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1.6 A Typology of media archives 1993

Grace Koch, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, Australia 1993.

When we talk about media archives, we must make sure that we have a careful understanding about what they actually are; therefore we must begin with some definitions. We shall start with the word, "archives." In the Macquarie Dictionary of English (Delbridge 1981: 129), the word, "archives" is defined as "a place where public records or other historical documents are kept." Surprisingly enough, the word itself comes from the Greek "arkheia", meaning "public office" rather than, as might be expected, from "arkaikos" which means "ancient." (Roberts 1984:116) This very etymology attacks the concept of an archive as a "final resting place" or perhaps a "graveyard" of material. A public office, merely by the use of the word, "public", is highly visible and responsible. Archivists, as a group, are working hard to advertise their collections and make them available for public use. Such action is held in balance with the responsibility to maintain and preserve these collections.

The Working Group from the Round Table on Audiovisual Records, involving experts in sound, film and video media, has assembled a comprehensive Glossary of terms related to the archiving of audiovisual materials. Their three-part interpretation of what archives can be is:

1. Non-current records preserved, with or without selection, by those responsible for their creation or by their successors in function for their own use or by an appropriate archives because of their archival value.
2. An institution responsible for the acquisition, preservation, and communication of archives; also called archival agency, archives service, or record office.
3. The building or part of a building in which archives are preserved and made available for consultation; also called archives repository; archival depository.

Now that I have nearly exhausted the term, "archives", I shall move on to the term, "media." Media are carriers of information. Again I quote the Glossary:

A material or base upon which information is stored or transmitted.

This "material or base" can be in any number of forms: paper or print, magnetic tape, film. Significant philosophical differences exist between written, or printed, and audiovisual media. Some of these have been described by Rainer Hubert:

Writing is a recognised way of preserving speech, and..speech is intelligible thought..therefore..the print media contain, above all, human thoughts. They are the ideal storage medium for abstract, ..verbal information. Audiovisual media can also..contain [verbal or written] information.. [but their unique] capability lies in the fact that they can store non-verbal information,...the [visual] and acoustic environment...The [basic function] of the print media is [to individually translate thoughts into writing] while that of the audiovisual media is the recording by machine of [actual] visual and audio proceedings.

In this paper I shall deal with these carriers of audio and visual information; these media of direct experience. Therefore, a "media archive" will be one which contains one or more of the audiovisual media: sound, video, film, and photographs, which seeks at least in a small way to publicise the collections, and which arranges for the acquisition, classification, preservation/ conservation and dissemination of the holdings. Print material is held by most media archives as well, but their primary focus is upon audiovisual media. Because most of my experience has been with sound archives, I shall apologise in advance if I emphasise sound media more than the others.

When we look at media archives, we find that their operations have been heavily influenced by practices of print libraries. Many of the rules of registration (or accessioning) and cataloguing have been adapted to the needs of media archives; however, such practices are not standardised enough to allow for computerised access to the extent that print libraries allow. Cataloguing committees of such organisations as IASA, FIAF and FIAT are presently working towards developing international standards, but such work requires extreme diplomacy, creativity and flexibility!

Each audiovisual medium has its own special features that must be considered. A film cannot be handled in the same way as a photograph; a sound recording responds differently to multiple playings than a video.

However, media are growing together technically. The advent of the CD ROM has allowed storage of all media, print and audiovisual, on one type of carrier. The question remains as to how stable that carrier is, but the fact remains that media are moving together. The Joint Technical Symposia of the Round Table on Audiovisual Media are held for the express purpose of examining the impact of new technology and its effects upon the work of media archives. The entire role of media archives is being re-examined in the light of these developments. We live in exciting times.

Today I hope to guide you through the existing types of media archives. In discussing them, I want to examine five of the basic functions that they perform and see how each type of archive ranks them in importance. The functions are:

- collection
- creation
- classification
- dissemination
- preservation/conservation

Basic tasks of media archives


For the purposes of this analysis, collection shall be defined as developing archival holdings by obtaining material that is already available in audiovisual format. This can mean either published or unpublished recordings, films, videos, or photographs. These items can be obtained by such means as purchase, exchange, or donation. The archive will have a policy for collection, defining which items are suitable for its purposes. This definition corresponds to Hubert's concept of collecting "passively."


