This is the first post in a two part series exploring the work of Brian Davis, the Digital Production Unit Supervisor, which emphasizes the importance of digitization and digital preservation in Special Collections and the Valley Library, and the field more broadly.
What has your career path been like? What got you interested in videotape digitization and digital preservation in the first place?
It’s been broad and a bit random. I say that because I didn’t take the traditional path and sort of backed into the archives/digitization/digital preservation thing that I do.
I’ve been at OSU Libraries & Press for almost six years years, and part of SCARC for two of those years. Just before coming to OSU, I worked as a Media and Digital services Librarian for a small liberal arts college. Although overseeing a number of things, my primary responsibility was managing a media production lab that was open to all faculty, staff, and students. Along with my student staff, it was my job to provide instruction and assistance with a variety of projects ranging from building posters and presentations to providing lecture capture services for professors and leading monthly technology workshops. Although there isn’t much crossover from this job to my current one, I did learn quite a bit about managing students and projects.
Prior to that I worked as a Digital Production Developer at Duke University Libraries. I was focused on three primary areas in that position; digitization, programming, and digital preservation. Of all the positions that I’ve held, this one is the most closely related to what I do here.
I do have a background in archives and special collections. I began working at Arizona State University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections department in 2003, initially as a digitization technician, but I eventually became the visual materials archivist. My position, inconspicuously titled Academic Associate for Media Development, was that of film and video archivist at first. Then our acting photo archivist left a couple years into my position. At that point my responsibilities were expanded to include all of the photographic materials. To be honest, I was in way over my head, as I was still managing most of our digitization (including audiovisual digitization) and getting started with digital preservation. This is when I realized that I enjoyed the technology-focused responsibilities of my job more than the more traditional archivist’s parts (e.g. processing, collecting, reference, collections management). More than half my time each week was devoted to providing reference services, which didn’t leave much time for the rest of my responsibilities.
My time at Arizona State is when I became interested in audiovisual materials, but the initial spark started in the late 90’s. I worked installing exhibits at an art museum and worked as movie theater projectionist. At the museum, I got a crash course in materials handling and storage as I assisted curatorial staff with whatever they needed. The movie theater was focused on showing indie and foreign language films. Most of the prints we got weren’t produced in great quantities and many were already in poor condition, so I soon became aware of the general need for film preservation. My experiences from both of these jobs have had an impact on the work I do today.
When I arrived at Arizona State and saw the telecine machine in the audiovisual lab, I jumped right in and started inspecting, cleaning, and transferring 16mm film. In addition to motion picture film, we also had a number of large videotape collections. We were the repository for Arizona PBS and I was asked to do videotape transfers from that collection soon after I started. This was before I really knew what I was doing. It was a great learning experience for me, as I could run over to the Arizona PBS studios, which were on campus at the time, pick up some tapes to accession and get technical help from the broadcast technicians that worked there. They were especially helpful when we were getting our 1” open reel video player operational in our digitization lab.
Arizona State is also where I was first exposed to digital preservation. I had been involved with programming to some degree since the 90’s, but it was a visit from Bill Comstock to ASU in 2006 that put me on that path. Bill managed digitization at the Harvard Library and I owe a lot to him. I’ve been involved with digital preservation ever since that meeting. I learned from Bill that there’s a large amount of information embedded into files that could be utilized. I also learned how to insert additional information into files using terminal commands to write to TIFF tags.
At the time, standardizing technical metadata was a big project for the Library of Congress as they were developing the MIX standard. At Arizona State, we were following along behind them, making similar metadata decisions for the library. I was specifically tasked with deciding what NISO Z39.87 elements should be in our technical metadata standard. While this work might sound a bit dry, it was pretty exciting for me to be able to couple my interest in programming with audiovisual materials and photography, the other things that interested me most. Once I started putting together scripts and began automating workflows, things progressed pretty quickly for me.
How have you seen the field change and evolve in the past 15 years?
It terms of digitization, things have been on a pendulum of sorts, slowly swinging from one side to the other for the last decade. When I began working in digitization, everyone’s goal was to capture the best quality they could for virtually everything that they were digitizing. We were primarily focused on digitizing nitrate negatives, glass plate negatives, and audiovisual materials at Arizona State. Digitizing at a high level made sense for us because these are materials for which you really do need to do provide preservation-level digitization.
