Contents - Previous - Next

Section I: Introduction to audiovisual archives 1

1.1 Audiovisual archives
1.2 Nature of the AV media
1.3 Worldview and paradigm of AV archiving
1.4 Audiovisual records as archival material
1.5 General principles of audiovisual archiving
1.6 A Typology of media archives 1993
1.7 The AV archive: definition and typology

Legal issues in audiovisual archives

1.8 Legal issues facing audiovisual archives
1.9 Legal issues in AV archives: an introduction
1.10 Copyright, neighbouring rights and film archives
1.11 UNESCO AV Copyright meeting report. December 5-6 1994

Ethical issues

1.12 Ethics
1.13 Ethics and new technology


1.1 Audiovisual archives

Helen P Harrison.

Archives exist for the preservation and continuation of the cultural heritage and that heritage is made from a variety of cultures, past and current civilisations, artefacts, manuscripts and printed materials and the more recent phenomena of audiovisual materials and electronic documents.

Human endeavour has long been transmitted by images and the oral tradition: cave paintings, hieroglyphics, ancient scripts and the passing on of legend and tradition by word of mouth. Next came the written records - clay tablets, papyrus, manuscripts. The invention of printing made material more widely available, providing the recipient could read, and more recently the materials could be recorded on to a visual or audio format for widespread transmission and distribution. The audiovisual materials had arrived.

All these elements are part of the record of the cultural heritage and if they are to continue to exist require saving, gathering, preserving and/or conserving and they also need to be accessible to encourage the spread of knowledge.

But who will hold all these treasures - who will be responsible to others, past present and future, for the collection and safeguarding of the materials? Archives, museums and libraries all bear responsibility.

Archives exist for the preservation and continuation of the cultural heritage. Audiovisual media contribute to culture, especially of the nineteenth century, and even more so of the twentieth and therefore archives for audiovisual materials are being developed.

What is an archive?

Archives are not just random collections of materials but rather collections which have been selected for a particular purpose because they represent business, legal or cultural aspects of life in a certain period of time. Certain archives are spoken of as state or government archives, or perhaps even business archives. These are paper archives, but film and video, sound recordings, photographic archives are not always necessarily 'official' archives in the same sense. There are the State Archives and the Government Archives, but many were first established independent of a state even though they had a national responsibility. Given the technology involved in audiovisual archives and the material which results, this cultural heritage is mainly that of the twentieth or the late nineteenth century.

Archives are normally defined as non-current, but permanently valuable records. The material may be valuable as evidence of legal and administrative transactions and obligations, or because of the information it contains which is of value beyond the reasons for its original creation. This is a traditional view of archives but, as a prominent archivist has said, the new technology is having a profound effect on archives and the concepts of archival preservation. Photography, both still and moving, has had its effect. There is widespread use of sound recording. The computer had its effect on record keeping and collections management policies. Until very recently most of the audiovisual archives were in effect single media archives: film, television or video, sound and photograph archives. Increasingly the archives are combining their interests. Some take responsibility for all recorded materials moving image, sound and photographs, others take smaller bites and combine one or two of the materials.

What is an audiovisual archive?

A first reaction is instinctively that it is different from a conventional archive. It may have the same policies and philosophy and similar aims in the preservation and collection of a particular slice of human activity. This slice may be the large one of an era, century or decade, reflecting the cultural and social life of the times, or it may be a smaller slice which records on one or more materials a particular aspect of a special place or a restricted time.

But the collection policies - the principles of arrangement, organisation, access, security, conservation and preservation of audiovisual materials, are different, or at least require something of a rethink for the archivist as conventionally seen especially if the material is to be included in an 'audiovisual archive'.

The differences between the archival principles of print and audiovisual, of manuscripts, books and audiovisual materials, can be demonstrated in several areas of concern.

There is also the question of the differences between the various collecting agencies of archive, museum and library. All can make use of the technical considerations and guidelines, not all will have the same collection policies. The differences between the three professions are no longer so clear as the differences in the agencies involved may well be.

