CHAPTER 3: Planning, preparing, and implementing reformatting projects
Chris Lacinak, Founder and President, AVPreserve
Edited by NEDCC staff
At the heart of planning and implementing a successful reformatting project is clear and strong communication. Whether this work is performed in-house or with a vendor, there is very little difference in the steps that should take place. Due to this fact, and for the sake of simplicity, this chapter will refer to “clients” and “vendors” to mean both internal digitization programs and contracted vendor services. The client is the department, unit, or organization with the need to reformat audiovisual media in their holdings. The vendor is the internal department or an external organization that will perform the reformatting.
Solid communication begins with the client clearly articulating their needs and specifications. This goes beyond specifying the input (e.g., Open reel audiotape, VHS) and output (e.g., 24-bit 96 kHz WAVE file, uncompressed QuickTime file). When only given these two reference points, too many assumptions are left to chance; each one of these assumptions creates an opportunity for disconnects and miscommunication, greatly increasing the likelihood of the vendor delivering an end-product that does not actually meet the client’s needs.
The need for specificity and detailed communication is particularly important with the reformatting of content stored on legacy audiovisual media, such as Digital Betacam, VHS, audiocassette, and audio open reel. Most organizations do not have the equipment or expertise to view the media they hold in their collections and therefore have no point of reference for the quality of the moving image and sound recorded on their assets. What is typically known is that it is normal and expected for there to be challenges, audiovisual artifacts, and certain aesthetic characteristics when reproducing content recorded on legacy media. This is due to a combination of obsolescence, degradation, and the fact that legacy technologies generally have specifications, which were typically high performance at the time of their release, but are much lower quality when compared to current technology. How does a client know that a poor looking or sounding transfer is due to the original recording quality, degradation, or an error on behalf of the vendor? The answer in most cases is that they almost never know, but this does not render the client powerless or subject to blindly trusting the vendor.
Clients can greatly mitigate risk by using specifications to ensure preservation-oriented workflows and practices are utilized and quality assurance and control measures are incorporated. A great place to document these expectations and specifications is in a statement of work (SoW), a document that is typically incorporated into a request for proposal (RFP) and details all of the requirements of a project with regard to standards, practices, protocols, timeline, and technological specifications. Using an SoW will also help clients fairly perform comparative analysis between vendor proposals. When there are few or no specifications included as part of an RFP, there is no way to identify reasons for differences in vendor proposals, such as wildly varying pricing, or to understand how the differences relate to vendor workflows and practices.
Many organizations do not have the expertise in-house to draft a detailed SoW for a preservation-oriented reformatting project. This chapter will provide an SoW outline and set of discussion points along with sample SoWs and specifications. These should not be used in a “copy-and-paste” fashion. This will not serve the client, the client’s true needs, the vendor, or the spirit of strong and clear communication. They should be used for establishing a terminology and a framework that organizations can use as a foundation for research, conversations with vendors, and ultimately creating their own SoW.
While solid communication begins with the client, it does not end with the client. Vendors have a critical role to play in this regard as well. Vendor communication begins with responding to a SoW, asking questions, offering suggestions, and engaging in a conversation. These points of feedback can be used by the client as the basis of discussions held with other vendors and for performing further research within the client’s own organization. Vendor communication also consists of keeping in touch with the client at logical points throughout the project, although the expectation for communication from the vendor should be made clear within the client’s SoW.
Too many times, the project ends when a vendor sends the final deliverables of a project to a client and no quality control is performed by the client to ensure that there are no audio or video quality issues or that specifications regarding file naming conventions, organizational conventions, and metadata were met by the vendor. In these cases, a question is raised about the value of creating a set of digitization specifications for a vendor if the client is not going to verify that they have been met and that the deliverable meets their expectations and needs. While the vendor should perform their own quality assurance, the client should perform quality control in addition to this. Mistakes happen, even from well intended, expert vendors. The client shares part of the responsibility and burden to ensure that the final deliverable meets the specifications outlined in the SoW. For every specification provided to a vendor, the client should have a quality control protocol that verifies that the specification is met.
When issues arise, they may or may not be vendor errors. There needs to be communication between the client and vendor regarding identified issues in order to see them through to a mutually agreed upon resolution, and any necessary rework must be performed and put through the same quality control process.
When solid planning and preparation is followed by strong and clear communication between the client and vendor, the risk of failure or disappointment is greatly reduced. There is an old saying that good fences make for good neighbors. Consider a detailed SoW to be a good fence. It leaves little question about the parameters of the agreement. Some may feel that this inserts a formality or rigidness in the client-vendor relationship that disallows a more friendly and convivial relationship. To the contrary, like good fences, clear and explicit statements of work and specifications allow both clients and vendors to relax, knowing what’s expected of them, fostering a more positive and cooperative relationship.