On the occasion of the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage: “Archives at risk: protecting the world’s identities”

       This blog post was written by Mrs. Roma Wong-Sang. Senior Archives and Records Officer, National Archives of Trinidad and Tobago.

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Valuing and Unlocking Audiovisual Heritage

Recognizing and unlocking audiovisual heritage is receiving global attention and is being championed by UNESCO. Other organizations such as the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives, Association of Moving Image Archivists, and the International Programme on Sound and Image Collections Conservation of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property are also pioneers in the movement. The World Day for Audiovisual Heritage, the 27th  October, was declared by UNESCO in 2006. It aims to raise public awareness of the value of audiovisual heritage and urgent measures to be taken to preserve it.

Experiencing history has never been easier than in the 20th and 21st centuries with the invention of photography, moving images and sound recordings. With the introduction of film in the 1890s, the videotape in 1950s-1960s and home VCR in the 1970s, audiovisual media has become a main source for telling stories of the past and as such for how we imagine our social, political, and cultural history.  Its visual and audio appeal and ability to transcend language and cultural boundaries, as well as reach literate and illiterate audiences, makes it an attractive and powerful form of media. One such example is the iconic image of the national flag of Trinidad and Tobago being hoisted at the stroke of midnight on 31 August 1962, when the new nation was born.

More than telling of events of our past, audiovisual media is a powerful means of capturing, preserving and perpetuating our intangible cultural heritage (our traditions, languages, oral history and national identity). It is particularly important for societies such as Trinidad and Tobago which is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural and whose culture has a strong oral base. Our calypso, storytelling and talk radio are just a few examples of that oral culture.

Steps in unlocking audiovisual heritage

Raising public awareness and taking measures to preserve audiovisual heritage is not an easy task. The first major step involves a broad recognition of its archival value, as a bonafide complement to the written word. The historical and educational value of audiovisual records is yet to be broadly recognised over its traditional production value. And even in the era of high-definition video, the question of production value may arise as technical considerations may override archival considerations of old standard definition formats.

The second step to unlocking the value and use of audiovisual heritage lies in making the records accessible to diverse users such as students, historians, journalists, video producers, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and linguists. It is widely acknowledged in the archival profession that some records have historical and other values long after the record has been created and beyond reasons for its original creation. For instance the 1945 financial records of an organisation may give a clear indication of wages during that time.  Likewise, a video interview with an artisan building a tadjah in 1972 may reveal some artisan skills that are no longer in use and which may be revived based on its documentation on video.

Vulnerability of audiovisual media

Facilitating access to audiovisual resources entails an investment in human and financial resources. Contrary to traditional paper documents, audiovisual records on analog formats, eg.reel-to-reel, U-Matic and VHS tapes, are extremely vulnerable and chemically unstable. Life expectancies are at best limited to a few decades, and particularly more so if not stored in optimal conditions.  The fact that audiovisual records are machine-readable records adds another dimension to its retrievability, as replay equipment and spare parts are fast becoming obsolete.  In late 2012, the United States’ National Recording Preservation Plan Sound Study stated that “many analog audio recordings must be digitized within the next 15 to 20 years – before sound carrier degradation and the challenges of acquiring and maintaining playback equipment make the success of these efforts too expensive or unattainable.” Safeguarding that VHS home video of your child’s first day of school would thus require its quick conversion to the digital domain. With advanced sophistication of modern digital audiovisual formats, the long-term preservation of audiovisual records is an indispensable and demanding job as content has to be migrated from one format to another before obsolescence of hard and software strikes.

Once records are preserved through migration to digital formats, and issues of copyright clearly communicated, then access through a catalogue or finding aid, use of audiovisual equipment in a library or archives, or access online, may open new vistas to better understanding our history and culture.

Good practices

Examples of preserving and increasing access to audiovisual records abound globally, regionally and locally. European history and heritage is accessible through the EUScreen website http://www.euscreen.eu/ making audiovisual content and metadata from broadcasters and archives searchable, findable and accessible across Europe. Haiti is developing an Audiovisual Institute for a wide variety of users including the Haitian diaspora, scientific and academic communities and filmmakers. At home in Trinidad and Tobago, Banyan Ltd., the first independent production company to focus on local programming, has converted its analogue collections to digital, for which a catalogue exists online at http://www.pancaribbean.com/banyan/archive.htm.

Government Information Services (GIS) Ltd has digitized some of its analog materials and access provided online on its Hidden Treasures website at http://hiddentreasures.org.tt/

Despite these encouraging local efforts, more can be done to safeguard audiovisual records that may be at risk, to make them accessible for education and research purposes. It is significant that our first national television broadcast by Trinidad and Tobago Television coincided with our Independence on 31 August 1962. As such, audiovisual records produced since the birth of our nation represent a veritable means through which our history has been recorded and can be shared for future generations.

Still not convinced on the value of audiovisual media as archives? Please view this video produced by Banyan Ltd entitled “The Power of Video” at
https://vimeo.com/134506776, shared with their kind permission.

Work Cited

“Audiovisual, Heritage, Documentation, Historical, Record, Preservation, Conservation, Archives, Archiving, UNESCO, United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization.” UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. <http://www.un.org/en/events/audiovisualday/&gt;.

“Library of Congress Study Addresses Audio Preservation.” American Libraries 41.11/12 (2010): 18. Web.

“World Day for Audiovisual Heritage | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.” World Day for Audiovisual Heritage | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/access-to-knowledge/archives/world-day-for-audiovisual-heritage/&gt;.

About national archives

Acquires public and private records of enduring value regardless of format. Cares for and preserve records acquired according to international archival standards. Provides guidance and technical advice on the management of public records. Provides secondary storage facilities to Government Ministries, Agencies and Departments for semi-active records. Provides access to information from our holdings through our Reference Facility. Provides advice on the preservation of records, including disaster recovery.
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