Who Cares for Community-Based Video?: A Report from the 2015 CLIR Hidden Collections unConference

Its the dog days of summer here at La MaMa Archives, and we’re using them to look back at the work we did over the last nine months. A lot of what we’ve done, we’ve done quietly. Among other things, we’ve finished cataloging the (massive) Pushcart Show Files record group and our Half-inch Open Reel Video materials; nearly finished cataloging several additional record groups (including the Pushcart Photograph Files, Pushcart Tour and Troupe files, and our Film materials); presented at several conferences and symposia; helped to organize a Wikipedia edit-a-thon and two CollectiveAccess documentation edit-a-thons; served as a host site for several student projects based out of NYU’s Moving Image Archiving Program; and written a wide range of project documentation, finding aids, new workflows, and policy documents for the archive.

In reviewing and evaluating this work, we decided that it would be worth publishing, here, some of the writing that emerged from this work. Today we’d like to share the first of these writings: a short piece by Jack Brighton (Director of New Media and Innovation, Illinois Public Media) describing the unConference session that La MaMa Archives Project Manager Rachel Mattson co-led with Yvonne Ng (senior archivist at WITNESS) and Rebecca Fraimow (NDSR resident at WGBH). The session was called “Alt-Archives: Community Based Video Collections.” And, as the session’s organizers wrote in their initial proposal, it was convened in order to consider “the archival challenge posed by video held by grassroots arts and activist organizations or in personal collections”:

In the past decade, moving image archivists have made great strides in developing tools to assist in the custodianship and management of both analog and born-digital video. However, many of these tools remain unavailable outside of large cultural heritage organizations — that is, they are too expensive, too reliant on technical expertise, or too esoteric for small organizations and individuals to access. In this session, participants will discuss the alternative ways in which community-based initiatives are reaching and empowering grassroots artists and activists with video collections. What questions does this work raise? What opportunities does it provide?  How might existing tools be made more accessible? Are there ways that large institutions might adapt their practices and policies to better serve the needs of community-based video collections?

This session will be led by archivists working on a range of grassroots video archival projects. At the human rights organization WITNESS (witness.org), Yvonne Ng has developed a set of strategies, materials, and trainings designed to help human rights activists implement solid archival practices; as a member of the XFR Collective (xfrcollective.wordpress.com) Rebecca Fraimow has helped develop a cost-effective, membership-based model to assist under-resourced artists in transferring legacy video to digital; and at the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (lamama.org) Rachel Mattson is piloting cost-effective tools and partnerships designed to improve the in-house video archival practices at small arts organizations.

We’re delighted to publish Brighton’s post-session reflections, below.


Who Cares for Community-Based Video?: A Report from the 2015 CLIR Hidden Collections Unconference, by Jack Brighton, Director of New Media and Innovation, Illinois Public Media, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Originally published on the CLIR-Connect list-serve.

Video has become essential to the work of small community organizations of all kinds: in education, civil and human rights, and the arts and cultural life of any community. These entities are typically passionate about their work, and dedicated to documenting and telling stories about their areas of concern.  Examples of such archives include media projects associated with the Occupy movement in New York and other cities, or a local arts agency documenting street performances.  In the wake of hurricane Katrina, filmmakers, community organizations, and academics documented the events and impacts of the unfolding disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.  Many community access cable TV stations record local music performances, and political and public events.

We know the materials in these community-based archives can be incalculably valuable as primary resources for the history and cultural heritage of the communities and subject areas they concern. In many cases they are documentary evidence of key events in the life of the community, including human rights abuses.

But many of these materials are among the most hidden of all hidden collections. The organizations producing them are typically interest-rich, but resource-poor. Maintaining a sustainable video archive within large institutions has proven challenging enough. For small community organizations, developing a sound archival practice is often difficult to even imagine.

I know this from talking with folks engaged in grassroots media work in my own community, and it was strongly echoed by the discussion that took place in this CLIR Unconference session. The question is how can we, the people who claim to have archival expertise and resources, begin to address the growing need for sustainable archival practice in these small organizations, in the absence of adequate local skills and resources?

