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Fundamentals of AV Preservation - Chapter 2

 1.1 What to Document | 1.2 Inventory Tools   

Section 1: inventory

1.1 What to Document

A basic item-level inventory is vital to the successful stewardship of audiovisual assets. At a minimum, a unique identifier and a format-type must be identified and recorded for each asset in order to responsibly track items throughout their lives. However, gathering as much data as possible in one pass will provide a baseline set of information that will support selection, prioritization, and initial discovery, as well as minimize the number of times the assets need to be referenced and handled.

Establishing a minimal set of required fields will help to streamline the process and manage expectations. Minimal sets are meant to be used for basic identification, selection, prioritization, and digitization planning. Information beyond the required fields should only be recorded if it is easily discoverable by simply examining the physical asset or consulting an existing record. Further descriptive and technical information can be recorded post-digitization at your organization’s discretion.

As archivists, we want to provide our users with as much information regarding our collection as possible; however, richer descriptions do not play a part in the inventory process. At this point, we want to record as much information as can be quickly and easily gleaned from the asset itself. There will be a time for more detailed description at a later point, should you and your institution decide that it is necessary. At this beginning stage, however, time is of the essence.

What follows is a list of suggested fields to capture in your inventory, along with a rationale for their capture. These fields are divided between ones that are so important as to be considered “required” and those that are optional but helpful. Ultimately, the decision of what fields to record lies with you and what is needed for your organization to be able to adequately plan for preservation.


Unique ID


A free text field for a unique number assigned to each asset. This number may be an existing ID number already associated with the asset or it may be created from scratch.


Each asset must be assigned a unique ID in order to allow responsible stewardship throughout its life. Assigning a unique ID will make it easier for you to record an asset’s location for retrieval purposes and to track its process throughout the digitization process, especially when sending the asset to an outside digitization vendor.


If the item has already been logged or cataloged in an existing system, a unique ID may already exist. If this is the case, simply capture this information in your new inventory. If a unique ID does not exist, you will have to create one. It could be an alphanumeric string that follows the IDs you use in other systems. Or you could make up a system yourself. In the absence of an existing system, you might work with something like “000001, 000002, 000003…,” with the number of leading zeros dependent on the estimated size of the collection. No matter what you choose, remain consistent and follow a system that will not allow accidental repeats of ID numbers.

If the unique ID is not indicated on the item itself, it is a good idea at this point in the process to add a barcode to the asset capturing this data. It will save time in the future when you move on to digitization projects, and it makes sense to do it now as you are handling the materials. Print two of each unique ID - one for the asset case and one for the asset itself.



A free text field containing the asset’s location.


Recording an asset’s location will allow you to locate it more easily whenever necessary.


Once again, consistency is the goal. Creating a system for identifying locations that can be used across your collection will be most helpful to you in the future. If your collection is large and stretched across several buildings, start with a building code and then perhaps a room code. If your items are on shelves, perhaps a row/bay/shelf code would make sense next. If they are in boxes on shelves, add a box number. Here is an example:

Reed:R102:04:B:3:842 - This item is located in the Reed Building, in Room 102, in row 4, bay B, on shelf 3, in box 842.

This is simply one approach among many. There is no wrong way to create location codes; think through what will work best for your institution and remain consistent.

Media type


A field that designates whether the record is for an audio, video, or film asset.


Indicating the media type will allow you to organize and group like assets when planning for digitization.


Media type can be determined by inspecting the physical item and goes hand in hand with identifying the format. Use a controlled vocabulary such as an internal list or PBCore’s instantiationMediaType list:



A field that indicates the specific type of audio, video, or film asset, such as “cylinder” or “VHS.”


Format will allow you to organize and group like assets when planning for digitization. In addition, knowing the types and quantities of formats in your collection will allow you to gather more accurate digitization cost estimates, making budgeting and fundraising easier.


You may have personal experience with many of the formats in your collection; however, some formats will likely be be unfamiliar. Throughout its 150 year history, audiovisual recording has spanned well over 100 different formats, making format identification sometimes difficult. The following resources will help with format identification.

