Glimpsing the future – a report from the 2019 IASA & JTS Conferences

Conferences allow those that work in a sector to connect with colleagues, swap notes and learn about novel approaches. They also mean you sometimes get to go to Europe. Our Principal Archivist Jamie Lean travelled to the Netherlands last year for two conferences and reports on his trip.

Brain Stuffing in Hilversum

In late September 2019 I travelled to the town of Hilversum, 24km out of Amsterdam, to attend the 50th annual Conference of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) and the Joint Technical Symposium (JTS). The conference and symposium were hosted by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in their spectacular new headquarters. Hilversum is known as ‘media city’ as it is the principal centre for radio and television broadcasting in the Netherlands.

I was joined by our Video Preservation Team Leader Todd Barker and we were able to be strategic about our attendance as there were four separate of presentations streams at the conference.

The colourful, glass exterior of The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision purpose built home. Photo by Jamie Lean.

Common threads

The conference led off with a talk about using artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse sounds, and AI and/or machine learning was a recurring theme. The main proposals for these advances in AI were around cataloguing and making sense of large collections. What was common across these talks was that the collections had to be digital in nature before new technologies could be applied. It was easy to see the attraction of AI technology as several presentations demonstrated how vast collections could be analysed, labelled, searched and automatically licensed for reuse – processes that currently take hard-working archivists weeks, months and years.

A number of presentations concentrated on mass digitisation programmes: turning analogue audiovisual material into ones and zeros. A common theme here was the use of third-party vendors – commercial companies that specialise in this work. There were a number of these companies represented in the presentations that also had equipment and systems being shown off in trade booths in the main hall.

There were also several innovative new inventions that assist with archiving some niche formats, such as wax discs and wire recordings. A fun demonstration showed a laser substituting for a stylus to record severely broken records. Fragile discs in multiple pieces could be fitted together like a jigsaw and then recorded with clever programming to eliminate the gaps, thus bringing back recordings that would once have been considered lost. The presenter did say that an appropriate quality stylus would still provide a better recording than the laser.

Non-technical considerations

The opening of the Joint Technical Symposium in the main theatre at Sound and Vision. Photo by Jamie Lean.

It wasn’t only technology that was being discussed. There were heated debates around the International Library of African Music (ILAM) and the ethics of the Beating Heart Project. This was packaging up 1920s – 1970s recordings made by Hugh Tracey and was reissuing them as original recordings but funded by having English producers remix them as modern dance tracks.

Other presentations reminded the audience of the struggles of smaller archives around the world that lacked the resources and skills to enter the digital age. These included the efforts to at least get a copy of Malawi’s endangered film collection – one technique being to project the films onto a wall and record them with a video camera.

There were cultural issues, too. The Chinese government practice of continually moving officials at government institutions to new regions may circumvent corruption, but it also means there’s no chance to develop a culture of skills within an archive team. Political and societal pressures on minority groups in many countries were reported as being problems. In many of these societies, as government institutions, archives were regarded with suspicion by the public; conversely, they were also seen as a threat to regimes through their keeping of records. There was also a reminder of archival ethics and standards in the digital age and that we need to resist the temptation to restore recordings – archivists are there to preserve them.

The head of the National Film & Sound Archive of Australia, Jan Müller, presented their strategic plan which included partnering with a wide range of organisations. This included rest homes (using the collection to run memory stimulating quizzes) and Queensland University who are archiving video games.

Jamie’s presentation

Alongside all this I was able to give a talk to a packed room about Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s Te Māngai Pāho project. This charted the development of the contract from simply recording the then-new Māori Television Service, to later including iwi radio stations and providing a vital gathering point for recordings of te reo. We now offer these back to whanau and iwi around the country.

The IASA conference wound up with a number of institutional visits including to the Stedelijk Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the University of Amsterdam Special Collections and the Music Centre of Dutch Public Broadcasting.

I chose to visit the EYE Collection Centre, the backroom archiving facility for the EYE Museum. It was quite familiar – a little smaller in scale than Ngā Taonga but essentially followed the same practices. This highlights another benefit of taking part in conferences: it is very reassuring to find that people around the world are facing the same problems and coming up with similar solutions to those we practice at the far end of the Earth.

Getting technical

The next day the information onslaught rolled on as the Joint Technical Symposium (JTS) kicked off. This was a real highlight for me, and I have been trying to attend one for quite a while. They are held every four to seven years and are focused on critical technologies being developed for archiving. It is another level up from the IASA presentations as it is presented by the leaders in their fields. The JTS is often held in conjunction with other archival conferences to ease attendance costs.

Some of the JTS presentations did mirror the developments discussed at IASA. This included using AI to detect the reuse of archival material; how changing one tiny bit of metadata in a phone file can fundamentally change all of it; and even how AI analysis could help predict sports results.

An interesting presentation from George Blood covered off a whole series of seemingly random archival questions which we do ask ourselves from time to time. One example was – ‘how long does a diamond stylus last?’ (or ‘is buying a diamond stylus really worth it?’). Turns out the answer is they don’t wear out but almost all of them are eventually damaged by operator error!

The breakout area inside Sound and Vision. It’s configured for lunch but can become tiered seating for performances. Photo by Jamie Lean.

There was a machine presented that would replace AD strip use for evaluating large film collections (with acetate film, AD strips are used to measure the onset of degradation known as ‘vinegar syndrome’). A very technical discourse followed regarding improving colour space for modern technologies so they can more accurately capture the tints from pre-World War Two films. (Colour space is the specific organisation of colours in digital and analogue representations. It describes what can and cannot be viewed on a screen. Everything we see on screens (cinema, television, grading monitors) is an inferior subset of what we can see in real life)

Finally, Jim Lindner presented a quite confronting piece on how AI needs to be taught film language in the form of editing and other techniques. Otherwise it will always be a blunt tool analysing a film as consisting of a shower head, rain, a knife, a woman singing and then sleeping. It was confronting because Jim played the shower scene from Psycho to demonstrate his point.

Social calls

Alongside the conferences, there were also dinners, lunches and a final beach-themed party (on a lake) as well as a boat trip past a World War Two U-boat. After the conference I was able to travel to London and visit the British Film Institute National Archive’s J. Paul Getty Jr Conservation Centre at Berkhamsted and the BBC’s digitisation factory at Ruislip in West London. That’s probably a story for another time.

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