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Audio and Moving Image Collections, Facilities, and Workflows Assessment

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Summary Report on Mellon-Funded Project

Introduction

BookshelvesThe New York Public Library (NYPL) holds one of the largest and the most important audio and moving image (AMI) collections in the world, with vast holdings of unique material across nine of the Library’s Research Divisions, covering a wide variety of fields and subjects.  Together, these AMI collections form an invaluable resource for scholars and artists, and provide the world with an irreplaceable record of its cultural heritage.

However, the future of these collections is at risk.  The very nature of audiovisual media leaves these holdings vulnerable to permanent loss due to decay and technical obsolescence.  As recent reports such as Indiana University’s Meeting the Challenge of Media Preservation have stated, at some point in the next 10-15 years the majority of this media will be lost due to degradation, unsupported media technologies, and the increasingly cost-prohibitive nature of preservation reformatting.

The New York Public Library is committed to preserving these collections and making them available for generations to come.  It seeks out timely, efficient strategies to build on and expand the Library’s established preservation program activities to meet the very real, very urgent needs of this world-class collection.  For these materials, the cost of inaction will be irreversible loss.

Background

The preservation of AMI collections is by no means new to NYPL.  Many divisions within the Library have been engaged in active and ongoing efforts to preserve their AMI holdings for decades.

As part of an administrative reorganization in 2009, NYPL centralized its AMI preservation operations, moving these preservation activities out of the curatorial units and into a new unit -- Preservation of Audio and Moving Image (PAMI) within the Library’s Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division.

Based on information provided by the curatorial units about their collections, and on data gathered in previous surveys and inventories conducted in the library, it was clear that the scope and scale of the AMI collections in need of preservation were sizable.   It was evident too that in order to meet the needs of these large and important collections by a single, centralized preservation unit, that a detailed assessment of the AMI holdings, their preservation needs, and NYPL’s current preservation infrastructure would be essential.

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Grant

In 2012, NYPL approached the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund such an assessment.  In its proposal, NYPL asked the Mellon Foundation to fund Phase One and Phase Two of a three-phase assessment of the Library’s unique audio and moving image materials in its archival research collections; as part of this scenario, NYPL would provide funding for Phase Three.

  • Phase One: an onsite assessment and inventory of collections held across seven NYPL Divisions

  • Phase Two: a preservation needs assessment for those collections with recommendations for future action
  • Phase Three: an assessment of NYPL’s current facilities, equipment, and workflow for AMI preservation, with resulting time, staff and cost estimates for future action

 There were four key objectives for this proposed assessment:

  1. gather data about the size and scope of NYPL’s AMI collections;
  2. determine the overall state of preservation, basic description, and conditions for these collections;
  3. establish preservation and conservation priorities; and
  4. recommend modifications to NYPL’s preservation program to better care for these materials.

 The assessment would draw from NYPL’s previous surveys and in-house assessments of its AMI collections, but it would go beyond these efforts by comprehensively examining AMI materials and storage environments across all media-holding NYPL divisions; it would build on survey tools and surveys of AMI materials conducted by peer institutions; and would include curatorial feedback and insight to help determine content and research priority.   To ensure such a deep, thoughtful, and comprehensive assessment, NYPL proposed to engage the services of AVPreserve, a consulting company, and to convene a working group made up of key stakeholders from across curatorial, preservation, and information technology units. AVPreserve, in coordination with the working group, would carry out a survey and preservation assessment of NYPL’s unique audio and moving image materials in its archival research collections over a period of one year.
 
The overarching goal of the project would be to produce a plan for a comprehensive, ongoing preservation program for these world-class research materials, including a cost estimate and staffing recommendations. The recommendations and final report of the assessment would be integrated into NYPL’s current institution-wide strategic planning process with the recognition that sustainable, long-term preservation strategies for AMI collections would best serve the Library’s collections and users.
 
This proposal was accepted and a grant was offered to NYPL by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  The project began officially on April 1, 2013.

The Working Group

As described in the proposal, a working group was formed to manage and guide the project.  The group was assembled to draw on existing staff expertise in four key areas: administrative, technical, curatorial, and information technology.  

