Earlier this month I attended the annual conference for the Association of Moving Image Archivists, this year held in Pittsburgh. MIAP sends a healthy contingent every year of students, staff and faculty (not to mention the alumni filling up panel after panel), so this was my fourth year at AMIA and every year it gets more and more valuable as a hub in our field for networking, debate, and, increasingly, opening up opportunities for collaboration and skill-sharing beyond the conference itself. I wanted to write a blog post summarizing and reflecting on some of my experiences there – partly as a shout-out to the people who form this amazing community, partly to process the marching orders I feel I received professionally with such force, vigor, and passion over the course of that week.
Including the pre-conference workshops, I was in Pittsburgh doing preservation-y things from Nov. 8-12, which, you will either remember or calculate, was the very week that life in the United States finally, irrevocably shifted. I do not consider it possible nor appropriate to discuss this conference or my profession without getting political anymore. I believe it is the obligation of those working in libraries, archives, or related fields to provide open access to information while maintaining the privacy of those who seek that information. I believe it is the duty of those who preserve the past to seek beyond traditional boundaries to include the voices of marginalized, forgotten, and repressed groups and protect them for the future. And I believe those responsibilities are about to become a personal and potentially dangerous challenge unlike anything we’ve seen in this country, certainly in my brief lifetime. To be suddenly faced, in a concrete way, with that kind of hate, risk, and violence, is disheartening and upsetting – and that is speaking as someone merely adjacent to the President-Elect’s targets, as a cishet white man never going to face a fraction of the trauma barreling down on others.
That was the weight that was dropped on us the night of November 8th. It very well could’ve kept us down for the whole week – I know I seriously contemplated fleeing the conference to family and other loved ones, terrified in that moment of the unfamiliar and unfeeling blank space of nondescript hotel rooms in a city I did not know (I was glad at least of the coincidence of my brother having just recently moved to Pittsburgh for grad school). What kept me going, and what still chokes me up to think about now weeks later, was first to realize that I was among a community of people who felt exactly as I did, and second, most importantly, to see so many of those peers respond immediately, unblinking, by pushing back up against that weight.
AMIA could’ve been a week of distracting ourselves with the quotidian aspects of our work: tech specs for film digitization, a new metadata standard for born-digital object cataloging, cute tales of fanciful discoveries from our collections. But instead of distraction – and a lot of praise here to the conference programming committee, which prepared a phenomenal lineup of panels and talks steering our discussion in ways they couldn’t have even foreseen – what followed was four days of integration and collaboration. Every session, from topics broad and openly political to more specific and observational, became infused with an urgent question, the only question that frankly matters anymore: what are we, together, going to do? I am not pleased, nor proud, that as moving image archivists and activists we must now work out of a sense of desperation and danger – but it is a fierce reminder of why that work, even in times of apparent calm and freedom, is so important, and why our greatest resource and skill is to talk with each other.
Tuesday, Nov. 8
A day spent in the pre-conference DigiPres 101 workshops, breaking down programming basics and digital tools for preservation, including sessions on:
- basic use of the command line interface (Mac and Windows)
- introduction to technical writing and Github
- Mediainfo, Mediaconch, and file format identification/validation
Many of the specifics covered this day I was already familiar with from my MIAP courses or my own self-education in digital/tech matters – in fact, the basic command-line instruction session was more or less exactly the same as a class we had in Digital Preservation two years ago, perhaps unsurprising given that it was the same person teaching both.
But my reason for attending was more that I hope to start doing more, similar exercises and workshops for our students in the MIAP program. I wanted to observe, structurally, how people communicate concepts and tools related to digital preservation – and for that I couldn’t have had a better lineup of role models! So big thanks to, respectively, Kara Van Malssen, Erwin Verbruggen, Dave Rice, Reto Kromer, Ben Turkus and Sarah Romkey, who are all doing incredible work to not just build software and save digital A/V material, but teach others how to do so as well. Sarah’s presentation on Artefactual’s Archivematica system was particularly thorough and enlightening for me since I will be giving our second-year students an intro to that software next month – more on that, perhaps, along with advice and feedback from novice users, when that happens!
