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The DHC Digital Video Preservation Reformatting Project

In April 2003 The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded a grant to the Coalition for its Digital Video Preservation Reformatting Project.

Concluding in 2003, the project determined and specified preservation file format candidates appropriate for the dance community to preserve its heritage. Media Matters LLC of New York City headed the project with James Lindner, Managing Member of Media Matters LLC, as Principal Investigator. Carl Fleischhauer, Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress, acted as Principal Advisor.

While the focus of this project was on the needs of the dance community, the results of the experiment also affected other areas of scholarly inquiry and advanced the current state of knowledge. Information gathered through this research will be formulated into a nationally-accepted model, providing a technical foundation to those engaged in dance documentation and preservation, as well as others who use videotape to document their experiences and research. The findings made through the project will have enormous resonance for every major archival institution and the DHC is making the final report available in both electronic and hardcopy versions.

Videotape has become the archival storage medium for dancers and choreographers and popular belief within this community has always been that information stored on magnetic media is permanent. Magnetic tape has provided a medium to record and replay our dance history at will, but magnetic media have a very limited life span and playback machines quickly become obsolete. As a result, irreplaceable tapes are in peril and the probability is real of losing forever many of the moving images that have become the collective memory of all forms of dance. The emergency is especially critical within major institutions and repositories, including all of the Coalition member institutions, where rapidly deteriorating videotapes represent a major part of many archival collections. (For example, the New York Public Library, Dance Division estimates that it holds approximately 40,000 videotapes, representing virtually every type of dance practiced throughout the world.)

With this crisis in mind, the Dance Heritage Coalition has closely monitored the development of digital technology throughout the past few years. In a report to the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1997, the Coalition identified a critical need for the preservation of moving image and audio materials, particularly for dance recorded on videotape. A Technical Advisory Group was created in 1998 to guide and inform the Coalition in these matters. Drawing upon professional expertise in moving image video migration, the group proposed using dance as a model to address the complex issues surrounding the preservation of magnetic media.

Therefore, with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Coalition called a meeting in July 2002 to design an experiment to determine the most appropriate method of transferring analog videotapes to digital for preservation purposes and using a variety of dance videotapes as the testing focus. In the case of dance videotapes, the digitization process will not only conserve the original object but will reduce the further deterioration of and provide access to rare, fragile, and vulnerable materials. By setting preservation standards, the outcomes expected from this project will have enormous resonance not only for the dance community, but for every major archival institution.

Guided by Carl Fleischhauer, Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress, the following was identified as a basis for discussion.

The meeting is concerned with the target format for reformatted video content, understood in digital terms and focusing on files ("bit streams") managed in servers with associated data-tape storage. The meeting is intended to design an experiment that will compare and evaluate various approaches for reformatting video content such as dance performance footage, oral history interviews with figures in the world of dance, and the like. The goal is to find practical (or soon to be practical) approaches for video reformatting at levels of quality that maximize the possibility of future reuse of the footage, e.g., in edited programs. Various methods of evaluating the results will be proposed, ranging from scientific and/or engineering approaches to the presentation of test content to dance researchers. This meeting may touch upon but will not be extensively concerned with setting preservation priorities by, say, judging the condition of existing tape holdings, nor with issues pertaining to the long-term retention of the files once produced. These critically important topics await meetings of their own. (From the Agenda)

Implementation of the Project
With the 2003 Mellon grant, the consulting team of Media Matters LLC and Lindner examined various picture and sound (essence) file types as well as documentation file types while investigating uncompressed and lossless compression. Experimentation was performed in making MXF and AAF "container" file types and included a wide variety of preservation candidates at different bit rates to put inside to suggest the best tradeoff for dance material. Various methods were used to evaluate the results, ranging from scientific and/or engineering approaches to the presentation of text content to dance researchers.

The Dance Heritage Coalition was very pleased to have worked with Media Matters LLC, a technical consultancy specializing in archival audio and video material, which provides advice, analysis, and products to media archives interested in learning how their collections can befit from the advances in technology.