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Guest Blog: Archivist Sophie talks Digitisation

Mar 12 2018

I'm Sophie, an archivist for a luxury London retailer. I have been invited to write a guest post for R3:store Studios about digitisation, from an archival point of view.

We are in the midst of the Digital Age. The proliferation of smart phones, tablets, laptops, computers and almost constant access to the internet means that we are always connected, and there is an expectation that information is and should be easily accessible through this digital connection.

Archives can provide access to information contained within their collections. Information which has been accumulated in a wide range of formats, including anything and everything from manuscripts, letters, textiles and artworks, to film and photographic collections. Each format has different requirements for long-term preservation, and an archivist must take these into consideration when managing their collections.

Many archives contain moving film collections. However, many of the film formats which have been used over the years have become superseded through technological advances, and through these advances, some formats are at risk of obsolescence or loss. I work in an archive which contains a substantial film and photographic collection. Within this collection is a set of magnetic tapes, ranging from the 1980s to 2000s, and comprised primarily of VHS and a small number of Betacam. The information on these tapes is at risk of loss for two reasons. Firstly, because we cannot access the content, as technology has advanced at such a rapid rate and we no longer have the necessary equipment. Secondly, because the inherently fragile nature of the tapes means that they are extremely vulnerable to damage and degradation from environmental factors, poor storage and handling. Magnetic tapes can degrade approximately 10-20% over the course of 10-25 years, and as some of our collection dates from the 1980s, the tapes are fast approaching the end of their usable life. Visual records are some of the most sought-after items within an archive, and our choice to digitise this collection therefore comes from a dual strategy of preservation and access.

Digitisation of film collections is often an expensive activity for archives to undertake. The up-front cost of digitisation can be pretty hefty, but as the size of the incoming digital files can be quite large, the ongoing cost of additional digital storage to house these files must also be factored into the project. And let’s not forget that the time to facilitate such a project can be costly too. Many archives simply do not have the resources to digitise everything, and their choice to digitise particular collections is therefore usually motivated by a combination of the collection’s condition and use, and the archive’s overall strategy and access to funding. Alongside the resources required for such a project, archivists must also bear in mind that current digital formats and technologies will eventually become out-dated too. Digitisation, therefore, does not equal digital preservation. Once material has been digitised, the digital files will then require their own ongoing processes of management and digital preservation to ensure that they remain accessible too.

Projects to digitise archival film collections may be a complex and costly process, but digitisation is a fantastic tool for preservation and enabling access to a wider audience, before the content is lost forever. Thanks to the experience and expertise of R3:store Studios, archives can seek advice and guidance in the best possible methods of preserving their films and breathing new life into their collections.


R3store would like to thank Sophie for taking the time to share her experience and insights!