Outreach, education, and intervention

A number of us have experience reaching out to community video archives in various ways. It’s often the case that the people involved understand that they have an archival problem – they don’t have the time or resources to catalog, properly store, digitize, migrate, and manage their media collections over time. So they need external help, sometimes just to know what they have and to prioritize dealing with it. We have some stories of success to tell about this:

–The Dance Heritage Coalition has developed templates for the creation of descriptive records for dance-related video materials. These are used by DHC-related organizations to get a better understanding of what video materials they have, before prioritizing what to digitize and preserve.

The XFR Collective in New York provides a variety of low-cost services to independent content creators for education, research, and cultural engagement. XFR Collective members have also made use of the DHC descriptive record templates in working with community organizations, an example of sharing good existing resources instead of reinventing them.

The Boston TV News Digital Library provides a number of information resources for archivists on its website, and is reaching out to other communities who have materials that could be part of their total collection of TV news video.

WITNESS provides an extensive online Activists’ Guide to Archiving Video, which includes how to “start archiving your video at the point of creation.” This is a very smart approach, since many people producing video don’t think about how to archive it until it’s too late!

WGBH managed a massive media content inventory project involving 120 public television and radio stations, providing funding and training for staff at local stations to create a complete inventory of their media collections.

Adventures in community archiving

This kind of outreach can lead to some interesting conversations. At the University of Illinois, we recently completed a campus-wide media survey to measure the size and shape of our media collections across all departments. Our work in this was informed by the excellent Media Preservation Survey conducted at Indiana University in 2008 and 2009. They warned us, and they were right: When you start asking people about their hidden media collections, sometimes they want to give them to you.

So it’s important to clarify expectations. We calmly explained that we were trying to solve only the first part of the problem: understanding what was there. As I like to say, if you don’t know what you have, you don’t really have it. This is the case with many media collections held by community and educational institutions. Media surveys, which gather general information about the nature and extent of the content, can clarify what we have and how to go about prioritizing preservation, digitization, and access. It would be helpful to share survey instruments and expertise among institutions doing this kind of work, along with guidelines on how to communicate the nature of the work to constituents along with way.

Requirements, sensitivites, and pitfalls

WITNESS provides training and support for people safely using video in their fight for human rights. A key word is “safely,” as people shooting video of human rights violations are often at considerable risk. If obtained by those perpetrating the violations, raw video may be used to identify those seeking to expose them. So WITNESS video archival practice includes very tight security and access restrictions, especially to the raw video content.

Other communities have cultural sensitivities involving access. For some Native American tribes, it’s important that access to their intellectual property and cultural heritage be restricted to members of the tribe.  Because of this cultural requirement, the IMLS and NEH supported the creation of the Mukurtu CMS, a free open source platform for indigenous communities to manage and share digital cultural heritage content.

And of course copyright remains a factor in many community media archives, as it does everywhere else.

The bottom line is if we want to “help” these communities develop a sustainable archival practice, we must take time to understand their needs and requirements as the key stakeholders of their content.

Question: How do we scale this work?

This Unconference discussion reflected a strongly shared understanding of the realities and gaps in archival practice in community organizations. We share a consensus that small, grassroots organizations have video collections that are vital as primary cultural heritage resources. The challenge is how to address the gaps. We suspect the most productive approach would be to consider the right work at the right scale.

We can easily agree: not every community organization that creates video needs to stand up its own reformatting laboratory and trusted digital repository. These are resource and skill-intensive activities that can at some level can be scaled. The question is at what scale?

Are there natural organizational linkages that can provide technology intensive archival services for community-based media-producing organizations? There may be, but it seems the answer isn’t known to those in local communities.

What else can be scaled, and what should be local to the organization and/or community?

What levels of scale are a good fit given the types of institutions currently available to provide archival services?

What kind of interventions would best address the gaps in skills and resources at the micro level, and allow local organizations to leverage the archival services that can occur at a larger scale?

Can we develop a new model for a collaborate ecology of media preservation that leverages existing resources in new ways?

Some of the participants in this discussion are already doing some of this work. It’s clear to all of us that if we combine resources and share knowledge, we can do it better. Addressing these questions in more detail, in the context of local requirements and potentially scalable services and resources, seems like our next step.

Full notes taken during the session are available here as a Google Doc.

Respectfully submitted on behalf of the session participants.