When the OCLC published Shifting Gears, it brought up a lot of good points about what we were doing and why we were doing it. When I got to Duke, we took a hard look at our workflows to see where we might be able to make some changes. It’s always been my opinion that you can work more efficiently, but if your goal is to just to work faster, then you’re going to make mistakes and potentially damage collection materials. We made a number of informed decisions to minimize certain parts of our workflows, like post processing of image files. That cut overall digitization times pretty substantially.
Post-scan editing is also something that I stopped students from doing in the DPU when I began in 2012. Students were scanning things poorly and then editing them in Photoshop to try to compensate for the bad initial scan. Below is screenshot comparing a glass plate negative that was scanned by a student to my rescan of the same negative.
The right-side image that I scanned has greatly expanded tonal range and substantially more detail compared to the one from the student. DPU had professional scanning equipment at the time, but they didn’t know how to use it properly. There shouldn’t be any sort of post-scan editing, aside from a bit of cropping and rotating.
I should mention that preservation-level scanning doesn’t mean just scanning at higher resolutions. There are other factors that are just as relevant as resolution. The quality of equipment, the scanning environment, color settings, and file formats are every bit as important. When someone gives us photographic materials, we do them all the same regardless of what digitization level has been requested. Most are going into Oregon Digital and need to have sufficient detail for the image viewer.
With that being said, there are materials for which quicker access might be more important than going down a slightly slower digitization path. For instance, we do access-level scanning for many of our periodicals and publications. Most of these are off-set printed with lots of text, so there’s little to be gained by scanning at the same resolutions that we use for photographs. We’ve settled on 400ppi as a good compromise between scan time and sufficient quality for OCR. However, we still use the same calibrated equipment, color profiles, and formats even if preservation isn’t the goal.
As the question relates to digital preservation, I think that it has unfortunately become as much of a buzzword as it has something that people and organizations are actively engaged in. I guess that I should be happy that at least people are talking about it. The time is now to start doing something. Having led our digital preservation efforts for a couple years, I found that it’s very hard to make headway if people aren’t sure what digital preservation is and don’t have a clear picture of the resources needed. Digital preservation is not a single application that you can download from the App Store and it’s not something that can be just handed off to a student.
There are only a few organizations who have good digital preservation systems in place, but most of them have lots of resources. It’s hard to find a comparable institution to look to as an example of how we might proceed. We made an attempt with this technical report last year but little has happened so far. That’s why I think that a consortial-level effort in the Pacific Northwest could be a way to bridge some of those resource gaps that a lot of us have.
What do you find most interesting about the work you do?
I think that almost all of it is interesting to be honest. If I have to pick one thing I would say it’s the relatively recent intersection of audiovisual digitization with digital preservation among colleagues. I’ve been working in both areas for a while, but now it seems that there’s suddenly an influx of people who do both. They’re coming out of programs like the National Digital Stewardship Residency program at the Library of Congress and the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at NYU. It does make sense with most audiovisual preservation work leading directly to digitization, which then moves into digital preservation. With all magnetic media like videotape, there is a substantial level of degradation actively occurring with the physical object. This newly digitized file will act as the representation of this artifact as time goes on and the physical source further degrades. Knowing that, it’s imperative to do whatever it takes to ensure that the file survives.
For me, it’s encouraging to have lots of younger people participating in the profession. It’s certainly been making the yearly AMIA conference more technology-focused, which is great. It also makes for lively Twitter discussions.
What do you want people to know about your work? Why do you think this is such an important aspect of what the work of the Valley Library?
This might sound funny, but one thing I’d like people to know is that I am not a cataloger and I have never been responsible for mail deliveries anywhere I’ve worked.
In all seriousness, I hope that everyone realizes that the Digital Production Unit plays a vital role in making our unique collections accessible. This was a key objective in our most recent strategic plan, and without the work of the DPU, the library definitely would not have the number of items available online. We also would not have the quality of work that we now have.
As far as digital preservation goes, I don’t want people to think that we’re not doing anything. There’s a fair amount of digital preservation happening every day on library materials that move through the DPU. ETS has also made progress with daily backups for our preservation storage and with our distributed backups of ScholarsArchive@OSU materials to MetaArchive.
What are common misconceptions about your field/work that you do?
I think that there’s misconceptions surrounding a lot of digitization and digital preservation. The first thing that comes to mind is the confusion surrounding what digitization means and the implications of having an object digitized. Just because an object has been digitized that does not mean that it’s been preserved and there’s nothing else to do. I think that’s the point where a lot of the ongoing work begins.