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Digital rescue

October 13, 2015

The Herculean effort to digitize all of IU’s significant (and, in many cases, endangered) audio and visual recordings by Indiana University’s 2020 bicentennial celebration is well under way, cranking along quietly on the first floor of the Innovation Center, a masterful synchronized effort between Memnon Archiving Services and Indiana University. The official opening of IU’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI) takes place on October 21, 2015, with a special event to be held during the Statewide IT conference on the IU Bloomington campus.

In not quite four months, Memnon, with its industrial-scale digitization process, has already digitized more than 12,000 recordings – precious pieces that would be lost to history in 15 years (or less) due to degradation and the obsolescence of playback equipment.

IU staff handle the special cases – those that are already damaged or crumbling in some way, or that have oddities that Memnon’s equipment can’t process. Some pieces are suffering from conditions that sound more like diseases – sticky shed syndrome, for example, which manifests as sticky residue on tapes and causes the oxide coating to rip off when the tape is played back. To restore it for digitization, audio engineers bake the tape (yes, literally, they bake it at about 128˚F). This restores it to playable condition for about a month before the sticky shed syndrome recurs. Another common problem is delamination, which occurs on lacquer discs. The lacquer coating peels, cracks, and comes off, rendering the disc both unsightly and unplayable.

IU’s first task was digitizing the open-reel tapes in the Archives of Traditional Music that change playback speed in the middle of the tape. These tapes require individual attention from an audio engineer, who must stop the tape, rewind it, and correct the speed every time the tape changes speed. The process is long and arduous, and the attention to detail is demanding. In these four scant months, IU has already digitized 75% of the archives’ mixed-speed tape collection.

These are early days yet, and as more pieces of the project’s workflow are installed and the project gathers steam and gains efficiencies, it is projected that Memnon will be digitizing 600 recordings a day, at its peak. Between IU and Memnon, it is expected that roughly 280,000 recordings will be digitized by the end of the project.

A unique space

MDPI’s physical space has proven ideal for collaborations between IU and Memnon. It’s a unique setup with both groups working essentially side by side.

“We’re all dedicated to digitally preserving IU’s holdings, and the fact that we’re doing this in a side-by-side manner – physically side by side – leads to some synergies that are very helpful,” said Mike Casey, director of technical operations for MDPI. “Typically, this relationship of client to vendor takes place over a great distance, but I think it’s quite nice having the client and the vendor side by side here, so that sometimes even chance encounters in the hallway lead toward identifying and then resolving issues we may not have even known existed.”

Accessing the collection

IU is also working on how people will access the recordings once they are preserved. IU Libraries is partnering with Northwestern University Libraries, which has similar needs, to build what’s known as the Avalon Media System. Avalon is an open-source system for managing and providing access to large collections of digital audio and video. The hope is that by late October, members of the public will be able to access selected pieces in the collection that do not have copyright concerns and have been approved by legal counsel.

The future of digitization at IU

Memnon was recently acquired by Sony, a move that could bode well for IU’s technology park. Sony is new to the digitization business and hopes to expand in North America. Right now, their only digitization facility is in Bloomington.

“It was always our hope that we would have companies in the technology sector locating here,” says Laurie Antolovic’, executive director for MDPI. “I think it opens tremendous, exciting possibilities for the technology park here if it were to materialize. Media digitization and all the IT support that it needs to make it run is a good fit for the IU community and for Bloomington. There’s also the potential for our students to learn and get training, for our faculty to conduct research, for us to develop a new curriculum around preservation and digitization – these are real possibilities.”

This story, by Amanda Aubuchon, UITS senior editor, originally appeared in IT Connections, September 2015 issue.

You can learn more about the MDPI on the initiative’s website.