Archives at Risk: Protecting the World’s Identities. A look at The National Archives of Fiji as they digitise their film and videotape archive to preserve cultural heritage

by Adam Hodgkinson

Originally published on the website of the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage 2015

October 27, 2015 is World Day for Audiovisual Heritage; and this year’s theme is Archives at Risk: Protecting the World’s Identities. This theme is particularly timely, given that the next decade will witness either the salvation or the death of much of the world’s audiovisual physical archives. And right now is crunch time.

Technology obsolescence in the audiovisual market has transpired faster than expected and is emerging as the greatest risk to the longevity of audiovisual archives. While obsolescence was inevitable, the speed by which it has occurred has caught many by surprise, when as recently as 5 years ago media degradation was the paramount concern. Events like Sony's announcement to cease all production of VTR hardware should be a stark warning of what the future holds for videotape support. And with the demise of technology, the skills and knowledge that are vital to keeping the remaining obsolete videotape technology running are also lost. There is mounting consensus around the globe that the next 10 years will be make or break for the survival of much of the World’s rich and diverse time-based media collections that still remains on fragile physical media formats.

While obsolescence has suddenly become a hot issue, degradation continues to pose a major risk to content housed on videotape, audio tape and film. Videotape and audiotape has a finite shelf life, and motion picture film too will eventually fail, irrespective of the care it is given. As each year passes, deteriorating media becomes an increasingly greater concern. Some people feel comfort in the knowledge that media being stored in a controlled environment will experience degradation issues more slowly, such as chemical decomposition of acetate film or failing binding agents used in videotape and audio tape media; and that the life of the physical carrier can be prolonged for a number of years. And while this may buy some time for the longevity of the media, this may be cold comfort when the machinery and skills required to play, digitise and preserve videotape and audio tape media have become extinct.

One story that highlights the fragility of physical audiovisual media is the experience of the National Archives of Fiji. The following account illustrates that even when there is significant pressure on a country, the value of heritage can outweigh other needs in an effort to safe guard a nation’s audiovisual history.

Poised on the edge of destruction, the National Archives of Fiji recognised the perils facing its audiovisual collection if it did not act. The Fijian Ministry of Information, National Archives and Library Services were responsible for maintaining and preserving the extensive cultural heritage of the Pacific Island State. The audiovisual archive collection in their custodianship comprised of in excess of 2,400 assets, including 16mm film, U-matic and Betacam SP videotapes. This collection represented close to 50 years of the nation’s history.

Like so many archives, and especially those in developing nations, resources were stretched. The archive did everything in its power to stem the effects of degradation; however, housed in the harsh environment of the tropics, the decomposition of the physical items was inevitable. The collection exhibited a range of degradation issues, such as hydrolysis and vinegar syndrome, with much of the collection suffering from mould infestation; all of which is to be expected of an aging collection in a humid tropical environment.

Opeta Alefaio, Director of National Archives of Fiji, said, “We had a responsibility to future generations to preserve our rich heritage to a global standard. The tropical conditions inherent to Fiji  put pressure on our videotape, audio tape and film collection, and while it had been well managed, we recognised an impending need to migrate the collection to a digital format to mitigate the growing risk associated with obsolete videotape and film media.”

In the face of mounting national priorities, the Fijian Archive realised that time was of the essence and while other priorities were at hand, if funding was not secured for the videotape and film archive the collection would be lost to the nation’s people forever. With the funding secured, the Government went to tender in search of a partner with the capabilities needed to digitise the videotape and film content. After an extensive selection process, Fiji appointed DAMsmart.

Through a collaborative development process over a number of months, the National Archives of Fiji and DAMsmart developed goals and objectives for the collection that balanced best practice, with the needs of the collection, resources available and the skills of the organisation for the ongoing management of the collection. After the project was scoped and work programs were established, the collection was relocated to Australia for the undertaking of the project. DAMsmart was called upon to provide onground packing services and to coordinate the temporary collection relocation. Our comprehensive media conservation and preparation services were used to repair, refresh and optimise the media prior to digitisation the content. The concept of moving the collection was a significant hurdle for the country, yet one that had to be offset against the risks of the not letting it go.

