Can culture be digitally preserved?

USC News

Digital videos and photos. Films. Audio recordings. Every year people add exponentially more digital content to our lives. But how do they preserve the important stories, the building blocks of culture and the invaluable knowledge for the future? Who gets to decide what’s important, how will it be stored and how will it be shared with those who will benefit most?

Screening the Future Conference 2012, an upcoming conference to be held at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center, will address those questions as experts from around the world gather to discuss and learn about the state of the art in digital audiovisual conservation.

The event will assemble more than 250 archivists, production companies, filmmakers, TV producers, technology officers, scientists, vendors, strategists, funders and policymakers to develop solutions to the most urgent questions facing multimedia repositories.

The USC Digital Repository will co-host the conference to be held May 21-23. A collaboration among the USC Libraries, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute and USC Information Technology Services, the Digital Repository provides digital preservation, cataloging and high-speed access services to academic and private-sector clients.

“Digital archiving is the link between our past and present and the future, and we will discuss realities that encompass topics as diverse as technology, standards, the expectations of users, archival costs and the increasingly complex interaction between organizations, technologies and funding models,” said Jan Müller, president of the PrestoCentre Foundation, one of the event’s organizers in cooperation with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute.

“The diversity of organizations represented at this conference demonstrates the urgent, widely felt need for advancing digital archiving technology,” said Catherine Quinlan, dean of the USC Libraries. “Our scholarly research collections at USC, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s testimonies, corporate records and museum collections — the potential discoveries awaiting in these materials depend on our success in shaping digital technology to meet the preservation needs of our academic, cultural and commercial institutions.”

The event aims to help set the future research and policy agenda for digital multimedia preservation while providing attendees an opportunity to learn through interaction with leading institutions, practitioners and thinkers in the field. The conference will consider three key questions:

1. Should archives focus on data or media?

Audio-visual archives traditionally have been oriented around media branches like film or radio, with their libraries organized by the physical media type, such as magnetic tape or film. In a digital repository, these distinctions become less apparent as all types of media can be maintained in a single archive. However, this has consequences in terms of management and culture, as well as technology, and the conference will provide case examples from a variety of institutions to show how these consequences can be addressed.

2. How can archives match user demand with institutional capabilities?

“If we could save all content and make it searchable for free, everyone would be happy,” said Sam Gustman, associate dean of USC Libraries and chief technology officer at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. “But the public will always demand more than institutions and technologies are capable of delivering, which means we must set our priorities in an environment of constant change.”

Without the luxury of hindsight, archivists have to anticipate imagined future uses and users, no matter if their institutional focus is on education, social good, nostalgia or cultural production and re-use. To do so, they must learn to build systems that can adapt to changing priorities.

3. What can archivists learn from each other?

Successful processes for the digitization and digital preservation of video content have been worked out, often at great expense, by large institutions and other early adopters of new technology. But small-scale and specialized content collection requires as much care and expertise for preservation as it does for large organizations, and the conference will examine the options for smaller archives. If only large organizations can afford the IT resources required, the only option for smaller institutions may be turn to larger repository services for support, potentially forcing institutional consolidation. Do other options exist, and can digital preservation competence by scaled? If so, at what cost?

For the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, these are critical questions. The institute preserves more than 50,000 priceless testimonies of Holocaust survivors captured on nearly 250,000 video tapes that are in the process of being transferred to Motion JPEG 2000 files that can not only be digitally preserved but more easily shared to foster the foundation’s mission of teaching tolerance.

“It’s incumbent on all of us working in the field to continue pioneering digital archive technology and processes so we can preserve our heritage,” Gustman said. “We are entrusted with one of the largest public video databases in existence, and it’s important that our archive, as well as the many others around the world, can continue to thrive as technology advances.

“We have a dynamic lineup of speakers ready to tackle some very difficult and timely topics,” Gustman said. “As the history of film and audio recording stretches forward with more content generated faster than ever before, the challenges and opportunities of digital preservation have never been higher or more relevant.”

To register for the conference, visit