Innovation and Audiovisual Preservation

I was nominated for AMIA’s Alan Stark award and received it at a ceremony presented by Reto Kromer at the AMIA conference. It was a privilege to be acknowledged with an award that focuses on work in innovation within the field. This was right after the 2016 election and still not long after the death of Gene Wilder. Here’s what I ended up saying at the ceremony.

Thank you, Reto, for the kind words. I’m very thankful to my friends and collaborators and AMIA for considering me. This has already been the most emotional AMIA for me, even more so receiving the Alan Stark award and your encouragement. I’d like to speak briefly on the topic of AMIA as catalyst for and a dependant of innovation.

I first came to AMIA in 2002 as a hopeful film preservationist. I attended the Selznick School and learned every aspect of film preservation comprehensively from optical to chemical and mechanical to perceptual. My first archival job at Democracy Now had no film, but early digital recordings. Applying a Selznick School education to a Democracy Now archive requires some serious innovation. My Selznick experience taught me the feeling of controlling a collection but I knew I was struggling for any control at work. From nitrate to MiniDV we have similar objectives but very different tools and it is very reasonable to find that innovation we require needs improvement or does not yet exist at all.

Often archivists working on new technological challenges must quickly adopt the tools of related communities, but any Mac user knows the pain of trying to maintain those tools once that related community has moved on. I acknowledge that archivists have to grab onto what works to get the job done, but we can be more strongly empowered by creating, contributing, and supporting for ourselves. Just as we need to open our decks and projectors to understand, tinker and fix, just as we need to run our hands along a film print on a bench or open a cassette, we have a similar need with the new digital equivalents. Whether analog or digital, we should support our own hackers.

Bringing innovation into one’s work can produce meaningful personal accomplishments; still more meaningful when such innovations can be a solution shared with others. However, the more impactful innovations may be those that also act as a building block or foothold for others to build upon or learn from. For innovation within a community, being a contributor or supporter can create a bigger impact than being a lone pioneer.

AMIA has grown rapidly and I do not consider this as simply an expansion of what we already were, but as ever-changing with new voices and skills to welcome. However sometimes it feels as if we’re several simultaneous conferences. In one room we’ll lament about a digital dark age while in the next we’ll be better exploiting the opportunities of digital preservation. In one room we’ll discuss how to make diverse collections available online simply while another room demonstrates the distinct power of unique presentation forms, from cinematic to mobile.

I’m grateful that this year’s AMIA, through the good work of our volunteers and instigators, seeks to innovate the form, governance, and environment of our field in order to promote opportunity, showcase more voices, and meld our ideas and visions. Recent AMIA conferences had me return to work with a focus on innovating within the archive; however this AMIA has very strongly motivated a desire to innovate from the archive outward.

The field of archiving can contain its share of discouragement to innovation. Trying to improve our existing opportunities, can be met with resistance by those who consider that further research and innovation are not needed in an area that has already seen a pioneer or found a conceptual best practice. Or by those that consider innovation as credible only from a so-called expert. Additionally organizing our communities under uncooperative terms such as ‘analog vs digital’ limits our abilities to work stronger together. Best practices can be better, gatekeepers can be surpassed, and we together can innovate for ourselves.

In the 35mm print of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Wonka is demonstrating an invention of lickable fruity wallpaper. In the variable-area audio track of the print, Verona Salt ridicules Wonka to claim that no one has heard of a Snoozberry before. Willy Wonka changes his tone and quotes Arthur O’Snaughessy to assert: “We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams”. To the extent we can put ourselves into action as curators, educators, activists, and archivists, please make music and please dream dreams. Thanks again, AMIA, peace.

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