City of Angels : looking back on the Screening the Future 2012 conference

LA. Sunshine, palm trees, fancy cars, movers and shakers, automatic lawn sprinklers, it was all to see. You think it’s a caricature, but it’s not. Who was there – the university research community and the Hollywood studios were heavily represented as well as a pretty significant group of library school students, logical given the venue was Los Angeles, home of the motion picture industry and at least two major universities offering media and library studies programs. Not much of a European – American exchange as the organizers had hoped as only a handful of Europeans attended – but that didn’t lessen the audience’s enthusiasm.


So what’s (as one might ask…) the hot and skinny ?

I think there is a strong new player in the digital preservation service providers market, universities and university consortia. USC (the University of Southern California, the conference host) is a good example. Having built large digital collection management infrastructures (that in some cases, such as USC’s, include access to super computers) to accommodate increasingly mandated requirements to preserve and make research data available to a wider public, these institutions are finding new funding resources by opening their services to new clients.

Another, the UC Curation Center (who presented during the master class on “Managing the cost of archiving”) was originally set up to provide digital preservation services to the 12 University of California campuses, but has also moved beyond that original client base.

I think these institutions may have a jumpstart in the ‘trust’ area, as they have demonstrated longevity, commitment and experience in large scale IT undertakings. And given that pure profit is not the motivation, but rather recuperating a reasonable cost, their pricing is not out of this world. They might just find it easier to move ahead of the purely commercial digital preservation operators in the market.

Richard Wright, in one of his recent works, quoted Voltaire as saying “best is the enemy of good”. That sentiment was definitely expressed multiple times over the 2 1/2 day conference. In different contexts I heard “it’s not the perfect model, but it’s good enough for now”; “don’t wait for the best technology to get started”; “we found this was best for the job at hand and the technology available”. We were all urged to “design your assets to achieve a high success rate” but don’t wait. One had to think of the old Nike commercials “Just do it”.

The concept “Selection Policy” is making a comeback! There is no doubt, that after years of ‘we can save everything because storage is cheap’, everyone admits that not only is there is too much stuff and we’ll never save it all; in fact, we don’t need to save it all and that’s okay. The traditional records management terms ‘retention and disposal’ are back in the av archive vocabulary as are talk of limited contracts between producers and repositories (20 years), ‘what do you mean by forever’, ‘some stuff is just going to be lost’ (operator error and insider abuse sited as the two most massively underreported occurrences ) are in the conversation. The fact is that media, technology and user needs are just too fluid to allow anyone to comfortably predict how long collections can or need to be preserved. David Rosenthal said ‘planning for forever is impossible’. It’s actually a relief to hear. Let’s get back to managing these massive collections.

And finally I was again reminded of how diverse the audiovisual community is and thus, how different their digital preservation solutions may be. Hollywood studios, university research collections, the visual and performing arts communities, all with very different mandates, funding, users and thus approaches. But on my plane ride to New York I met another type. The man sitting next to me asked “did I hear you mention film preservation?” We talked and he gave me his business card. Next to his name it says: “Justin is a video nerd. Seriously, it’s a problem. But maybe he can help.” He then went on to tell me he buys old videocassettes of Japanese animation from the 80’s and 90’s which he sees disappearing from the market (even in Japan) and thinks, wait a minute, someone needs to save this great stuff. And he’s transferring it to digital file and saving it on DVD. Okay, so some copyright issues might come to mind but on the other hand, he’s not repackaging it and selling it. He’s migrating it to another format and keeping it because he doesn’t think anyone is and that concerns him. He needs to connect with the community we’re in – but has a passion and a drive and he’s just doing it. Go for it I say. We need all the help we can get.

Beth Delaney