Once you’ve identified the format, record it in your inventory. You may also fill in the Media Type once identification has been accomplished. Use a controlled vocabulary, such as an internal list or PBCore’s instantiationPhysical list:



A free text field containing the title of the asset.


Depending on the level of description your items have associated with them from earlier cataloging efforts, the title is often your best clue about the content. The title will likely play a role in the prioritization of your assets for digitization in the future.


If a catalog record already exists, take the title from there. If a record does not exist, make your best guess as to the title based on whatever is on the asset itself. This may consist of a professionally printed label where the title is clear or a handwritten label where some guessing is necessary. If no label exists, simply title the asset “untitled” or “unknown.”

Optional But Helpful

Collection Name


A field denoting the asset’s parent collection, if any.


If your institution has many collections, it will be helpful to have the parent collection recorded. This will allow you to group items by intellectual content, which will assist with prioritization.


Collection names are often recorded on boxes or other containers. Or perhaps your assets are grouped by collection in a particular location. Collection names can be difficult to assign to audiovisual materials as they are often part of institutional knowledge and not necessarily recorded or easily interpreted. Use a controlled vocabulary based on the collection names already in use at your institution.



A free text field for any contextual information recorded on the asset or its container or gleaned from other sources such as donor agreements.


Recording as much easily-discernible data as possible while you are handling your assets is a smart strategy. Recording any printed or written information that is on the asset now will save you time later.


Record any printed or written information on the asset that does not fall into one of the other fields listed here. Use a separator, such as a semicolon, to separate different lines or ideas.



A field noting the date the asset itself was created.


The age of an asset can be helpful in determining its risk of degradation and therefore prioritization.


Date can be a tricky data point to determine as there can be multiple dates associated with one asset. One tape could have been used to record on multiple days. A tape could have been a duplicate of another asset, meaning it was created on one date, but the content is from another date. Do your best to record the date that makes the most sense to you and record any additional dates in the Description field.1 Use a consistent date format, such as yyyy-mm-dd.



A field that defines the relationship between original material and copies.


The Generation field will allow you to identify duplicates in your collection and will aid in prioritization.


Before an asset is reformatted, its generation can be determined only by using the label information present on the object. Unfortunately, there is no other way to determine an asset’s generation. Your organization should compile a list of relevant generations (e.g., Production Master, Access Copy, Sub-Master, Dub, etc.) and use that controlled vocabulary or use PBCore’s instantiationGenerations list:



A free text field that notes if the asset is a piece of a larger work. For example, if a full-length film is broken up into four reels, you might complete this field as “Reel 1 of 4.”


Part is helpful in determining if your institution holds the entirety of a particular work, and it will allow you to keep parts grouped together when prioritizing for digitization.


Like Generation, Part can only be determined by the asset’s label information.

Commercial or Unique/Rare


A field indicating if an asset is commercial or unique in nature.


This field is extremely important in prioritization. See Section 3.2 Content Value for more information on prioritization.


Usually, identifying whether or not an asset is a commercially released item is fairly straightforward. Is it in a professionally produced package? Is there a recording label or production studio listed on the label? Is there a barcode printed on the label or a matrix number? If yes, then it’s a commercial item.

Assets with handwritten labels can usually be assumed to be unique. The exception to this would be if it is a home copy of a commercially released recording (think of recording songs off the radio onto cassette). Do your best to identify whether assets are commercial or unique; when in doubt, assume they are unique.

Identifying commercially released records that are rare (e.g., short runs, out of print) is a bit trickier and will require subject expertise or research. You will have to determine if this is a priority for your organization.

Use a controlled vocabulary of consistent internal terms.



A free text field that explains the terms defining an asset’s availability for re-use.


Restrictions on making an asset freely available to the public will play a role in prioritization.


Restrictions on usage may be recorded in an existing catalog record or in an asset’s donor agreement. Record any information you have on copyright status and restrictions here. If no information is known regarding an asset’s status, record that as well.



A field indicating if there are obvious issues associated with an asset’s condition.


Assets suffering from irreversible degradation may be prioritized for digitization. Some methods of degradation can be contagious; infected assets should be quarantined.