  • Ann Thornton, Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Library
  • Rhony Dostaly, Production Supervisor, Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division, Preservation of Audio and Moving Image
  • Fran Dougherty, Moving Image Specialist, Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division, Preservation of Audio and Moving Image
  • Evelyn Frangakis, Aaron and Clara Greenhut Rabinowitz Assistant Director for Preservation, Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division
  • Jonathan Hiam, Curator, American Music Collection and The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound
  • Tanisha Jones, Director, Jerome Robbins Archive of the Moving Image, Jerome Robbins Dance Division
  • Shola Lynch, Curator, Moving Image and Recorded Sound, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
  • Daniel Sbardella, Sound Engineer, Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division, Preservation  of Audio and Moving Image
  • Jason Varghese, Manager, IT Applications Development
  • Jonah Volk, Media Preservation Coordinator, Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division, Preservation of Audio and Moving Image

Ann Thornton, who served as the working group's chair, charged the group with the following:

Working Group Charge

Audio and moving image assets held by the Jerome Robbins Archive of the Recorded Moving Image, Dorot Jewish Division, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Reserve Film and Video Collection, Berg Collection of English and American Literature, Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Billy Rose Theatre Division, and the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive are among the most unique materials held by NYPL; they are incalculably important for scholarly and creative endeavors. Given the range, variety, depth, and uniqueness of items and especially their significance as part of curated collections, NYPL is eager to ensure their security and continued accessibility to researchers and the public.

To assist the Library in further developing a library-wide preservation and conservation plan for audio and moving image materials, the AMI Working Group is hereby charged to:

  1. Guide and facilitate the Mellon-funded AMI assessment in partnership with AVPreserve.  Gather data about the scope and condition of the holdings within the various divisions across the research centers.
  2. In consultation with AVPreserve, determine the overall state of preservation, basic description, as well as environmental and storage conditions for NYPL's AMI collections.
  3. Gather data to support the establishment of preservation and conservation priorities.
  4. Assist AVPreserve in evaluating the current state of NYPL’s preservation technology infrastructure and formulating a plan to further develop this infrastructure based on assessment results.
  5. Make recommendations for how best to modify and expand NYPL's preservation program to better care for AMI collections.
  6. Serve as the core group to support future development to advance an ongoing program to preserve these materials.
  7. Make recommendations on how to best proceed with a needs analysis for dealing with NYPL’s born digital collections.

Guiding Principles

The working group’s first activity was to establish a set of principles to guide the project and to provide the group a framework of values to base its work on.  It resulted in the following:

  1. Preservation and Access are Interdependent
    A primary purpose of audio and moving image (AMI) preservation is permanent accessibility. Preservation is necessary to surmount the ever-present threats to a recording’s viability and the impediments to its access - principally, technical obsolescence and the degradation of physical media. As such, preservation and access are interdependent and inextricably linked.
     
  2. Ongoing Stewardship
    The life and ongoing access of AMI materials depends on a set of ongoing preservation practices. The Library continues to build and acquire these materials, expanding upon what is an already internationally valued set of collections. Ongoing stewardship of archival original recordings and digital preservation masters requires institutional will with accompanying resources to ensure that these materials survive.
     
  3. Timeliness
    Time is key for the successful preservation of audio and moving image collections at risk. AMI collections are at risk due to a variety of issues, both inherent and imposed, that contribute to their accelerated physical deterioration and technical obsolescence. Inaction, inadequate action, and delay will result in the loss of collections.
     
  4. Value
    Issues of value and risk go hand in hand for media preservation. The value of AMI materials can include their value to society, the institution, and its users, as well as their relative value within a collection or series of collections. These valuable assets require both immediate intervention and ongoing, active management to both save them for current use and ensure their ongoing survival.
     
  5. Reliance on Standards and Best Practices
    The preservation and access of AMI materials is dependent on the implementation of standards and best practices established by professional organizations concerned with audio and moving image preservation. Doing so ensures that NYPL’s practices remain up to date and in line with the practices of its peer institutions. A standards-based commitment includes the production of faithful, enduring, and viable preservation masters; secure, climate controlled, long-term storage for original physical media; and a trusted digital repository for preserving digital assets. Adherence to standards and best practices enables the implementation of a "digitize once" workflow that limits stress on the original asset and is the most efficient use of staff time and financial resources.
     