This means the actual generation of audiovisual material. Some archives carry out an "active" policy of making items. They may send out teams of documentalists and recording technicians to capture a specific event, such as a television crew rushing to the scene of a fire. This is more expensive than "passive" collection. Broadcasting archives do this all the time. Specialist archives often carry out such active collection when there is no material available anywhere else.


All audiovisual material must be registered (accessioned) and catalogued or listed in some way. Documentation of some sort must be provided with the material. As I mentioned earlier, the international associations dealing with audiovisual materials are working towards the standardisation of cataloguing; however, each audiovisual medium requires specific treatment.

Classification also must include information on how the collection may be used, copyright regulations, and firm contracts between the depositor and the archive. Such regulations make possible the next function, which is becoming increasingly more important.


This refers to making the contents of the archives available to users. It may involve making copies of archival material, either edited or unedited, or publishing the holdings in some way. Dissemination provides income for the archives; with the difficult financial conditions facing the world today, funding cuts are affecting all sorts of major institutions. Archives are being asked to justify their existence; often this means responsibility to and accessibility by the public as well as an active publications programme. Schools are an obvious target for archival publications.


I am using the two terms, preservation and conservation, as one task because they both deal with physical treatment of the media. The definitions for each process are:


Media archives require technical specialists to maintain the collections. Certain standards of preservation have been set by the international media archiving organisations for storage and maintenance procedures. Each medium requires special treatment; for example, the optimum temperature for storage differs for film and for audio tapes. Also, we live in a time where formats for audiovisual carriers are changing rapidly, especially since the advent of digitisation. Technical specialists must ensure that the carriers of audiovisual materials are stable; that they will last as long as possible either on a secure format or that they will be transferred to one which is. The format must aso be accessible; for example in the case of recorded sound, wax cylinders containing valuable historical material are being copied onto more playable formats.


Conservation, or restoration of carriers falls to the technical expert. Many ethical issues come up here; should a recording of a singer, for instance, be restored to sound like it did to the hearers of the original recording or should it be restored to sound like the original performance?

These definitions are very basic, but they should serve to identify the major tasks carried out by media archives.

Typology of media archives

The typology that I shall use is based upon a classification of sound archives that I put forward in 1991. It takes into account the origins of the archives and the general subject content of their holdings. I suggest it as a starting point only, and hope that future discussion will generate different points of view as seen by media specialists in fields other than mine. Some of the types overlap; however, I will concentrate on the unique aspects of each sort.

Let us propose the following five-part typology:

- Broadcasting archives
- National archives
- Research archives, usually but not always part of other institutions
- Audiovisual collections within libraries
- Commercial production archives

Broadcasting archives are, perhaps, the easiest to define. In English they are actually often defined as "the media." Their holdings consist of audio, film and video material used for radio and television programmes. There are some archives holding broadcasting material that exist more or less independently of particular broadcasting stations, such as the Museum of Broadcasting in New York, the Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv in Frankfurt, and the Centre audiovisuel in Paris; however, most of my comments will deal with archives attached to specific broadcasting organisations.

These archives may be a part of large national corporations, such as ÖRT, CBS, or the Finnish Broadcasting Company, part of regional branches of these national broadcasting organisations, or small public media stations. The purpose of these archives is to build up and to maintain a collection of audiovisual material that will be held as sources for programme use. These broadcasting archives often exist in two parts; programmes and past broadcasts, and source material, such as sound recordings. Print documentation, such as scripts or musical scores, may be held in both parts of the archive.

Newscasts need to draw upon recordings of past events to fully illustrate political situations; documentaries need pertinent background music as well as the major content. These archives must supply this source material very quickly to programme makers; therefore the archivist must work under pressure more than other types of media archivists.

National archives

National archives, while they may have subdivisions by media, almost always hold all types of audiovisual media. Their purpose is to systematically collect and maintain the audiovisual heritage of a nation. Some of these archives originated as media collections within another national institution, such as the Australian National Film and Sound Archive which separated from the National Library of Australia. Some of these still exist within a larger organisation, such as the Motion Pictures, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress in the United States.

If the archives exist within another institution, staff will be required to have the same qualifications as those in other sections of that institution. This means that librarianship or archival qualifications may be necessary. Also, because of the great size and diversity of the collections, staff may be required to have some form of academic subject specialisation, such as music or oral history.

Certain countries have a policy of legal deposit, where all phonograms, videograms and films published in a country are required to lodge one such publication with the national archive. France and Sweden were amongst the first in Europe to have this policy. Because of legal deposit and the variety of a nations' audiovisual heritage, these collections may be extremely large; also, they will have the largest subject diversity of any other type of archive.