Some modes of degradation are easily identifiable just by inspecting an asset, and these modes are the ones we wish to record here. Deep knowledge of recording formats and their chemistry is not required, just an observant eye. For more information, review Chapter 1: Introduction to AV Preservation Challenges. Here are some red flags to look out for: 

  • Mold: Mold can affect any format in your collection. Keep an eye out for fuzzy or speckled debris. Active mold may spread and will continue to degrade your assets. It is best to quarantine any assets infected with mold.

  • Odor: Odd smells are indicative of some sort of chemical reaction and may indicate that an asset is actively degrading. Film that smells specifically of vinegar should be quarantined from other film.

  • Broken or cracked discs or cylinders: Depending on the break, this may make them unplayable by traditional means.

  • Palmitic acid: A white, oily sheen on discs indicates they are in the early stages of delamination. Once delamination begins, the lacquer will crack and flake off, rendering the disc unplayable.

  • Crazing: The next step in delamination of discs. A network of fine cracks manifests on the discs. Once the lacquer flakes off, the disc will not be playable.

  • Long play tapes: Long play tapes are less of a condition issue and more of a reality of the original format. They are thinner than tapes of shorter durations and are therefore prone to stretching or snapping on playback.

  • Broken carriers: Cracked cassette cases, broken reels, etc.

  • Unspooled tape: The tape is off of its reel or out of its cassette, possibly crumpled and tangled. This will lead to mechanical problems on playback and potentially a loss of content.

  • Spoking: Spoking is most easily identified on open reel tape and film. (See image below) As magnetic tape or film shrinks, the tension in the reel builds, forcing the tape/film to “bend” in a regular pattern to help relieve that tension. These assets may require some preservation work prior to digitization or the use of specialized equipment. 

Physical condition: A film reel that exhibits signs of spoking.

Credit: AVP
film cartridge


This field may be free text or use a controlled vocabulary. 

For more information on condition issues affecting audiovisual materials, visit the following resources: 

1.2 Inventory Tools

How do you best capture this item level information? Determine whether your institution has any internal tools or catalog systems and if they will work for your audiovisual materials. If the answer is no on either count, here are some free, open source options that may work for you.


AVCC is an abbreviation for AudioVisual Collaborative Cataloging, which is a free, open source web application developed by AVPreserve and funded by Library of Congress, METRO, and AVPreserve. AVCC was developed to enable collaborative, efficient item-level cataloging of audiovisual collections. The application incorporates built-in reporting on collection statistics, digital storage calculations, shipping manifests, and other data critical to prioritizing and planning preservation work with audiovisual materials.

AVCC establishes a minimal set of required and recommended fields that provide basic intellectual control enabling quantification, planning, and management of collections. The focus of AVCC is two-fold: to uncover hidden collections via record creation and to support preservation reformatting in order to enable access to the content itself. For more information, visit


The Preservation Self-Assessment Program, or PSAP, is a free online tool developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. PSAP was developed to help collection managers prioritize efforts to improve the conditions of their collections. Meant for institutions with few-to-no preservation or conservation staff, PSAP is designed to be simple and easy to use for those with little preservation training.

PSAP aims to:

  • Support targeted preservation assessments of paper documents, books and bound items, photographic and image materials, audiovisual materials, and non-composite museum objects made of ceramic, glass, stone, or metal.

  • Perform item- and collection-level assessments.

  • Provide textual and image-based educational resources to aid in the identification of different types of materials and their preservation challenges.

  • Address factors of storage and display, applicable to situations from open exhibitions to closed archives.

For more information, visit

AV Compass

AV Compass is a free, online suite of tools developed by the Bay Area Video Coalition with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Intended for use by individuals and organizations alike, AV Compass features step-by-step educational videos, PDF guides, and a tool for creating inventories.

AV Compass includes:

  • Instructional guides and eleven short videos that walk a user through the assessment.

  • Overview of preservation concepts.

  • Directions on how create and implement a preservation plan.

  • A free tool to create an inventory of your collection, which you can export and send to collecting archives and preservationists.

For more information, visit:


Spreadsheets are a perfectly adequate option for creating an item-level inventory for some institutions. They are familiar to most staff and easy to use. Simply add whichever fields you plan to populate during your inventory and get started. Be sure to create and use controlled vocabularies where applicable--consistency is key.