Media collections are not as easily defined into general/circulating collections and special/rare collections as are paper-based materials; though many media items in cultural heritage collections were at one time popular, commercially available recordings, some of those items are now rare thanks to the inherently vices particular to media formats, or to wear from frequent handling and playback. Other media collections are composed of singular, unique records that contain audio, video, or other data not recorded elsewhere.
The emerging specialization of media conservation is based on conservation approaches similar to those presented in Session 3: Caring for Collections - Conservation Treatment: the goal of conservation intervention is to stabilize the media item, readying it for future use via playback, reformatting, or digitization.
Also similar to the conservation of paper collections, media conservation requires expert professionals trained to distinguish between a multitude of formats, to understand the composition of the materials and the likely deterioration mechanisms at play, and to prepare the item for long-term retention and future use. Whereas paper-based collections are treated by book conservators, paper conservators, and photo conservators, the complex and emerging field of media conservation is comprised of photo conservators with knowledge of film-based materials, audiovisual conservators with specialized training in sound and moving image recordings, and electronic media conservators who focus on time-based media and art.
In this section you will learn more about the field of media conservation. For most institutions, having a media conservator on staff is not possible. However, a conservator specializing in media formats in your collections can provide consultation on a number of media preservation issues, including identification, housing, storage, environment, and even reformatting or digitization.
In Session 3: Caring for Collections - Conservation Treatment, you learned about the conservation principle of minimum intervention and its basic tenets: first, do no harm; secondly, less is better. Let's examine these in the context of media conservation:
- Do no harm: To know how best to treat an item, the conservator must first understand its composition. Treatment (examination, material testing, cleaning, repairing) must utilize reliable, well-tested materials and methods and be reversible treatments wherever possible. The media conservator is often the advocate for the artifactual value of a media item, facilitating access (playback) through treatment but guarding against irreparable damage from careless handling or short-sighted use.
- Less is better—Consider the effect that treatment will have on the aesthetic and physical characteristics of the media object. Sometimes limited treatment, or even no treatment, may be the best choice, especially as playback methods become less invasive.
Media conservation is an emerging specialty. The Electronic Media Group (EMG), established in 1998, is the newest AIC specialty group, focusing on the preservation of electronic art, electronic- based cultural materials and tools of its creation. EMG's members are time-based art conservators for museums, audiovisual conservators for libraries and archives, and digital library specialists interested in preservation approaches to managing electronic media.
Ten years later, the National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC), the Library of Congress's audiovisual archive, opened in 2008. With a focus on digitization of the Library's sound and moving image recordings, the NAVCC generates multiple pedabytes (one million gigabytes) each year. Additionally the NAVCC preserves collections in their original format - wire recordings, wax cylinders, 2" videotape, and nitrate film - storing collections in environments tailored to their specific format needs. Learn more about the work of the NAVCC and listen to recently conserved and digitized recording in the NPR story Saving the Sounds of America.
Today, many research libraries and larger archives are hiring audiovisual conservators or seeking grant funding to bring experts on-site to address the specialized needs of their media collections. Explore the Media Preservation blog, which features several institutional case studies in creating audio-visual conservation roles or starting media preservation initiatives.
What does conservation treatment of media collections entail? First, a conservator will identify the media format and its composition. For example, as discussed earlier in this session, and in Session 5: Care and Handling of Photographs, an audiovisual conservator may be able to identify nitrate film based on the presence of edge stamps or characteristic visual clues, but she may also need to perform destructive chemical tests to determine the composition of the film base.
Other media conservation activities include cleaning, re-housing, repairing, and preparing collections for reformatting or digitization. Cleaning may involve the use of specialized equipment such as ultrasonic film cleaners to remove dirt, oil, and grease. Repair of media collections may include removal of old splices and labels, remediating mold or rust, and detaching tape or negatives that are stuck to one another or deformed from years of improper storage.
Some media formats, such as audio cassettes, must be taken apart in order to access the media, perform any necessary cleaning or repairs, and facilitate playback.