My short internship at a regional av-archive: experiences and lessons-learned

A few months ago, I decided I didn’t know enough about the day-to-day practice of the various departments of an audiovisual archive. This might sound strange, since I work at the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision and know the organisation very well after 3.5 years. Of course, due to all the experience I’ve gathered at the wonderful R&D department of Sound and Vision I have a pretty good idea of the general paths of the digital archive life cycle and a lot of knowledge about innovation in the heritage field, but hands-on experience is something I found myself lacking. Secondly, since Summer 2012 I have had the pleasure to work closely with regional archives for the first time in the Amateurfilm Platform project, in which Sound and Vision has teamed up with the Gronings AudioVisueel Archief (GAVA), the Rotterdam City Archives and Limburgs Museum Venlo to make amateur film available online and save vulnerable tapes from the video era (1980s-2000s). This made me curious about the differences and shared practices between regional archives and a national, large-scale archive like Sound and Vision. Harry Romijn – GAVA curator and deputy director of the Groninger State Archives – kindly offered me to join my regional colleagues in the north of the Netherlands for a week to show me the ropes and I jumped at the opportunity. Last March, I travelled to Groningen and was welcomed by GAVA’s wonderful team (Harry, René, Sebastiaan, Gert and Marij). Hereby an overview of my experiences and lessons-learned of a week in a regional archives.

Day 1: copyright affects big and small heritage organisations equally (and it ain’t good)

On my first day, I got to dive right in and got a tour through the cold storage vault that contained – among many other things – materials belonging to the Poparchief Groningen. This archive harbours a vast array of musical history of Groningen, such as awesomely designed ‘80 demo cassettes, concert posters and photos of local bands. Almost immediately we talked about the eternal “what about the copyrights” question all archives and heritage organisations have to deal with: what if the Groninger Archieven wants to make the hours and hours of music in the Poparchief available online? Do they have to clear the rights with bands themselves, or (partly) with collective management organisations (CMOs)? The latter will most likely not come cheap, but also it probably doesn’t make sense to do this, because many regional bands are not members of CMO and are thus not represented and compensated through them. Approaching bands directly and asking for permission seems to be the most direct, but also most time-consuming solution. Extrapolated to the entire archival holdings of GAVA, clearing copyrights to show them online will simply never be viable with the current copyright system, which still is vastly unusable for the digital domain and without clear online exemptions for cultural heritage organisations.

Day 2: handling film, improving a MAM and the local cultural scene

On day two I had the pleasure of meeting Hay Janssen of Janssen Film & Audio Services, who came to fix a Steenbeck film table (Janssen also build Steenbecks).

Friendly Steenbeck

Friendly Steenbeck

I also got to view some awesome 8mm films donated to GAVA by the widow of a prolific local amateur filmmaker, and use a splicer to attach fresh blank leader. After this, the GAVAs media asset management supplier De Ree came to discuss improvements and additions to the system (MAIS Flexis). It provided great insight in what it takes to manage a collection as diverse as GAVA’s (photos, paper, audio, video, film, etc) in one system and the requirements to make sure everything can be described and accessed as efficiently as possible. I was surprised how easy it can be to request these improvements and how open De Ree is to these suggestions, not at all as difficult and bureaucratic as I expected; just a good hour-long meeting in which many things were taken on board. In the evening I was treated to a great and inspiring ForumMediaClub evening at the cultural center ForumImages by GAVAs René Duursma.

Day 3 and 4: cleaning up the database, and the vast difference between amateur video and film

On Thursday,  the diversity of topics and practical experience gained continued. I first cleaned up a part of the controlled term list used to describe the PopArchief, which was followed by comparing GAVA’s contract with the one Sound and Vision uses for donations of collections by amateur filmmakers. In the afternoon, I viewed and registered Video8 films contributed by the public at the 2012 Home Movie Day GAVA organised within the scope of the Amateur Film Platform project. The Video8 films I viewed were contributed by a woman from Hoogkerk, and contains a wide array of footage from the 1990s to the 2000s, ranging from a motor cross competition in Hoogkerk, a 30-year work anniversary and a trip to Dutch amusement park Efteling.

Hours and hours of Video8

Hours and hours of Video8


Besides videos, I had the opportunity to view films recently brought in and not yet digitised from the ‘30s-’50s. This was stunning material, featuring a stop-motion animation in colour from 1949 to footage secretly filmed by the maker during WOII. I continued this work (registering video, viewing film) on my last day, which flew by.

René checking the beautiful 1949 stop-motion film

René checking the beautiful 1949 stop-motion film

Lessons learned: bigger is certainly not better, and the importance of local knowledge

All in all, I had a tremendous time and I can’t thank all the GAVA crew enough for showing me so much in only four days. I really got to experience all facets of the work and activities of a regional audiovisual archive and how they differ from a national archive like Sound and Vision. For instance, due to more modest budgets, GAVA are much more creative and flexible when it comes to digitising film and video. If amateur filmmakers or their heirs bring in footage, they are asked if they might be able to pay for part of the digitisation costs, so the process can be expedited. Another solution to saving costs is to digitise B-collection film and video to a lower (but still quite high!) resolution than the A-collection material to save on storage. My main lesson however was that although Sound and Vision is one of the biggest and professional archives in Europe, the regional archive have such a broad and deep knowledge of their history, that they are vastly better equipped to describe and understand amateur film and video. Whereas I could see the general interest of a film (period, stock used, quality of the shots), the GAVA staff knew exactly what they were looking at – streets, buildings, people, local car number plates. All in all, I couldn’t have been at a better place to get the hands-on expierence of the day-to-day working of an audiovisual archive, and insight in the differences between a regional and national archive.


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