and infrastructure.

Damaged Goods contacted PACKED vzw in May 2014 requesting contact details for digitisation labs. Damaged Goods wanted to digitise the performance recordings in order to have a readable recording of every performance, with a sound and image quality that is close to the original. PACKED vzw provided Damaged Goods with the requested information about digitisation labs. Damaged Goods then requested quotes from two labs. A joint consultation revealed that it was difficult for the organisation to request good quotes due to their lack of expertise and knowhow about quality requirements. The quality requirements that they had drawn up were insufficiently specific, meaning that the resulting request for a quote was too open to interpretation. In consequence, Damaged Goods was unable to compare the quotes they received properly in terms of the suggested price and of quality.

As a centre of expertise for the digital heritage, PACKED vzw does have the necessary knowledge to set out the specific quality requirements needed for a sustainable accessibility of the audiovisual material. Requirements still need to be determined with regard to:

  • the container format;
  • the video codec;
  • the compression of the video signal;
  • the bit depth of the video signal;
  • the frame rate;
  • the image aspect ratio;
  • the pixel aspect ratio;
  • the frame size;
  • the chroma subsampling;
  • the interlacing;
  • the audio codec;
  • the compression of the audio signal;
  • the bit depth of the audio signal;
  • the sampling frequency of the audio signal;
  • the number of audio channels.

Agreements also need to be made about the quality control.

20140618 DamagedGoods 01.jpg

Determining the method

PACKED vzw contacted VIAA to see whether Damaged Goods’ audiovisual archive would fit into VIAA’s digitisation projects[3].

It is not possible for arts organisations to work directly with VIAA as a partner concerned with content, but VIAA does enter into partnerships with collection managing institutions. Because it is not in principle part of arts organisations’ mission to guarantee the sustainable accessibility of their audiovisual archive, VIAA prefers collaborations with arts organisations to take place via a collection managing institution, which then takes on the intermediary role, and also commits to preserving the digitised material in the long term. For the Damaged Goods archive, VTi is taking on this role. Also, VTi is not a collection managing institution like the museums, cultural archives or heritage libraries that operate within the cultural heritage sector, but one of its missions is to fulfil the role of documentation centre for the performing arts.

VIAA’s digitisation projects are organised in separate phases and are always concentrate on a particular type of medium. The aim of this is an increase in scale that yields economic advantages. The first phase, which began in 2013, concentrates on ¾” U-matic, Betacam SP, compact audio cassettes and open-reel audiotapes. The second phase, which began in 2014, concentrates on audio CD-R, wax cylinders, wire recorder reels, Betamax, VCR and open reel videotapes.

This means that thanks to VTi’s involvement, the Betacam SP-cassettes have already been digitised by VIAA. For the other formats, it is currently a question of waiting for the next phases of digitisation. Another option is for the company to go ahead and task digitisation labs with the digitisation of the images. Damaged Goods suspects that some of its MiniDVs are already damaged, but this format is included in neither the first nor the second digitisation phase.[4]

The subsequent action plan was agreed by PACKED vzw with Damaged Goods:

  1. Inventory of the audiovisual archive: this provides an overview of the number of tapes and other media, the media formats that make up the archive and the content that is being stored on the media (recordings, rehearsals, improvisations, video material used during a performance, inspirational material, etc.).
  2. Setting priorities: priorities can be set on the basis of factors including the state and content of the media. This makes it possible to look at whether or not the digitisation of particular media is urgent. If the material is already in bad condition or is urgently required for particular reference purposes, it may not be possible to wait for VIAA.
  3. Establishing contacts: Digitisation is expensive. If certain material does need to be digitised outside VIAA, one option would be to make contacts with other (dance) organisations and to create a pool of work to be digitised in order to cut down the costs.
  4. Establishing quality requirements (if the digitisation takes place outside VIAA).
  5. Requesting and evaluating quotes (if the digitisation takes place outside VIAA).

20140618 DamagedGoods 02.jpg

Inventorying the audiovisual archive

The first step was to create an inventory of the audiovisual material at Damaged Goods in order to create an overview of the archive. This was done using the template that PACKED vzw and the VIAA have created to collect information for the digitisation of video and audio. For the registration with Damaged Goods, we restricted ourselves to the fields that were relevant to the company’s audiovisual archive. You can see the adapted template here (only in Dutch).

On 16 and 18 July 2014, PACKED vzw and Het Firmament spent a day and a half compiling the inventory. A member of staff from Damaged Goods helped to number and identify the tapes. In this period of time, 436 video and audio carriers were inventoried:

  • VHS: 8 items;
  • Betacam SP: 24 items;
  • Digital Betacam: 1 item;
  • S-VHS-C: 6 items;
  • U-matic: 1 item;
  • DVCAM: 8 item;
  • Hi8: 58 items;
  • Video8: 26 items;
  • MiniDV: 268 items;
  • compact audio cassette: 1 item;
  • DAT: 21 items;
  • DVD-R: 10 items;
  • CD-R: 4 items.

Damaged Goods had made an advance selection of the audiovisual material that should take priority and should definitely be digitised. They had also arranged the tapes per production, per performance and per tape format.