  6. Partnerships
    Any consideration of external partnerships involving NYPL’s AMI collections must take into account the scope, scale, and preservation needs of the Library’s collections. In entering into partnerships, explicit and transparent goals and expectations will ensure the ongoing preservation and access of the Library’s assets.
     
  7. Collaboration
    Preservation of AMI materials is a fluid, open, and interdependent collaboration that must include input from the Preservation Division, curatorial units, collections processing, and IT. Close consultation among the Library’s organizational units will ensure efficient preservation of the highest-priority collections, eliminate the costly preservation of low-priority materials, and avoid any duplication of effort.
     
  8. Efficiency
    The Library has an obligation to periodically evaluate and refine its AMI preservation workflows, technologies, and infrastructure to efficiently provide preservation and access to its collections. The adoption of new workflows or technologies must incorporate the principle of best practices to ensure that quality is never compromised while striving for efficiency. The scale, value, and fleeting nature of these important and unique collections requires an efficient approach.

Results

The three-phase assessment project was carried out over the course of 12 months.  During this period, the staff of AVPreserve worked with members of the Working Group to survey the Library’s AMI collections; conduct in-depth interviews with NYPL curatorial, preservation, IT, and processing/cataloging staff; and use this information to develop a preservation plan for these collections.

Phase One

Phase One provided overall data about NYPL’s AMI collections. The consultants surveyed materials across nine research collections in their storage locations. In total, project staff considered 810,753 items, which total an estimated 522,402 hours of content.  While the breakdown by Division is included in the consultant’s report, the headline is the diversity and scope of these collections: in total, the collections span over 60 format types; eight major categories, from performance documentation to creative works to event documentation; and four asset types, from originals/masters to commercial/published works. Classifying and organizing the collections in this way facilitated risk assessment and prioritization for reformatting, since common formats share risk factors and asset types help to identify unique or rare materials, which would advance their priority for preservation reformatting. 

Through Phase One of the project, the consultants, preservation staff, and curators identified 228,100 of the approximately 800,000 items in these formats across NYPL’s archival research divisions as preservation priorities.  This number was arrived at after curators identified 681,542 of the 800,000 items as potentially having reformatting value due to considerations such as long-term research value and uniqueness.  Further, 209,403 of these items are the originals/master recordings; as such, reformatting for preservation was deemed essential. Of the remaining 472,139, which are published commercial recordings, 23,606, or approximately 5 percent,  may be  rare or unique. Many of the remaining published commercial items, however, are at risk because of format obsolescence, and as such are practically speaking, inaccessible to researchers.

Phase Two

The second phase of the project included the preservation needs assessment, for which the consultants produced reports and recommendations in several key areas for each site and collection. Details are included in the formal report, but major findings are outlined below.

Intellectual Control

A key finding from the preservation assessment was the correlation between intellectual control and preservation status. Those materials that are known, cataloged, and accessible have generally had preservation concerns documented and/or addressed. Alternatively, processing backlogs pose a risk to AMI materials in particular, since unidentified collections are often inappropriately stored and unable to be prioritized for preservation. A key recommendation in this area is that NYPL devote resources to both preservation and processing of collections, given the interdependence of the workflows. The consultants built this recommendation into the cost, time and personnel estimates and workflows developed in Phase Three.

Storage Conditions

As noted above, consultants visited the materials in the sites where they are stored, including the Library’s offsite ReCAP storage facility.  Materials stored at off-site commercial locations were retrieved in samples for review. This method allowed the consultants to assess the storage conditions as well, which helped to inform preservation recommendations. As outlined in the report, the assessment identified suboptimal temperature and relative humidity as well as physical arrangement within storage facilities, which are specific to medium, and all of which have an impact on the condition of the collections. As noted above, the major finding was that processed and regularly accessed collections are well arranged, but unprocessed collections were frequently found in boxes as submitted to the division, which was typically in too large or over-filled boxes, unarranged and poorly housed, and frequently coated with dust that had built up prior to acquisition. 

The report also details threats via environmental conditions in unregulated storage areas, which pose a significant concern for AMI collections. Significant daily and seasonal fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity in many of the storage locations, HVAC failures, water leaks, and reliance on unregulated spaces such as offices and hallways for storage of AMI materials were all identified as threats to the collections and recommendations for remediation, including prioritization of sites to be remediated, are detailed in the report.

