Digital Preservation in Practice and in Theory

When you do oral history interviews, one of your first steps is usually deciding how to record them. Although transcripts are useful in their own way, they are unique based on the transcriber and often do not and cannot embody the same tone and emotions as audio or even visual digital records. But when you decide to audio or video record interviews, you also have to think of how to archive them and ensure they are preserved as technology advances and makes some formats obsolete.

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There are two facets of digital preservation we should cover: the practical and the theoretical. 

Let’s start with the practical. Anyone getting started with oral history and wanting to take a serious approach to preservation can find a solid guide in Kara Malssen’s article, Digital Video Preservation and Oral History. Malssen provides a very in-depth and hands on guide to creating and preserving digital video. She starts from the very beginning and makes it clear from the get-go that decisions made when creating files have long-lasting effects and consequences.

Malssen does helpfully list and define some important terms: wrapping and encoding formats, bit rate, resolution, and file size. She emphasizes how the file format (ex: .mov, .avi, .mpg) and codec (ex: H.264, DV, MPEG-4) are important for the format’s lifespan and accessibility, whereas the bit rate and resolution are tied to quality and file size. Using all this information, she goes through the main steps: choosing a recording device with the rights specs, determining how and where to retain and store files (in three forms: the original as a preservation master, a mezzanine copy for new edits, and a proxy copy for redistributing), then figuring out technical and preservation metadata. Throughout all this, Malssen makes sure to remind us to keep up on best formatting to keep the file preserved and accessible as time goes on.

Although Malssen’s article is step-by-step and incredibly helpful, it is chock full of technical terms that aren’t always defined and so not exactly accessible to a wider audience. Oral historians and dedicated people (like us!) will certainly find use in the article, but more casual hobbyists might choose instead to find a simpler explanation.

Moving on to the theoretical side of digital preservation, Jonathan Sterne’s book MP3 includes a foreword style chapter entitled “Format Theory.” Sterne talks about audio files instead of video, so we see another side of the story.

For Sterne, telephony is the basis of everything to do with audio recording today. Not only was it the first step, but it also shaped our notions of what “hearing” is. Sterne ties this all to the question of audio quality – as technology progresses, he points out, we continue to use MP3s despite the ability to do better, despite them being even lower quality than CDs or records. For this, Sterne questions what he calls “the dream of verisimilitude” – in other words, the idea that progress means technology just getting closer and closer to representing reality. Sterne links this back instead to the “history of compression.” We’ve been compressing as long as we’ve been making advances, so we don’t always mind discrepancies in our audio. It’s often just part of the experience!

Now we come to where theory comes in more directly; since we already have media theory, why not format theory as well? In backing up his argument, Sterne gets into specifics which involve a lot of numbers and some diagrams, so let’s focus on the question instead. Why not focus on the hardware of format as well as the software of mediality? It would lead to different, interesting approaches to research and the history of formats.

Sterne continues by laying out to outline of his book, following a chronological approach to format theory, going from a new hearing research in the 1910s to the rise of MP3 and file-sharing. He ends the chapter on the note that–despite our ability to do better and its proprietary nature–MP3 is a significant cultural touchstone, not just because of its popularity, but because it represents a time in history where the dream of verisimilitude came in to question.

Both of the readings here speak a lot to digital preservation. Malssen’s is a go-to guide for preserving oral histories, but mainly for those who already have a pretty good foundation or the time to do the necessary research. Sterne’s book promises an interesting and fairly important background into audio formatting and digital preservation, especially for those in relevant fields. Overall, I found the two texts interesting and definitely important, but they do have their specific audiences.

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