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Disaster, Calacas, and Metadata: A FIAT/IFTA Conference Report

Not lament, but fact: TV has changed. With it, the job of broadcast archivists. “Archivists need to change”, proclaimed Matt White at the opening talks of this year’s FIAT/IFTA World conference. White produced the box office hit The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, built from crowdsourced concert footage. The question is: haven’t we, as a profession, changed profoundly already?

 Looking back

FIAT/IFTA is the world’s federation for television archivists. It was established 40 years ago by a conglomerate of – back then mostly invisible – professionals in Europe. As current president Bríd Dooley mentioned, the organisation no longer focuses on television alone, yet on audiovisual archives in a broader sense – as business models for television and its very definition have changed so thoroughly under the digital deluge.

Its world conference takes place in cities all around the globe. The last time it occurred in Latin America was almost 20 years ago (1999, in Chile). Having Mexico City as the host location – still recovering from its most devastating earthquake in 32 years, hitting the metropolis only a month earlier – was the perfect occasion to celebrate one of our foremost practitioners, thinkers and guides in the profession. Richard Wright, a BBC Archives engineer for decades who after his retirement still consults and advocates for AV archives under the nomer Preservation Guide, spent parts of his childhood in there.

Although disaster relief was not high on the conference agenda (broadcasters usually being of a size that can factor in nature’s excesses), it did invite private archive Permanencia Voluntaria’s director, who after a widely picked up call for crowdfunding felt more support from archives far and wide than she ever had before. We can only applaud the heroic efforts of the 50+ staff of technicians, hosts, local organizers and translators for an overtly smooth conference experience in such challenging conditions!

Awards not only went to special people in the field, they also went to special projects., the online, global radio dial we at Sound and Vision created with Studio Puckey for the Transnational Radio Encounters project (and which also served as a beacon for people hit by hurricans recently) won the annual award for Most Innovative Use of Archive. Equal honours in this celebration of Archive feats and uses went to Ina for its Holocaust documentary The Smuggler and its Charges and SAVA’s Visual Memorandum of China’s Modern Education.

Looking around

Conferences are a great time to take stock of what colleagues elsewhere are grappling with, finding solutions for, or take on beyond their call of duty. One of the big dividers – still, in 2017 – is whether or not archives have leapt beyond the ravine of digitization and brought their assets (videotapes, film cans, magnetic recordings) into the digital domain.

An interesting outcome of FIAT/IFTA’s Preservation & Migration Commission will be a digitization tender guideline for video – bringing together knowledge from partner organisations as well as vendors and existing guidelines. Publication is foreseen for the next conference, but hopefully a public review (and possibility translation?) will be accessible earlier.

Once digitization is set in motion, as Rita Marques from TV Cultura showed, archivists can figure out how to make sense of it, “valorize” it, entice people of all walks of life to come in and use it. Patrick Monette from Radio Canada showed a finely measured social media campaign by his fully staffed archive team that brings digitized reels and topics to the front range of public attention – re-training archivists to Digital Editors in the process. Maja Drabczyk from the Polish Audiovisual Institute FINA showcased the multi-national undertaking Music in Movement: a streamlined online platform to showcase the mutual influence of contemporary classical composers from Estonia, Poland, The Netherlands and France – a project we hope gains a lot more traction over the coming months.

Other acquaintances in the whack-a-mole series of teeth-gnawing problems addressed at archive conferences include copyright – the clearing approach to which Sound and Vision’s copyright lawyer Maartje Hulsenbeck presented – and metadata, always metadata. Virginia Bazán Gil from RTVE gave two enticing talks – first, about how they compared the competencies of various cloud providers to automate descriptive metadata generation. A second talk showcased the challenge of merging a mass of thesauri from various corners of the company.

With presentations by companies such as Etiqmedia and IBM, it seemed clear that archivists all want to get started with automated metadata annotation, but have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. The more metadata assets you already have, the better equipped they are to be described automatically. But it is precisely those that are lacking of any indices that would benefit the most of it. Stacking various techniques seems like a good way to start adding more metadata – starting with speech recognition, then Named-entity Recognition, etc. Another approach can be applying them thematically, e.g. on persons you know are in the collection. VizRT and VintageCloud’s presentations indicated that MAM vendors are busily integrating various previously existing micro-services in their core offerings.

Several sessions (from Walter Forsberg and Stefan Elnabli as well as Sylvester Stöger) stressed the need and availability of  open standards and open formats for smaller budgets and collections. The field now has various options for lossless compression that hitherto were not as readily available, with the archive- ready AS–07 format based on MXF, and the PREFORMA-backed FFv1/MKV standardisation and MediaConch toolset.

A hot topic for the FIAT/IFTA community remains the selection of tools and systems to manage the deluge of assets. A comparison I love, once made by US public television network Thirteen, is that archiving television material is like “archiving droplets under a waterfall”. And this is before Netflix and Amazon and Facebook Live arrived on the scene. Archivists scramble therefor to find buckets large enough to capture said droplets.

Comparisons abounded: Tim Manders from Sound and Vision spoke of a “house” (of information management) that needed to be designed and built. Claude Mussou from Ina spoke about rearranging their separate silos into one public “lake” of data that all users could likely make use of. The head of collections from Mexico’s Fonoteca Nacional, after FIAT/IFTA’s annual “state of MAM” survey, wanted to know whether there would not be an easily refererrable overview of existing systems and capabilities out there – such as already exist for DAMs and collection management systems. A task that doesn’t seem impossible to me, as long as enough people are willing to spend some time and effort on it.

The conference made time for a format it called Expert Tables – an excellent occasion to meet people around a specific topic. Be that “cloud” solutions (a term swung around as a messiah for any aspect of our daily troubles), academic research (hello VIEW Journal!) or the session Ina colleague Delphine Wibaux and I organized – an enriching conversation with people around the table, who had experienced our own FRAME and Winter School trainings, national programmes, or IASA’s train the trainer programme for digitising indigenous tribe’s sonic collections, yet still felt inadequate to the variety knowledge & skills an audiovisual archivist needs to apply.

Looking forward

Conferences are not just a time to take stock of the present and celebrate how far we’ve come, but also to put on our thinking hats and peer into the nebulous future. We collaborated with Peter B. Kaufman on spearheading an AV Think Tank, that would outline the biggest challenges for our future. The FIAT/IFTA conference was an excellent setting to ask for feedback on the recommendations we laid out.

We look forward to next year’s conference in Venice, to explore how much more the profession will have changed by then.

Blog report with thanks to Tim Manders, Johan Oomen, Tom de Smet, Maartje Hülsenbeck, and Jo Ana Morfín.

2017-10-25: Updated after publication for readability, with small grammar and spelling corrections.
2017-10-26: Edited to correct the assumption that FIAT/IFTA’s World Conference had never before taken place in Latin America. In fact it was already in South-America twice: in Rio in 1982, hosted by TV Globo, and in Santiago de Chile in 1999, hosted by TVN. Thanks to Brecht Declercq for the correction.