But even then with the development of audiovisual archives in the only past 10 years there has been an awareness of the need for specialised archives to deal with specialised materials. Audiovisual materials do require different policies and practices, which although they can build upon existing archival principles and practices have to develop their own. Technical considerations in particular will have a profound effect upon the audiovisual archives - it is not just a question of preservation of materials, it has to be a question of continual transfer, copying and restoration of the originals.

Although the professions are drawing together there is still a difference of degree rather than a fundamental one. The emphasis may be on exploitation or preservation, but even this gap is closing as archives realise the value of their material and the means for exploitation become easier in the form of video or audiocassette or CD Rom. It is essential to archives that their material is made available if only because this gives a higher profile to their work which can in turn reap a certain financial reward to be ploughed back into the archive finances. Archivists can no longer afford to be philanthropists and must be seen to be economically viable if they are to survive. But economic gain must be matched with ethical responsibility to donors, users and material.

Audiovisual archives in existence

Few audiovisual archives have until now claimed to be archives according to the conventional definition. Where they exist and have been developed independently they may make just claim, but the world is moving on and the audiovisual archive has had to fight for recognition - not so much with other archives, who very often incorporate the new materials in any case, but with government and national bodies who either ignore them or treat them as upstarts. Areas in which archives have been widely recognised are those of film and audio, but the struggle has been long and difficult and dependent upon some very dedicated people. Audiovisual archives are only in their infancy - single media archives have been more prominent to date, but the situation is changing rapidly as technologies merge and finance for new projects in national archives for single materials decreases. Most single media archives find it necessary to attach themselves, for better or worse, to existing archives/institutions in order to survive the financial storms.

They may not hold master materials or original stock and they are seldom, even as national archives comprehensive even within a particular format or subject area. For example, National sound archives may be fortunate to obtain a large proportion of the published material as does the National Sound Archive in the UK, but be relatively short on unpublished materials unless they have a policy to generate the material themselves. National film archives are certainly not comprehensive in their coverage, nor would they claim to be so. And finally, no one would claim to have a comprehensive archive of photographic material. The collecting policy may have all the right intentions, but the market and the available material dictates otherwise. Material may be unobtainable, unknown, beyond redemption or destroyed. It is a fact of all audiovisual archivists lives.

An Audiovisual Archive

Audiovisual archives can be as varied as the materials themselves.

The materials can be roughly classified into what we can term 'visual materials' - the moving visuals of film and the still visuals of photographs - and the 'sound recordings'. But having said that we are not a great deal further forward, for moving visuals can be divided into film and videograms, that is videotape, cassette and even disc. We cannot ignore videograms as much of the present material which will become of archival value is only available on a videorecording of some sort. Still visuals can be expressed as photographs, slides, and further into microforms, postcards, posters, etc. Not all these materials are necessarily archival and we restrict ourselves to the photographs in this book. The videodisc or CD-ROM can also be considered as still visuals or optical recordings, especially when it is used as a catalogue to a collection of art works or museum objects such as the prints and drawings collection of the Library of Congress. There is even a confusion in terms and definition is an uneasy field at the present time.

Film material has been with us for 100 years, 1996 is its officially designated centenary year. The first films were produced in the 1890s. Photographic material has been with us for longer, since the 1830s. Archives of film and photographs are therefore fairly recent phenomena in terms of many other archive materials, but this does not mean that they are less of a problem. Far from it.

There are three main types of av archive specializing in a single medium: moving images, still visuals and sound recordings.

Sometimes we get a combination of audiovisual materials in one setting. Examples of combined archives are the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia, the British Library and the National Sound Archive, and the broadcasting companies like Süddeutscher Rundfunk in Stuttgart where sound and film archives have recently been brought under the one administration. Unlike SDR, the BBC has archives of separate materials under different heads of department and scattered all over London and beyond, although they are now being brought under one department, they are not intermingled in one and the same environment. In Canada, the National Archives cover, as their title suggests, the government archives including film, TV, sound and paper. The central administration is there, with other heads of department for the audiovisual materials. There are similar cases in the Library of Congress and the National Archives in Washington DC. Most of these archives are developing into function-based archives rather than material or media based archives.