Wednesday, Nov. 9
The *thing* happened. It took us all a while to get going in the morning, understandably – but after a delayed start I took part in my first-ever AMIA/DLF Hack Day. Every year AMIA partners with the Digital Library Federation to sponsor a group of programmers, archivists, students and librarians of all skill levels to come together for a day of intensive development on digital preservation-related topics or tools. Projects are pitched, the attendees are split into small groups, and then spend 7-8 hours creating a piece of software, or creating documentation, or editing a wiki, etc. etc. You can see a summary of this year’s Hack Day here, including the Hack Day manifesto, summaries of the four completed projects, plus other ideas that were floated and roadmaps for how several of the projects can continue to move forward. (Hack Day projects often have far-reaching life cycles beyond the day itself, as previous projects like vrecord and ffmprovisr attest!)
Personally, I ended up working with a team of radical lumberjacks on a project called Loggr: a mini-metadata schema/template specifically designed for logging errors during analog and digital video quality control. It is our experience that archivists, vendors and catalogers tend to have wildly different ways of describing and recording video errors and artifacts, which leads to jumbled, un-parseable metadata lumped into free-text note fields, never to serve another useful purpose again. Building on Bay Area Video Coalition’s A/V Artifact Atlas (the most comprehensive, open resource available for identifying video errors) and compiling sample data from a number of actual vendors and in-house digitization efforts, we tried to build a controlled vocabulary for accurately describing and quantifying the frequency and severity of errors – the idea being, if vendors or catalogers all use this system, one could with a simple search discover, say, how many and which tapes in an institution’s collection have severe ghosting, or mild dropout, or moderate flagging. With such metadata, patterns could emerge that were previously obscured: similarities across tape formats or collections that could reveal origins in production, storage history, etc.
I say “we”, but I feel the need to specifically shout out the members of Team Loggr: Savannah Campbell, Kathryn Gronsbell, Charles Hosale, Kristin MacDonough, Erica Titkemeyer and Ben Turkus. Because while they were all furiously poring over sample data and piecing together possible terms and fields, I was mostly, well, tweeting.
In addition to participating in Hack Day I was also generously given the opportunity to be an AMIA/DLF Virtual Cross-Pollinator. Because archivists tend to schedule EVERYTHING in the fall, the AMIA conference this year head-butted right up against not only DLF’s annual forum but the DLF/National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s Digital Preservation conference. So four cross-pollinators, including myself, Sarah Barsness, Rachel Mattson and Lorena Ramírez-López received fellowships to connect the three events by publicly reporting and discussing the various goings-on via the hashtag #AVhack16 on Twitter. My focus on the AMIA end was Hack Day and reporting the activities of Team Loggr and the other groups, but there were many relevant digital discussions throughout the three-day conference and it was my pleasure to keep the ball rolling the whole week, not least of which because the flurry of topics and ideas flying over the various conference hashtags kept me invigorated and passionate despite the overhanging doom and gloom. Whether it was the value of digital labor, open-source alternatives for common digital archiving/library tasks, or the state of job postings and employer desires for digital archivist positions, the cross-over discussion emphatically proved how the 21st century has brought librarianship and preservation closer than ever. (Thank you to AMIA and DLF for funding our fellowships!!!)
A common thread across the #AVhack16 scroll – certainly influenced by the election results, but, I’m sure, already present as a priority for the field – was the necessity of concrete strategies and language for discussing issues of diversity and inclusion in information science and archiving. A focus on user stories and widening our conception of the people who use archives was evident at both AMIA and Digital Preservation 2016. The very idea of archival neutrality was challenged – if not shattered. One of the first thoughts of the week, and one that defined the experience of not just AMIA and cross-pollinating for me but has re-contextualized my entire career and the work I strive to do, was this notion, passed along by Rachel but originally from Samantha Abrams of StoryCorps:
Digital preservation is people. Technology is people. Tools and records and objects and the machinery in place to preserve them (political, economic, cultural) are, at their core, people. People made them and they are thus nothing but extensions of ourselves. We lose sight of that a lot. My Hack Day experience, focused so much less on technical skill or wizardry than just on collaboration and discussion, drove this home for me. The title of Rachel’s own talk on a panel regarding tech and community sums it up:
Thursday, Nov. 10
For various reasons, AMIA critically needed to discuss inclusion before the election even hit. So the opening plenary (surprisingly well-attended for one of the brutal 8:30am sessions) addressing this issue head-on was a bracingly cathartic, frank confrontation that (as I’ve made abundantly clear by now) set the tone for the next three days. She has not yet made the full text of her talk available, but I can’t recommend enough looking over the slides for my fellow XFR Collective member and friend Carmel Curtis’ presentation. She points out some amazing resources and strategies for community building and inclusion – in one of the many instances at this conference of activist archivists not just raising important questions but going further to provide solid, instructive paths to getting some shit done.