Sustainable Collection Policies

A policy recommendation that came out of Phase Two builds on the concept of sustainability. While this assessment identifies the preservation needs of the collection, the report is forward-looking for the Library in that it recommends policies to plan for the growth of the collection, taking into account the current and future needs of the collections, and the resources available to care for these materials. The report in concert with advice of the AMI Working Group recommends that NYPL assess and amend its collection policy by identifying lifecycle costs and other expenses or potential challenges with collections that are being considered for acquisition, so as to prevent future preservation crises.

Phase Three

Based on work performed in Phase Three, the consultants developed four scenarios by which NYPL could reformat and otherwise preserve the 233,009 items identified in Phase One in the manner defined in Phase Two, and information gathered from NYPL staff interviews documented performed in Phase Three. The costs and assumptions for each scenario are detailed in the report, but are comprehensive in that they include recommended processing and associated digital storage costs where required.

  • Scenario 1: Current State – Examines the time needed to digitize items that are considered a priority for reformatting based on current operations and budgets.
     
  • Scenario 2: 15-year Plan, Existing Capabilities – Examines the implications of digitizing all materials considered a priority for reformatting in the next 15 years with minimal increase in permanent staff and facilities.
     
  • Scenario 3: 15-year Plan, Increased Capabilities – Examines the implications of digitizing all materials considered a priority for reformatting in the next 15 years based on an optimal allocation of outsourcing and in-house labor.
     
  • Scenario 4: 15-year Plan, $5 Million Annual Budget – Examines the implications of maintaining a fixed budget, averaging $5 million per year over the next 15 years.
     

Recognizing the deep investment recommended, NYPL will evaluate these scenarios and recommendations as part of its overall strategic planning exercise described below under “Future Plans,” by which NYPL is identifying, prioritizing, and budgeting for its strategic plans for the coming years. The strategic planning process will evaluate the more detailed recommendations from the Phase Three report, including those made under “Opportunities To Reduce Costs and Perspectives on Budgets,” which present ways to qualify or address the significant costs outlined in the four scenarios.  By maintaining the AMI Working Group, whose members are listed in the Phase One and Two report, NYPL will be able to institutionalize the assessment’s recommendations, since there is already significant buy-in from across Divisions and Collections at NYPL. The strategic planning process is expected to be completed in the coming months, which will inform NYPL’s next steps for its AMI preservation planning.

Future Plans

NYPL’s assessment of its AMI collections for preservation purposes is complete as a result of this survey; the assessment allowed NYPL to assemble comprehensive knowledge of the Library’s AMI holdings from across various locations and divisions, documenting in greater detail the scope of the holdings as well as their preservation and conservation needs. With the data and recommendations in hand, NYPL will develop a targeted plan to address the AMI collections’ preservation needs, thus ensuring their long-term care and availability to researchers. 

This plan is being developed as part of a broad internal strategic planning process that NYPL has undertaken in the past year, under the direction of Chief Library Officer Mary Lee Kennedy. This process, which seeks to establish how NYPL will successfully achieve the key outcomes of its strategic priorities, will prioritize the recommendations of the AMI assessment, integrating them into the Library’s broader goals of access and use of the collections, and identifying the key elements needed in place in order to responsibly care for and continue to make accessible these collections. NYPL expects that priorities from the Strategic Planning process will be announced in Fall 2014, along with a plan for realizing these strategic plans, so that NYPL can begin work to implement recommendations from this report in the coming months.

Conclusion

NYPL’s commitment to its unique and valuable AMI collections reflect their artifactual significance and their broad applicability for research and scholarly inquiry. While the formal assessment project is completed, the AMI Working Group continues to meet and plan next steps to advance institution-wide AMI preservation program development.  With comprehensive knowledge of these holdings, their preservation needs, and recommendations for how NYPL can approach such a task, the Library is well positioned to integrate this path forward into its larger strategic plans and begin to tackle this challenge. NYPL remains committed implementing these and thus ensuring that these irreplaceable materials are preserved and accessible to researchers. 

Submitted on August 26, 2014.

 

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