The larger archives could not possibly combine materials together in one department, the physical functions dealing with each material such as storage, handling and restoration need separate expertise to deal with them and therefore have to be split on this parameter alone. But there are other functions of collection management which can be administered throughout all materials, or at least all audiovisual materials: documentation and information retrieval, and selection, to name but two. Audiovisual archives however may not be in a similar position - sometimes their stocks are smaller, but of more materials and the parameters for collection, storage, selection and documentation may be grouped more closely together. Storage vaults may have to accommodate more than one material and the resulting environmental considerations will be different to those more stringently applied to individual materials. Or, of course the archive may decide that is incumbent upon them to use the optimum storage and environmental values as applied to each material. In some ways the archive dealing with single media is in a more fortunate position in these cases - other may have to make compromises in order to accommodate all its materials in the same storage area and environment.

So far we have been talking of archives, but because of the nature of the materials involved we could be drawn more and more to a second type of collection which could also be appropriate to consider as an audiovisual archive. This is the collection of last resort. Audiovisual archives are so often in this category that we should begin to merge the two types. Collections of last resort represent the attempt to conserve copies of material in usable condition - at least for reference purposes - and they seldom retain archival originals or masters in the accepted sense. They may also be regarded as the access points for the archives themselves. There are two aspects to this question. In the first place archives may be in a position to provide their own access facilities, but that is not always the primary purpose of the archives. Their main raison d'être is the preservation of the original product providing access when no other copies exist in similar condition. The collection of last resort on the other hand provides more accessible viewing and listening opportunities, using 'cassette' copies taken from the originals before deposit.

Preservation considerations

This is the main concern of archives - the conservation of the material in their care. The nature of the audiovisual materials means that all too often the information has to be transferred from one material or format to another. Videotape is certainly in this category. Audiotape may have to be rerecorded or a tape produced from an unplayable format. Nitrate film has to be transferred to safety stock or it will blow you, your collection and the surrounding countryside into the next century without problem or so much as a 'by your leave'. Colour film has to be separated and probably transferred to more stable stock at intervals. By their very nature, therefore, archive materials in audiovisual formats are rarely masters or originals. But what do you do with the material you have carefully restored and copied. The increasing tide of opinion of audiovisual archivists is that wherever possible you should copy material for use but keep the original in the very best possible conditions in order that as technology advances and restoration techniques improve you still have the original to return to when such a circumstance arises. This does mean more storage space - but the universal panacea for preserving and copying archive material have not yet been attained.

Other Archival Dimensions

The archival dimension heightens and adds to the usual concerns of audiovisual collection policy.


This may be the deposit of collections or individual items. It could be purchase, but this is a special purchase - sometimes at auction (with photographs, for instance). Archive material is seldom taken off a shelf or paid for over a shop counter. Evaluation is an important aspect of archival acquisition. The material has to be evaluated against material in stock, the purpose of the archive, the subject of the archive and so on.


The archivist is seldom given a choice of what comes his way. He may receive material by deposit within the broadcasting companies, or from government departments for example, or by donation or even purchase. Selection aids are few and far between; archive material is much more likely 'just to turn up'. Once material is in a collection, selection becomes a major facet of an archivist's job in both film and photographic archives. You can seldom keep everything and treat it effectively and you have to apply criteria of selection to control the material. Quality, provenance and quantity are all important criteria. Have you already got plenty on a particular topic, or must you keep every last scrap of film on a subject which you can lay hands on? Archives do have some very stringent archival selection policies - they have to! It is quoted widely that archives select only about 2% of the material presented. Audiovisual archives should they do that would be shortly out of existence. Audiovisual archives do not have a huge selection of material but most of the material is of unique value. Selection ratios for audiovisual archives are much higher than those for other archives. Nevertheless the sheer volume of audiovisual material means that pre-selection is essential. A well known film archivist, when faced with a legal deposit possibility, however much he would appreciate it, said 'yes, but I would like to make the choice of what to receive rather than have the pantechnicon at the door'.

Other Considerations:


This has to be relatively detailed as accessions records will need to have information about ownership and copyright, as well as the conditions under which the archive acquires the material and, subsequently, the conditions of use. Any restrictions of copyright or contracts have to be entered in an accessions register. And all these conditions may alter over a period of time.


