The process of selecting assets for digitization will be much more efficient and precise if you approach the issue with your mission statement in mind. Your archive should have a mission statement, approved by the head(s) of your organization. This statement should define the authority of the archivist within the organization and the parameters of the archival program.2 It is these parameters that will influence your decisions with regards to selection of audiovisual materials for digitization.
Some questions to consider when selecting items for digitization include:
Assets that don’t fit within the archive’s mandate set forth by your organization may not be considered preservation-worthy. Some assets may even need to be destroyed according to existing record retention policies. Referring back to your mission statement and associated policies will help you determine which assets are likely candidates for digitization.
Don’t have a mission statement? Write one! Operating your archive without a mission statement puts the health of your archive in jeopardy. A strong mission statement informs your audience about the principles on which you base your existence, justifies your work to governing bodies, and provides a clear direction for your decision-making.
Closely related to the mission statement, any specific goals you have in mind for your archive will come into play when selecting items for digitization. Are there any initiatives you are hoping to launch in the future? Are there items in your collection that align with those initiatives? The selection process will be much more effective and useful if you are thinking about your mission, your goals, and what you need to meet those goals both in the short term and in the long term.
Archives commonly have multiple versions of the same content. This could be the result of previous preservation reformatting efforts or could be due to production processes.
These duplicates will be identical copies of original audiovisual materials either on the same format or a newer format. It has been common practice to make “viewing” copies of archival materials in order to lessen the wear and tear on the original when screening items for patrons. Or, in an effort to battle obsolescence, content would be migrated to a newer format (e.g., 1 inch open reel videotape to Betacam). No matter the motivation, these copies will almost always be inferior to the original. The exception will be if the original has become so far degraded over time that the newer copy becomes the only viable means of transferring the content. The identification of “best copy,” or the best copy of an asset currently in existence, will be important in the preservation of collections like this.
If your organization holds any production-oriented collections in its holdings, chances are you will have a combination of production elements (i.e., working copies and component parts that went into creating the final edited master) as well as final edited masters. You could even have several different “final” versions of a work. This would be a good time to reference your mission statement and goals. Most archives find that the final edited masters will be of greatest interest and value to their organization and patrons; there will not be strong use cases for maintaining or digitizing the production elements.
However, some archives do have use cases for maintaining and digitizing all production elements in their holdings. These archives might be affiliated with an active production studio that may wish to maintain the option of using archival footage in reissues or new work. Or, these archives may be part of an educational institution to which the process of creating audiovisual media is of great interest and importance to its students and faculty. Whatever the case, if this is your mission, you must plan to digitize and preserve all production elements in your collection in addition to final edited masters.
If you find yourself in one of the scenarios outlined above and you are able to weed certain items from your collections (whether they are viewing copies or production elements), then your long term burden of preservation has been lightened, potentially significantly. However, the identification of best copies, elements, and final master copies for deselection and selection will require investigation and resources. Materials will need to be viewed and comparisons made in order to determine which copy is now the best quality copy. This may either be handled internally or through a vendor. If performed internally, you will need to procure the appropriate equipment, supplies, and staffing to screen your assets. If performed through a vendor, materials should be grouped by production title prior to sending to a vendor for selection of best copy.
In an ideal world, we would be able to view each asset and make an informed decision as to which copy is the best quality and which version we wish to digitize for preservation. However, whether you do this in-house or with a vendor, it will add to the cost of your digitization project. Rather than viewing or listening to each asset, your budget may require you to make some assumptions regarding best copy. For example, it is usually a good choice to select the original master for preservation, as any copies made in the past will be of inferior quality. The reality is that in some cases, the original master will be more degraded than a copy, which is why we wish we could watch each asset to make a decision. Making an assumption is the only way some of us will be able to afford to preserve the assets we have in our collections; just make sure you think through the possible scenarios and make a well-informed decision. You can choose to select a few items that are of extreme importance to your organization for analysis by a vendor to select best copy.