Jan 212011

I wrote earlier about efforts that have gone into preserving what are known as ephemeral films: productions geared for educational, advertising or other uses separate from theatrical releases.  One of the largest online sources for these films is the Internet Archive, which has thousands of titles, many of which have long lived in obscurity.  Now accessible in digital form, these films are open to discovery.

A colleague pointed me to a U.S. government film in the IA FedFlix collection, The American Scene Series, Number 11: The Library of Congress.  It was made by the Office of War Information, Overseas Branch, around 1945.  Over the course of 20 minutes it presents a remarkable portrait of the Library at that time.  The film mentions the Library’s work to conduct field recordings of “unknown primitive singers” and has brief clips of two recording sessions.

One is of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, very well-known artists in the “acoustic, folk-oriented Piedmont blues style… ready-made for the folk festivals and college campuses of the 1960s.”  The duo perform one of their signature songs, “Red River Blues” for about two minutes.  The setting appears to be in a farmyard and shows two earnest recording technicians at work.  It is an amazing scene, as the embedded video attests.

The second clip is also remarkable:  Woody Guthrie singing “Ranger’s Command,” again in a rural setting with recording gear in evidence.  The Guthrie clip is already on YouTube, but is no less compelling than the first.

I think I may spend more time trolling through these old films for such unexpected treasures.  But only the digitized versions!

Dec 292010

Why should anyone care about digital preservation?

Those of us who work in the field ponder this question. Our personal conviction is secure; we know that select digital information is valuable for current and future use.  We know also how fragile that information is and how easily it can disappear.

But making the case to funders, institutional leaders and even Uncle Bob can be tough.  Layers of opacity get in the way.  With what seems to be unlimited information about everything on the web 24-7, arguing that data is at risk may seem counterintuitive.  Venturing into topics like bit rot, media migration and metadata augmentation often leads to glazed eyes.  Making the case that new forms of information, such as social media and websites, should be collected by institutions that preserve Gutenberg Bibles and Civil War documents can cause consternation.

If our culture is going to succeed in preserving important digital information, more effective arguments are needed.  I think there are a couple of messages and one medium in particular that are worth exploring.

The messages are basic.  Economic and social progress has depended for centuries on information kept by libraries, archives, museums and other collecting organizations.  For this benefit to continue, these organizations must expand their capacity to keep digital information, which is now the dominant form of documented human knowledge.  There is a nice hook, too: personal archiving.

With so many digital cameras, smartphones, laptops and tablets in circulation, many people are themselves responsible for personal digital collections.  Helping them understand the need to care for and preserve their family digital photographs also builds a larger awareness about the value of digital preservation.  One might say that like politics, digital preservation is local.

Video may be the best medium yet invented to put information in the human brain.  One recent theory credits this to “dual coding,” which basically means the information that we see and hear is both easier to learn and remember.

Maybe this underlies a natural tendency to prefer audio-visual over text.  In any event, advertisers certainly get it.  “There’s no doubt that web videos are cool and fun to watch – certainly more fun than reading page after page of text,” proclaims the Switchmarketing website.  “But does it actually work? Absolutely!”

This sentiment was reinforced for me when I asked a savvy educational specialist about the best way to communicate about digital preservation on the web.   His advice went right to the point:  “short videos like you see on YouTube.”

Starting in 2009, the Library of Congress digital preservation team began producing videos (full disclosure: I am part of the team).  The idea was to promote digital preservation as a fundamental part of the Library’s mission and why it matters to individuals.  The assumption here was that both these messages would communicate best in a casual, entertaining way.

To this point, the team has produced videos on subjects such as Why Digital Preservation is Important for You, Digital Natives Explore Digital Preservation and Bridging Physical and Digital Preservation.  The videos are available on the digitalpreservation.gov website and also on YouTube.  They have proven reasonably popular, with YouTube view counts of around 1,000.

Another organization, DigitalPreservationEurope, has produced six animated videos reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons.  The action has Digiman and Team Digital Preservation facing off against a variety of evil characters bent on thwarting them.  The DPE videos have proven popular indeed, with Digital Preservation and Nuclear Disaster: An Animation racking up over 33,000 YouTube views.

These two bodies of work constitute the main corpus of what can be called digital preservation awareness videos.  I’d say that they represent a good start.  But the competition for attention is fierce.  Consider The 10 Most Watched YouTube Videos of 2010, which include The Bed Intruder Song and Annoying Orange Wazzup with 58 million and 29 million views respectively.

All this points to a the effectiveness of web video as a highly effective channel for communication, particularly for younger people.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project presents evidence that more “millennials” (ages 18-33) use the web for watching videos than they do for getting news or shopping.

The only challenge is to somehow work in digital preservation between autotuned declarations and talking fruit!