Preserving AV Materials Across the Atlantic

A collection of reel-to-reel tapes from the 1980s. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

In funding specific preservation or access projects, many recent Scholarly Communications grants for international research libraries prioritize collaborative, field-driven efforts to develop new infrastructure, standards, or services. These efforts can later be widely replicated to increase access for researchers. Mellon’s 2016 grant to the British Library in support of preserving the UK’s National Sound Archive—a collection of over 6.5 million audio recordings of music, speech and wildlife audio recordings from the 1880s to today—is one prime example of this important work.

Will Prentice, the head of audio preservation and 17-year veteran at the British Library said, “The Mellon grant turbocharges the rest of the preservation work we are doing.”  He’s referring to Save our Sounds, an initiative the Library launched in 2015 to preserve the UK’s rare and unique sound recordings, which include author J.R.R. Tolkien taking a gentleman’s trip to a local tobacco shop as part of an educational recording; a fragile shellac disc recording from 1927 of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw; a live recording of Noël Coward addressing the audience of the Lyric Theatre in 1947 on the opening night of his play; and a cellulose nitrate disc on which library staff were shocked to find previously-unknown alternate versions of composer Anton Karas iconic soundtrack for the classic 1949 film The Third Man. 


Audio recording of George Bernard Shaw, 1927. Courtesy of the British Library.

The British Library is also establishing an archive for digital downloads that are thoroughly representative of the UK music publishing industry, which publishes approximately 10,000 a week, noted Prentice, an ethnomusicologist by training.

The Library is also helping to improve on the mere eight percent of radio output that is currently archived each year. “Radio is a great way of taking the temperature of a culture so we are building a national radio archive,” Prentice says. This vision led to the development a repository portal so that companies (e.g., recording studios and music publishers) or individuals (e.g., wildlife enthusiasts, independent radio producers) outside the library can submit audio content to be preserved.

Now, with Mellon Foundation support, the library is taking on two big infrastructure projects that will support audiovisual preservation around the globe. First, the library is standardizing the metadata of audiovisual material and how that material is displayed on websites. “There’s a standardization of metadata for images, whether it’s an image of a 13th century manuscript or photo taken yesterday,” explains Prentice, “But we have not—until now—standardized the metadata for time-based media like audio and video so that the content across multiple collections and libraries can be found, watched or listened to. That’s important.”

Second, the same grant is allowing the Library to develop a system to make it easier for researchers and other creative producers around the world to discover audiovisual content. This attempts to solve a perpetual problem: “Sometimes you have one person who uses multiple names, like how Brian May applies to the guitarist from Queen but also the late Australian composer who scored the Mad Max movies. And sometimes you have the reverse, you have Lady Gaga and also a composer and lyricist called Stefani Germanotta—and it’s the same person,” explains Prentice. “So, if you want to pay royalties to one of them or ask for permission to use their creative output you have to know who it is.”

The solution is to start identifying people who create audiovisual content by what are called “ISNIs”—the individuated numbers that have long been used in the book world to identify specific authors—including those who may write under various pseudonyms. “We are building a registration service where we assign numbers to everyone who created audio and visual materials,” Prentice says. “And we are going to encourage people to use them because if you get past a critical mass of assigning these, the innovation starts to be more valuable and more usable.” This is of huge benefit to scholarly researchers but also to anyone producing creative content that wants to incorporate content created by others.

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