In archives the problems are safety of stock and security of the master rather than a question of will we allow people to borrow the material.

Storage conditions for archives are necessarily more stringent than those for reference and access collections. In order to provide access and research materials a master must be preserved or at least a 'master' copy for the production of further reference copies. Also, storage conditions have to be more stringent for the archive material, which has to be kept for permanent.

Whatever posterity has or has not done for you or me, some record of our passing will be of interest to some terrestrial or extraterrestrial being.

Storage conditions are a lively debatable issue in the audiovisual archive world. They can be very stringent and costly, or less stringent but allow relative accessibility to the material.

There are several conflicting views about storage conditions. For long-term preservation only the costliest and most inaccessible conditions may be of use. For example, film has to be stored to preserve both the image and the colour. Colour film should be stored at 0EC and/or in separation negatives - that is three negatives, one for each of the primary colours. This inevitably is expensive and it takes a great deal of time to acclimatize the material to a usable temperature or to produce it in a suitable format. As for videotape, no one is very sure about either its optimum storage conditions or its expected life.

Many audiovisual archives, especially if they contain mixed materials and formats, may have to decide upon a compromise solution, e.g. 12EC and 40% relative humidity, or 16EC and 50% RH. The most important point is to keep the material at the chosen values and not to allow cycling of environmental conditions. Several papers in this book address these problems far more knowledgeably than I and I commend them to you.


'Access' and 'archives' or 'preservation' may appear at first to be contradictory terms. Part of the archives' developing role is to increase access to unique (and by that I do not mean master material). Most audiovisual archivists would like to provide access services for current use, education and research purposes. A perfectly reasonable goal. The producer does not make material with archives in mind - he would be foolish to try and live on archival potential.

Access is a problem for av libraries because playback damages the material. Videocassette is protected by its casing to some extent, but ask any TV engineer how much use a 2" broadcast tape is which has been subjected to 20 transmissions and the answer could be interesting. The more technically perfect the tape the more dropout and damage can be caused.

Copyright may also provide a deterrent to access of materials.

There is another aspect to access. It is well known that I personally prefer a film record to a videotape record. I can see film; all right, I cannot view it as it was meant to be viewed, but if I hold a piece of film up to the light there is a visible record in my hands of the content recorded on the material. If I hold a piece of videotape, brown or black, I have no immediate clue as to what it contains, if anything. An archivist may well encounter similar problems. He is preserving on an 'invisible' format material he expects to be replayed in the next century on a machine which no one in that century may have the slightest idea about. There are considerable problems of replay on existing technology. But what about the poor soul who comes along in the year 2050, looks at a piece of blank brown tape or, indeed, an optical disc, videodisc, CD or CD-ROM - equally blank - and wonders at the curious people of the twentieth century who produced all this apparently useless material.

Just what do we think we are preserving for posterity? That is the main obsession of the audiovisual archivist; or if it is not, it should be.

Bibliographic control

Once again bibliographic control of audiovisual archive material is an extension of normal bibliographic control. Bibliographic control of archive material meets problems in the volume of the material encountered, usually in the backlog mode; the necessity for detailed cataloguing, especially of the unedited, unpublished material which abounds in archives; and the necessity to catalogue from the copy in hand.

Volume of material

Film material includes feature film, documentary or non-fiction, educational material, newsfilm and so on. Television includes the same variety. Who is to say what will be of worth to the future film historian? Sound archives have an equally wide variety and volume of material. When we come to consider photographs it is virtually impossible to estimate the number of photographs housed in archives, libraries and special collections.

Just to stretch the imagination a recent survey of holdings in archives of audio, film and video archives was carried out by the Library of Congress on behalf of Eastman Kodak. The figures were alarming. Even with the most stringent selection criteria and limited collection resources the results of the holdings of 500 archives (extrapolated from those answered the survey) amounted to 11 billion 175 million feet of film, 8.5 million hours of video, and 44.5 million hours of audio. And this was only from 500 archives. There are many more archives out there. A recent survey of audiovisual archives in Europe alone Map-TV - Film and Television Collections in Europe indicated some additional 1900 archives only of film and television.