20140618 DamagedGoods 03.jpg

The template was filled in as follows:

  • CP (content provider): This is the person or organisation managing the audiovisual archive. The official name of the organisation (in this case Damaged Goods) is filled in here.
  • Type: This field indicates whether the medium is audio or visual.
  • Format: The format of the medium, e.g. CD-R, compact audio cassette, Betacam SP of MiniDV.
  • Original_medium_id: The number or code of the medium. Damaged Goods had not yet numbered and inventoried the audiovisual archive, meaning that we have been able to use continuous numbers starting from 1. Should the tapes and discs in the audiovisual archive have already had a number, then we would have filled in this code or number in this field.
  • Original_location: In this field, a highly specific location for the audio or video tape should be given, namely the organisation (in this case Damaged Goods) at which it is being stored, the room in which the video is being kept and the number of the box in which the tape is stored.
  • Title: The title of the video. For this, we have copied verbatim the inscriptions and labels on the tapes and boxes. If there were no inscriptions, the term ‘unknown’ was used.
  • Brand: Brand and type of tape, e.g. Sony DT-120, Maxell B-30ML BQ or TDK DVM60.
  • Date: The date on which the video was made. This is filled in according to the template yyyy-mm-dd. If one element was not known, an ‘x’ was inserted. E.g. 2001-12-14, 2001-12-xx or xxxx-xx-xx.
  • Duration: The total length of the tape or disc. This is usually mentioned in the product name, e.g. a Sony DT-120 has a total length of 120 minutes. The length is filled in according to the template h:mm:ss. 120 minutes is therefore 2:00:00.
  • Comments: In this field, extra information is added that can be relevant to the digitisation, such as the recording standards (PAL, NTSC, SECAM). This technical information is important when playing and digitising the tapes.[5]
  • To be digitised through the VTi: In this field, we indicate which cassettes are already being sent off to the VTi to be digitised in the first phase.

Voor meer informatie over het identificeren van film, audio- en videocassettes kan je volgende links raadplegen:

In November 2014, Damaged Goods recruited volunteers to register the remaining video tapes. PACKED vzw will help to follow this up and will support the volunteers. Based on the temporary, current inventory, model descriptions will be drawn up on which the volunteers can base their work.

Determining priorities

After drawing up the inventory, a decision needs to be made as to which material should take priority for digitisation. Priorities are determined on the basis of the following criteria:

  • medium/format: is this a medium that is known to be prone to deterioration (e.g. video tape formats for non-professional use because the tape is narrower)? Is it a medium/format that has fallen into disuse (and for which playback devices are hard to find or no longer available)?
  • contents: are the contents essential for the organisation (e.g. a performance that has only been recorded once, and of which there are not multiple copies)?
  • state of the medium: does a superficial inspection already detect deterioration?

VIAA has its own list of priorities for digitisation. This was drawn up on the basis of media/formats, their obsolescence and dispersal in the broadcasting and cultural sector. In the case of film, the state of the medium is also taken into account.

20140618 DamagedGoods 04.jpg

If for the digitisation of certain material it is not possible to wait for VIAA, Damaged Goods must find its own solution. One possibility might be to make contact with other organisations, create a pool and thus reduce costs by means of economies of scale.

Results

  • Damaged Goods’ audiovisual archive has already been partially inventoried. Damaged Goods now has a clear overview of the total number of tapes, the number of tapes per production and the different tape formats in their possession. Every tape has been given a unique number. Furthermore, the inventory has now made it possible to find a video quickly.
  • Damaged Goods’ audiovisual archive will be digitised so that it is preserved for the future, and will continue to be available for consultation. The Betacam SPs can already be digitised by VIAA via VTi.

Author: Rony Vissers (PACKED vzw), Nastasia Vanderperren (PACKED vzw)

  1. In 2002 a remake of Disfigure Study was made under the supervision of Damaged Goods. The dance company has multiple copies of this performance on DVD. However, the company only has one single VHS copy of the original 1991 performance.
  2. http://www.scart.be/?q=nl/content/wat-telt-de-inhoud-en-meestal-niet-de-plastic-drager (only in Dutch)
  3. VIAA is an institution that was set up in late 2012 by the Flemish government. The goal of VIAA is to digitise heritage, to create sustainable digital archives and make them available for education, research and the wider public via public libraries. Today, VIAA does this in the first instance for the audiovisual heritage, but its task not limited to this. In practice, one of the things that this means is that VIAA coordinates large-scale digitisation projects of material from both the broadcasting and the cultural sectors, and also bears the costs of this. The resulting files are stored in its own digital depot. The content partners can manage and use their digitised material via an online system made available to them by VIAA. VIAA itself can make the material available (in a non-exclusive manner) for educational and research purposes, and in public libraries.
  4. During the course of 2015, VIAA and PACKED vzw are setting up schemes in collaboration with the collection management institutions to acquire and digitise the audiovisual heritage recorded in amateur formats. http://viaa.be/en/digitisation/amateur-recording-formats/
  5. http://www.scart.be/?q=nl/content/beknopte-handleiding-voor-het-identificeren-van-u-matic-en-betacam, only in Dutch