Preserving Our Digital Heritage

Preserving Our Digital Heritage

When I was invited by UNESCO to address their delegates on the future of digital heritage, I knew that a tipping point had been reached. UNESCO, long concerned with world heritage sites such as the Taj Mahal, extended its remit to include something far more ephemeral.

This tale turns on changing technologies, paradigm shifts in the notion of the archive, and the very pressing needs of our newly emerging and fast fading audiovisual heritage. It’s led me to speak to various archival associations in the Hague, London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Tokyo. It’s a story that is located between our memory institutions and our study of media. And, of course, it is a tale with stakes: the survival of our collective memory and the traces of our past, and the crucial issue of our access to it.

Let’s step back and consider one of the nodal points in film studies—the 1978 International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) meetings held in Brighton, England. Celebrated as one of the first major collaborations between the archive and the academy, the Brighton meetings triggered a period of intellectual ferment in film studies and an era of significant investment in film archival preservation and restoration. But in hindsight, it also seems that this classic ‘win-win’ scenario was a bit overdetermined. Television’s deregulation (the early 1970s in the US and a bit later in most European countries) coupled with the rapid penetration of the VCR not only transformed the notion of audiovisual heritage and the field of film studies, but they sparked an awareness of the commercial value of that heritage for content providers. Although this would translate into important archival initiatives (and a burgeoning field of study), the nitrate and acetate past continued to decay faster than it could be preserved.

The digital turn had a similar effect. It offered new pots of money to archives, new forms of access to academics and consumers, new paradigms for media study (CMS!), and new opportunities for the commercial sector. But there was a crucial difference. Digitalization also introduced new preservation and restoration technologies and new distribution possibilities. While the need for preservation has long been urgent (only 2% of Europe’s 100 million hours of film and television has been preserved), once reframed as a digital initiative, the money has been flowing and flowing fast. The Dutch alone, one of Europe’s smallest producers, have just funded a digitalization initiative that will accommodate 137,200 hours of video, 22,500 hours of film, 123,900 hours of audio and 2.9 million photos.

Predictably, there have been battles about the aesthetic status of the grain vs the pixel, about formatting standards, media refresh rates, the latest image recognition technologies, and metadata protocols. But strangely absent from most discussions has been the nature of the archive itself: by default, most plans simply port new technologies into old archives. Even without recourse to Foucault’s insights on the archive, it doesn’t take much to realize that this institutional behavior mimics the obtuseness of the mainstream music industry.

In my talks with the Association of Moving Image Archivists and major European television archives (BBC, INA, ZDF, etc.), I’ve been stressing digital affordances not simply as a matter of new tool sets, but as ways of organizing data and user communities. Napster showed how a distributed logic and anonymous, bottom-up participation could digitize and store vast amounts of content in an efficient and low cost manner. Grid computing projects demonstrate how thousands of interlinked computers offer powerful and cost-efficient strategies for massive calculations. And precedents like LOCKSS (‘Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe’) prove that distributed and highly redundant holdings offer an effective and safe way to store – and make available – library materials. These and other examples offer lessons that we can draw on as we design the archives of the future. Steady increases in computer storage capacities and transmission speeds (Alcatel-Lucent’s recent demonstration of 25.6 terabits per second), the advantages of dynamic social tagging systems over static metadata, together with the ever-growing mountain of materials to be archived and organized, combine to make this new conception of the archive not only desirable but essential.

I’ve also been arguing a second point. While audiovisual archives are facing enormous pressures from the backlog of endangered films and tape, we must also learn from our failure to intervene at a much earlier date. Today’s digital culture – email, blogs, webpages, wikis, MMORPGs, and so on—lacks a fixed place on the archival agenda, although Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, with over 50 billion archived pages since 1996, offers an inspiring and extraordinary exception. While most film archivists know precisely what they would do if they could return to 1915 (and it involves hoarding films, records, ephemera), our newest media are transparent, and more interesting for what comes next than what recedes into the past. They also bring some serious complications with them: how might we best capture dynamic and ever-changing sites? How should we deal with links? Patterns of use and networking? These and other questions require that we think creatively while we still have the opportunity to gather data. Fortunately, UNESCO’s Charter on the Preservation of the Digital Heritage calls in part for precisely this sort of attention.

There are certainly challenges ahead. Rethinking the archive adds one more compelling reason to rethink the current intellectual property regime; and the archiving of use patterns requires that we think carefully about privacy implications. But our memory institutions have the potential to play an even more vital role in helping us negotiate our way into the future, while maintaining contact with the experiences of the past. Access is a precondition to fluency, and at least in Europe, it seems as though the message has gotten through!

For more, see W. Uricchio, “Moving Beyond the Artifact: Lessons from Participatory Culture” in Preserving Digital Heritage: Principles and Policies (PDF, UNESCO, 2007).

William Uricchio

About William Uricchio

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.


Share this Post