USC Digital Repository shapes the future of archiving

By Channing Sargent (USC News)

On the fourth floor of a former garment factory, mass digitization robots read and scan film clips, historic paper documents, books and photographs. In an adjacent room, cloud storage platforms store and archive the digitized content while mirrored robots preserve the material, replacing each piece with an exact copy every three years.

This is the USC Digital Repository, a collaboration among USC Libraries, USC Information Technology Services and the USC Shoah Foundation-The Institute for Visual History and Education. Its cloud archive is supported by USC’s Center for High-Performance Computing, the sixth-fastest academic supercomputer in the United States, according to Sam Gustman, executive director of the USC Digital Repository and associate dean of USC Libraries.

With its facilities fully capable of digitization, restoration, preservation, storage and digital asset management including cataloguing and searchability, the repository is the first of its kind in the country to open its services to commercial and educational users, providing the expertise and resources to allow users to manage complex collections of not just books, but film, TV, video tape and digital assets.

“The USC Digital Repository brings to bear USC’s unique combination of expertise in digital media, preservation infrastructure and digital library services,” said Catherine Quinlan, dean of the USC Libraries. “With that one-of-a-kind nexus of skills and technology, USC is the ideal long-term home for digital collections of such great research, cultural and business value.”

State-of-the-art technology

The USC Digital Repository was built from the infrastructure created to house the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, which holds more than 52,000 audiovisual testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. These testimonies were originally recorded on 150,000 master videotapes, leaving a vulnerability in the preservation of the archive: the life expectancy for videotape stock is approximately 20 years. The first testimony, which was put on tape in 1994, would begin deteriorating this year. Using state-of-art technology, the Shoah Foundation digitized the master videotapes, preventing deterioration and preserving the original audio and visual quality.

After the digitization process, production errors were often found in the footage. With each type of error — chromastrobing, flickering, analog video dropout — USC students working within the repository either utilized existing software to correct the error or, in many cases, wrote new software to address the issue.

“We see usually in a tape collection, about 4 percent of it has some kind of physical error, and 95 percent of those errors fit into categories that commercial software can fix. The 5 percent that doesn’t, we will write software for,” Gustman said.

Thus, the repository entered into a new service for digital collections: restoration.

Among its notable clients is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which transferred its archival material to be preserved within the repository. The 320-terabyte collection contains thousands of hours of footage documenting past Oscar ceremonies and includes the digital restoration and preservation of the feature films, animations, documentaries and silent era shorts that make up the Academy Film Archive.

The repository also contains the complete Warner Bros. Studio archives. USC will house and preserve the gold master copy of all of its television series and films, approximately 42 petabytes of data.

“We’ve got everything from classic films to current television,” Gustman said.

In addition, the USC Digital Repository will house the digital video archives of Maker Studios, the independent YouTube network behind such viral video series as “Epic Rap Battles of History.” Recently acquired by Disney, the studio represents the future of online entertainment, and with its massive amount of content, its preservation in a collection that exists somewhere other than YouTube will be key to its legacy.

Also counted among the repository’s commercial partners is radio station WHYY in Philadelphia. There are 640 public broadcasting stations in the country, and according to Gustman, each one possesses about a quarter of the archival material of Warner Bros.

If he had his druthers …

“My man-on-the-moon goal would be that half of those stations use the USC digital repository as their archive, and we become the best place in the world to come for public broadcasting,” Gustman said.

In addition to commercial and private collections, the USC Digital Repository preserves and makes accessible a number of academic resources of great research value. Besides the USC Shoah Foundation archive, the repository includes the collections of the USC Digital Library and the Albanian Human Rights Project.

The USC Digital Repository provides different levels of access for different collections. Archivists, production companies, filmmakers, TV producers, researchers, scientists and distribution partners can store and have others access their collections widely online or securely through well-defined special collections rules.

“USC is the best place in the world to bring digital collections,” Gustman said. “If Google is the place that you search for bits, we’re the place to go for the curated bits.”