A breakout session following this plenary provided an opportunity for us to discuss diversity in AMIA in smaller groups and suggest actionable items to the AMIA Diversity Committee, particularly regarding the drafting of a Statement of Diversity and Inclusion for the organization. I believe that statement is still in process but snaps to committee c0-chairs Jacqueline Stewart and Moriah Ulinskas for doing such amazing work in making this statement, and in-person discussion and collaboration on these topics, a top priority for AMIA.
Other topics/panels hit this day:
- a panel on the scientific realities of climate change and the advocacy work of Project ARCC (Archivists Responding to Climate Change) – providing invaluable resources on how archivists can start working to reduce our carbon/ecological footprint (after all, what good is preserving our material for the future if our technological/energy strategies at the same time actively denigrate that future?)
- a panel on Women in Technology (#AMIAwomen) – an opportunity for men such as myself to actively listen to the experiences of women struggling to be recognized in a field with a well-recognized pattern of misogyny (I was dreaming up a series of tech-related workshops for our students for this coming spring semester and as a direct result of this panel am brainstorming instead female techs/engineers/programmers/troubleshooters to come in and co-teach if not lead a workshop instead of myself – please contact me if you’re in the NYC area and interested!)
- a meeting of the AMIA Open Source Committee – after contributing my Cable Bible to the committee’s Github page earlier this year, I am looking to be more actively involved in their work and expanding on the ever-growing list of open resources and tools provided by this group to the archival community. Stay tuned!
And finally, Thursday evening was AMIA’s annual Archival Screening Night, a chance for institutions from across the country to show off recent discoveries or restorations. This is always a treat, but particularly this year because it was preceded by organizational awards granted to a trio of personal heroes: Dave Rice of CUNY TV, Dennis Doros of Milestone Films and Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute. Dave’s philosophy of addressing the daunting challenges of digital preservation by seizing our own flexible, open technology and tools to serve archival purposes rather than waiting for the dregs of traditional production and development communities is an inspiration every damn day, and has heavily influenced my movement in the past year to improve my knowledge of programming, code, software development, etc. Dennis and Amy Heller’s championing of under-appreciated filmmakers is a perfect model of how outside-the-box, boutique distribution can be both economically sustainable and culturally woke (please go watch their releases of the work of Shirley Clarke and Kathleen Collins immediately -FilmStruck subscribers, that means you!!!). And the impact of the scientific breakthroughs, and their accessible proliferation thanks to Bigourdan at IPI can’t be understated – I know I’ve already used the IPI Media Storage Quick Reference reference guide countless times, both as a student and in professional consulting. Thanks, from the bottom of my heart, to all three of you for your innovation.
Friday, Nov. 11
The diversity/inclusion ball kept rolling Friday morning with reports back from the breakout session and various committee chairs during the morning plenary. That spirit rolled on into various panels for the day in the Do It Yourself & Community Archiving stream – all of which are available, for the first time ever, for view by the general public. I am so happy that AMIA is starting to make these conference talks more accessible and I hope the successful DIY&CA experiment this year will encourage even more live-streaming and accessibility at the next conference – even for those of us able to take on the considerable travel/lodging/food/registration cost of attending, the ability to go back and refresh/reference these talks is invaluable!
