The good times continued at the SAA Annual Meeting last week as attendees weighed their open-source video preservation options. A case study from the City of Vancouver Archives outlining its successes and weighty considerations prompted the session audience to ask thought-provoking questions on the simplicity of film preservation and the complications of video preservation.

The panelists introduced themselves:

  • Cynthia J. McLellan (City of Vancouver Archives)
  • Dave Rice (CUNY TV)
  • John Walko (Scene Savers)

BC to KY and Back Again: Crossing Borders to Discover New Processes for Digital A/V Preservation

Cindy McLellan

Last year the City of Vancouver Archives played a key role in the town’s 125th birthday: it preserved and provided access to the YaleTown Production Inc. records. The screening by Michael Collier, donor and curator, reflected Vancouver’s thriving film business.  

When the records were first submitted, Ms. McLellan performed an initial assessment of the videos’ conditions. Video formats included:

  • 1” Type C
  • ¾” U-Matic
  • Betacam
  • Betacam SP
  • VHS
  • Hi8 ME
  • D1
  • D2
  • Digital Betacam
  • HDCam

as well as one hard drive and 3 meters of textual records, photographs, hundreds of moving image materials including 16 and 35 mm film and a 12” laserdisc.

Ms. McLellan advised,

When dealing with video, consider how much digitization will cost. Gather as much information as you can: journal it in a spreadsheet. I highly recommend the Texas Commission on the Arts Videotape and Assessment Guide. Capture title, type, format, length, condition and number of instances (fortunately, the Yaletown donation had many copies and multiple versions of everything).  As you review an object, inspect the condition of the case. Can you see the tape in the window? What does the tape look like? Common issues for you may include:

  • Step packed: where the tape is obviously wound at different heights
  • Pop strands: when one strand of the ribbon sticks up from the rest and it is susceptible to damage
  • Warping

I worked directly with Mike Collier who outlined what was what (master, copies, working versions, etc.). Always remember there’s no guarantee that content will match the label.”

Fortunately for the archives, Mr. Collier not only kept good records, but he also signed over copyright. Copyright is often a big concern in justifying preservation expense when the videos are not accessed often -- especially if access is purposefully limited. 

Copyright image.jpg

Ms. McLellan admitted it’s very tempting to draw comparisons between Canadian and US copyright law -- in fact, because of the Internet Archive (which will soon boast all of the Yaletown Productions material), she studies copyright law intensely.

One nice clear-cut fact is that works published before 1923 are in public domain. For those of us in the video preservation field this fact does us very little good. The term of copyright however, has gone from 28 years to 120 years for works created by a corporation (or 95 years after publication, whichever is shorter). If this graphic is anything to go by -- I am assuming it will continue to get longer.”

Film is so easy, according to Ms. McLellan. Pack it up and put it in a freezer and it will last for years.  Video is much trickier:

  • Many proprietary formats
  • Obsolescence of playback machines
  • Proper playback machines can often be expensive or hard to come by depending on the format
  • Inability to fix remaining machines
  • Parts of the videocassettes break down
  • Tape is fragile
  • Damaged by weather, extremes

The Solution? Digital Preservation, Constant Monitoring and Resources

Born-digitals arrive regularly from the city’s EDRMS. Archivematica is the City of Vancouver’s OAIS digital archives system. “To enable sustainability and respond to obsolescence risks, and as part of the normal operation of Archivematica -- the Archives normalizes material to open and standardized file formats during ingest while maintaining the original source,” Ms. McLellan explained.

The City of Vancouver’s container format of choice is Matroska Version 2 (.mkv).

As of last summer we no longer invest in new DigiBeta tapes stuck in a cycle of making copies of copies, always being on the edge of obsolescence. We digitize once and then we migrate.  ffv1 has not endured a comparable standardization process to JPEG2000. We have found a small community of ffv1 users in the media preservation field. We did successfully decode the MKV preservation files when curating the screening last November so they could be played, manipulated and edited in Apple’s Final Cut Pro. A hard drive with the clips we wanted in the final DigiBeta tape to be played at the movie theatre was taken to a local vendor who stitched the clips together, added some text and made the DigiBeta tape for us.”

Sample metadata includes:

  • Original_media_type
  • Origina_media_type/Barcode
  • …/comment
  • Date_digitized
  • …/comments
  • Encoded_by
  • …/URL
  • .../comments

The vendor created an access copy in .mp4 and an .mkv preservation file. Checksums, created by the vendor in a sidecar file, were verified by MD5 Checker. Project staff waited until the quality control phase completed before they returned originals.

The preparation of transfers of digitized files happens on a network drive, digitized files are assembled in logical groups, along with a Comma Separated Values file that lists and matches the item numbers and file names (remember Linux is case sensitive!), the Archivematica workflow xml file, and any metadata about the transfer into directories that will become the transfer.”

Transfers to Archivematica process, summarized:

  • Create transfer directories
  • Put the object files in the transfer directories
  • Create.csv
  • Create digitization metadata spreadsheet
  • Ingest transfer of digitized files (5 at a time)
    • Load transfers
    • Copy transfers
    • Cut and paste as many transfers as scalability testing will process successfully
  • Switch to the Archivematica dashboard
    • Go to the “Transfer” tab
    • Select “Transfer Complete” from dropdown
    • Wait (check that the server has not frozen)
    • Transfer has processed successfully all the way through and created and AIP and a DIP


The Society of American Archivists (SAA) 2012 annual meeting, “Beyond Borders," concluded Saturday, August 11, 2012 in San Diego.

Editor's Note: To read more of Mimi's reports from SAA12:

-- Solving Problems with Authority and Sharing: Developments and Prospects #saa12