The project required significant time, energy and expertise for the manual intervention to restore the physical videotape and film collection to a suitable condition to allow it to be digitised. As a result of the project, the National Archives of Fiji took delivery of a working digital media archive. The content was encoded to IMX50.MXF for production purposes and H.264.MOV for proxies. Technical metadata was captured through the process to ensure provenance and the migration process information was tightly associated with each individual digital video file. DAMsmart recovered more than 97% of the titles from the physical archive, despite the poor condition in which the collection started. The collection was archived to a Media Asset Management system using open standards such as XML and LTFS to provide certainty (within reason of current practices) for the foreseeable future.

The new digital media archive, the digital content and the videotape and film collection was repatriated to Fiji at the completion of the project. Knowledge about the use and management of the new digital archive was transferred to the National Archives of Fiji team to ensure they were equipped with the capabilities to maintain the collection for the future.

The previously inaccessible and somewhat unknown content was now at the fingertips of the Fijian people. Since the completion of the project, the National Archives has worked intensively to enrich the archive through the addition of descriptive metadata to build the cultural value of the collection. It has worked to share the benefits of the videotape and film digitisation project through the creation of educational content derived from the archive and distributed to the community. The archive has also worked in partnership with external organisations, such as the BBC, as requests have been received to access parts of the collection.

This footage has (re)introduced the public of Fiji to cultural artefacts and practices that had passed from memory. As Pacific societies become more “modern” parts of their culture have become dormant. Salvaging the content from the inaccessible and failing physical archive has highlighted this in a very tangible way, and provided a means to (re)discover that knowing, a way to reconnect with lost elements of the Fijian identity, which current and future generations must continually have access to. Examples of this include:

- Qalowaqa – a rite accorded to a visiting woman of high birth by women of high birth is a practice known by some of the older generation, but prior to the release of this footage was unknown to younger generations. Qalowaqa can be viewed here.

- Another noteworthy piece of footage concerns the proper protocols for the installation of high chiefs. An extremely intricate process, it needs to be properly adhered to, and is different from place to place. This means that the specificity of particular rites are often unique and need to be preserved. Here the Yaqona ceremony for the installation of the Tui Nayau is captured for the benefit of the people of Lakeba where knowledge of it had faded. The Yaqona Ceremony for Tui Nayau can be viewed here.

- There is also footage that captures certain masi (bark cloth) designs which had ceased being produced by artisans. This footage is now being used to take this art form (on a particular island) back to the level it was once at. Masi making in Moce can be viewed here.

- There is also very important footage capturing traditional weddings between Chiefly families whose publicising on free to air television has (re)educated the larger public of the sacred rites and observances surrounding these events. Such footage is a rich source of historical, genealogical, political, psychological, and cultural knowledge. Ratu Epeli Nailatikau and Adi Koila's Wedding can be viewed here.

Few people would argue that there is a perfect remedy to guarantee the safe passage of legacy content for generations to come, whether it be about the standardisation of a preservation codec, the most suitable storage medium, HD verse 2k verse 4k and beyond for film, or whether film is still the best media for storing moving image. However, it can be argued that with the speed of change in technology we are in age of constant flux and 'waiting for perfect’ is futile. Time is running out for all content that is currently housed on physical audiovisual mediums, especially videotape and audio tape media. As recognised by the National Archives of Fiji, now is the time to act. It is time to lay down a plan and kick start initiatives to digitise your videotape, audio tape and film content to ensure that collections are preserved and accessible for future generations. It is time to ensure that our generation will be recognised for our efforts in protecting our generation's identity by ensuring the continuation of our audiovisual history.