On Friday I also presented a poster on a personal project, The Cable Bible, an idea which got rolling on this very blog! The feedback I received, from other archivists, students and even professional vendors/technicians, was nothing but positive. I hope to get moving on some planned edits and expansion soon, but in the meantime, please feel free to hop in and edit it yourself on Github, or just send me pictures of weird cables you’ve found! I’m happy to figure it out together. This experience of building the Cable Bible has also motivated me to help on other resources and documentation for quick archival reference – Ben Turkus, myself and the rest of Team Loggr batted around ideas for both improving BAVC’s A/V Artifact Atlas and designing a “Video Test Pattern Bible” (I guess that’s my niche now), which are both projects I’m setting a personal goal to advance by this time next year – hold me to it!
The day wrapped up with Hack Day judging – after some fine-tuning and tweaking over Thursday and Friday, the four teams from Wednesday’s event got to present their work to an esteemed panel of expert judges in competition for two prizes: Best Solution to the Stated Problem, and Most Appropriate to the Spirit of the Hack Day Manifesto. Thanks to our judges: Snowden Becker, Ashley Blewer, Jack Brighton, Carmel Curtis and Chris Lacinak, for a series of lively, fun, and engaging conversations!
Saturday, Nov. 12
Phew. One last day. A series of lightning talks in the morning gave updates on various small individual projects going on around AMIA – although I admit I was stressing too much about personally announcing the time and location of the Hack Day judging results to absorb much of it. The morning plenary continued with the membership business meeting, at which an open mic allowed AMIA members to present their concerns to the newly-elected board of directors. This meeting has turned, um, contentious in past years, but I have to say the conversation this year between the board and the membership felt two-sided and productive. The issue of the affordability of the conference was raised yet again, and I feel that is a huge concern that AMIA needs to continue pushing to improve, but I feel more confident than I have in my three previous years that this is an actual high priority for the board.
I’d like to highlight two panels from the final day of the conference that I attended: first, a roundup from employees of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian (Julia Kim, Crystal Sanchez, Walter Forsberg and Blake McDowell – MIAP alumni all!) discuss a real-life “FAIL” scenario in which the files for a large-scale oral history project were discovered to have corrupted. Discussions of failure, troubleshooting and work-arounds can be absolutely invaluable for our field – mistakes are frequently more illuminating and educational at a practical level than best practices – but many institutions, for whatever reasons of professional or personal humility, are loathe to talk about them publicly. So kudos to this group for opening up – file fixity is oft-discussed in our classrooms, but actually hearing how digital tools and strategies played out in a real-life crisis scenario was incredibly engaging.
The other panel I’d like to mention was the NDSR roundup. The National Digital Stewardship Residency program, this year sponsored by the American Archive for Public Broadcasting, aims to build a network of professionals capable of managing and preserving digital cultural collections by placing recent graduates in, again, real-life consulting/development scenarios. Like so many of us, they are figuring out how to “do” digital preservation on the fly, learning by simply doing the thing – only much more publicly exposed than most of us are in our work. They are brave, awesome, smart people, and you should all be following their blog posts and twitter musings from: Selena Chau, Eddy Colloton, Tressa Graves, Adam Lott, Kate McManus, Lorena Ramírez-López, and Andrew Weaver!
And because everything has to come back around to Hack Day, the conference wrapped up for me with the presentation of the awards, as judged the night before. As it turned out, all the actual Hack Day organizers fled Pittsburgh earlier that day, so they foolishly left Lorena and I in charge of emceeing:
I guess we did all right!
Team Loggr unfortunately got shut out, but congrats to Team Checksumthing for winning both Best Solution to the Stated Problem and the coveted audience award (as voted by the approximately ~10 non-Hackers in attendance) and to Team WikiData for Digital Preservation for staying truest to the spirit of Hack Day!
As you can tell, this was a roller coaster of a week. Ultimately I am so glad that I got to spend it among this community of incredible, dedicated professionals, who have, in just the three years I’ve known them, evolved in my eyes from a somewhat intimidating cabal armed with super-secret-archive-knowledge into a collaborative group of mentors, peers and friends. I can’t wait to see you all again next year in New Orleans -but in the meantime, let’s get to work!