When we consider photographic material the figures may be even greater. Photographic collections vary in subject and nature. There are the large collections of art reproductions, news material and general interest items. One million items is a relatively small collection. Only consider the different types of national collections. There are collections of photographs of art objects which are themselves scattered throughout galleries and museums; press photograph collections which are huge; aerial, space or other specialist scientific collections, and architectural records like that of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Who is to say what is going to be of worth to the historian or publisher of tomorrow out of these items? They could all be considered to have some historical or archival significance, whether they record people who have died, places which have been lost or destroyed or events which will never be repeated.

What bibliographic control exists, and what tools are available?

Archive film is a backlog problem for the archivist.

Detailed cataloguing

It takes time to catalogue archive material adequately. Archive cataloguing cannot be cheap and dirty - if it is, one could suggest that there is little point in doing it at all. In considering archive film there are usually problems of identity which require research to uncover the relevant details. Newsfilm, for example, may depict events and people unknown to the cataloguer. It has been estimated that to catalogue an archive film of 30 minutes adequately could well use some 4 hours of a cataloguer's time. The film has to be viewed. There may be no external clues as to its contents, or the clues may be positively misleading.

Why do you need such detail? Looking at the apparently endless credits we get on modern film and television, you begin to wonder if it is worth it. But to wear an archivist's hat you have to realize that the apparently obscure, unknown third unit sound recordist of today may become the award-winning director of tomorrow.

Film should always be catalogued from the copy in hand, and it must be viewed for archival cataloguing purposes. Detailed cataloguing is required and the following are some of the essential elements.

Title Film is known by its title in most cases, especially fiction film. However, the title may be a catchy and misleading one. Fiction film is often released under different titles in different countries. Some film does not have a title as such - newsfilm and stockshots have to be provided with an objective content description.

Production details These, as already indicated, can be very lengthy.

Credits These also can be lengthy. However, today's bit part player may become tomorrow's 'megastar'.

Technical specifications It is vital in an archive to know the state and status of the copies held. You need to keep a watching brief on the physical condition for conservation purposes. This should be included in the catalogue entry.

Summary This, too, is vital for the film researcher. Some (in fact, many) archival films are incomplete for one reason or another. A detailed content summary may be needed, and there is always the danger that the cataloguer may not know that the film is incomplete.

Location number This is to indicate where the film is housed in the archive, and is an important finding tool. Film is not shelved in classified order, rather by title for complete television programmes or feature and documentary films, or even by can number where several short pieces of film are housed in one can.

A notes section is also needed to indicate where a copy is faulty, its generation, state of repair, missing sections, etc.

Should bibliographies be based on archives? You will have realized some of the reasons why audiovisual archives cannot, in their present form and based on their current collections, produce bibliographies:

1 They are not comprehensive in their coverage.
2 The detail of the cataloguing means that any catalogue of holdings takes a long time to produce.
3 It is not up to date.
4 How much use is it if there are restrictions of access?

Lists of holdings are all that an archive can achieve and they are difficult enough.

New technology

The new technology may not provide the final solution for many archivists, but it is an interim answer for the archivist who believes access to be important.

But technology is always progressing and the problem for the archivist may not always be the material. The machinery can become obsolete and unusable far more quickly. What is the point of our preserving material on, for example, videotape or videodisc if there is no means, or no evident means, of replay available to our successors and future users?

These are just a few of the starting points for a consideration of audiovisual archives and their special nature.

Finally audiovisual archives deserve attention from specialised audiovisual archivists. Many have already come from the ranks of film and audio archives, archivists themselves have taken on the concerns of their expanding collections and audiovisual librarians have provided not a few of the personnel of the archives but there is a profession here which requires education and training in the particular art and craft of archivism. Policies and practices in av archives will relate to the materials themselves which are best understood by audiovisual specialists with an archival background and psyche. Audiovisual archives are here to stay and what the audiovisual archivist needs to do now is extend his knowledge of archive principles and adapt both them and the accepted archive, museum and library practices to the growing number of audiovisual archives which are appearing.

This has been at best an overview of the current situation and the concerns of the audiovisual archivist. The papers in this Reader have been chosen to provide more detailed analysis of the specialised aspects of audiovisual archive management.

Contents - Previous - Next