Archival Challenges of Digitisation: an Excursion to the “Centre national de l’audiovisuel”

On January 30th 2020, we were received by Alessandra Luciano, Digital Curator at the Centre National de l’Audiovisuel, who presented both the work of her team and the global functioning of the institution.

After a short introduction to the history and missions of the CNA, she presented the collections, how they entered the center (legal or voluntary deposit), how they are identified, kept and made accessible to the public, and the various issues regarding their preservation.

1. Preserving

A special session focused on digital files forensics, explaining the basics of identification and preservation of moving images.

We were shown examples of various formats of film stocks, and introduced to specific matters regarding their conservation. First films used a cellulose nitrate film base, highly unstable and flammable. Such stocks require specific disposals for their preservation, which can slow down their decay but not prevent it, making the possibility of transfer onto a more stable support especially interesting. The same can be said of cellulose acetate, which was initially thought to be a good replacement for nitrate but has more conservation issues (color fading and “vinegar syndrome”).

To preserve collections with such specific needs, and also the audiovisual history of Luxemburg, the CNA has large storage areas, including archival vaults, where the various can be kept in adapted conditions. The collections are regularly checked, and passive preservation can become active, putting forward specific conservation measures if need be.

 

2. Digitizing

A very important part of the preservation of the collections, and also for more recent periods of their enriching policy itself, concerns digitization. For non-digital supports, each piece entering the collection is digitized and both the digital file and the original support are kept in the collection. Such measure can limit the necessity to submit the original film to playback, thus preserving the original, and of course also making the document more accessible to the public. But in spite of the opportunities brought by such technologies, digitization also asks many unanswered questions.

For instance in the case of current technologies (computers, smartphones of various operating systems, social media platforms), there is no standardized technology that could allow institutions to collect tomorrow’s heritage. Which part of what we produce is actually kept is an issue that has not been solved yet.

Another issue is the fact that a digital file can not be kept in the same format forever. Due to the obsolescence of the software, it needs to be transferred regularly, deteriorating a little each time, leading to lesser and lesser quality copies. So it is not the perfect solution people once thought it would be, not to mention its environmental impact.

3. Specific case of testimonies of victims of genocides

Since the Nüremberg Trial (1945-1946), both professionals and the public at large are aware that films can be used as proofs in trials, and that they can constitute a way to document historical events. Archivists of the International Criminal Court in The Hague (Netherlands) have specific procedures to ensure the reliability and the preservation of such testimonies. The testimonies we collect as historians have a different aim, but many questions we ask ourselves tend to converge with their problems.

Films and interviews are a way to record the voices of survivors, so preserving them is a crucial first step. Keeping them alive must be the second one, and trying to give them meaning should be a third goal. To this regard historians and curators must work together to preserve and mediate this particular content, aware of the different uses and expectations of various audiences.

 

Conclusion

The workshop was a very interesting opportunity to discover the work of the CNA and the digital curator team, and the richness of the collections. It raised awareness to what we collect, how collections will be preserved and to which end.

While digitization is a helpful tool, that both allows cultural products such as films to reach a much wider audience and to be analyzed in ways no one could have thought possible few decades ago. On the other hand, digitzation is also just a tool, that does not replace the contact with the original in the case of “hard copies” but also provides many problems regarding long-term preservation.

 

References

Debono Emmanuel, « Le recueil et la valorisation des témoignages de survivants à l’âge du numérique », Études arméniennes contemporaines [En ligne], 5 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2015, consulté le 05 février 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/eac/845

Guyot Jacques et Thierry Rolland, Les archives audiovisuelles : histoire, culture et politique, Paris : Armand Colin, 2011

Hochstadt Steve, “The Social History of Jews in the Holocaust: The Necessity of Interviewing Survivors”, Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (83), 20 Jahre: Zentrum für Historische Sozialforschung: Teil II: Politik und Gesellschaft (1997), pp. 254-274. Visited on Februry 5th 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20756168?seq=1

Secretariat des Nations Unies, Circulaire du Secrétaire général relative aux Tribunaux pénaux internationaux : classification, maniement et consultation des documents et informations sensibles, ST/SGB/2012/3 en date du 20 juillet 2012

https://www.irmct.org/sites/default/files/documents/120720_secretary-general-bulletin_fr.pdf

 

Edited by Juliane Tatarinov

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