Research archives

These archives can be loosely described as having specific subject interests. Some of these may be:

a) events or periods in history (Imperial War Museum in London)
b) regional interests (Landesmuseum Joanneum here in Graz)
c) specific cultural groups (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies)
d) academic disciplines or research fields (Dansk Folkmindesamling, various archives of the world's musics)
e) specific organisational archives (United Nations, Recording for the Blind)

Several of these archives have developed within institutions which fund researchers and serve as repositories for field collections. Video and audio recordings are becoming more and more important for anthropologists and ethnomusicologists.

Staff are often hired for their subject expertise and they may be called upon to spend much time guiding users in the proper selection of materials. Because much of the material is in the form of field recordings, the cataloguing system may be designed for the special needs of the archive rather than holding to formalised cataloguing rules. I would like to mention here the excellent work in cataloguing standards being done at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris for field recordings.

Audiovisual collections within libraries

These collections cannot be classified strictly as archival because they are in constant use. Some of their holdings may also be in national archives. University libraries hold video and audio tapes of lectures and source material for a variety of subjects. For example, relatively few language courses are taught without the use of audio cassettes and videos. Local municipal libraries are enlarging their collections of tapes and videos. Much of the material is available for borrowing, unlike the other types of archives. Staff will usually hold professional qualifications in librarianship or will hold formal technical certificates.

Commercial production archives

These exist as raw material for dissemination. Large motion picture studios or corporations and record companies are examples of these sorts of archives. These organisations hold archives of original films, metal stampers for records, stock shots, photographic negatives, and other original material.

Typology and basic tasks

All of the types of archives prioritise the five tasks in different ways. The tasks are on the left with the types of archives above. The lower the number, the more important the task. I have added the numbers given for each task; the lower the number, the higher priority for the task. I propose the following scheme:

  Broadcast National Research Library Commercial Total
Collection 5 1 1 3 5 15 (3)
Preservation/ Conservation 4 1 2 4 2 13 (1)
Classification 3 3 3 2 4 15 (3)
Dissemination 2 4 4 1 3 14 (2)
Creation 1 5 5 5 1 17 (4)

I shall examine the number ones amongst all of the archives, look at the remaining priorities within each type of archive, and comment upon the total scores in the final column.

First tasks

The first priority of broadcasting archives and of commercial archives is to create material for dissemination. The focus is on the user of the media. These archives have the primary business of getting the information out to the public; in the case of broadcasting archives, at a fast and furious rate.

Libraries exist for the purpose of making material available to users, to disseminate material. Again, the focus is on the user. Public libraries offer video and audio tapes for the general public. In the case of university libraries, many university courses depend upon student access to training media, such as language tapes and videos. A synthesis of educational and library use within a media context is shown by the Open University Library in the United Kingdom.

Both national and research archives see collection of relevant material as their top aim. National archives have instituted legal deposit in order to obtain a true record of the audiovisual publications of their nations. As you can see, national archives have two main priorities; collection and preservation/conservation. The media archivists from national archives whom I contacted could not really prioritise collection and preservation/conservation - one above the other, so I have included both tasks as priority 1 for national archives.

Remaining priorities

Broadcast archives disseminate their self-created programmes almost immediately, so dissemination and creation priorities are close together. Programme makers depend upon an effective classification and retrieval system to locate their "raw materials" efficiently, and those materials must be in good enough condition for broadcast use. Going back to a previous point, broadcast archives have two major parts; the programme material itself and previously published tapes, films, and recordings. My typology for the second sort of broadcasting archive would place collection above preservation/conservation, because the archivist there is required to develop and to update the collection in order to meet the needs of the viewing/listening public.

National archives place a high value on classification. They specialise in setting the cataloguing standards for all media, and their cataloguing records are often used by other archives or libraries. Preservation/conservation also ranks high; these archives often are at the cutting edge of research into restoration of deteriorating media and re-recording techniques. These archives do produce media publications, but their main function is developing and maintaining a comprehensive, well-catalogued, well-maintained collection.

Research archives are very difficult to arrange priorities for; perhaps this is because I know of so many unique such archives and I, myself, work in one whose priorities are ever shifting. Research archives place a high value on preservation/conservation because a high portion of their holdings is unique; their field recordings correspond to manuscript material in libraries. They are also often very specialised within, for example, a particular cultural group or academic discipline. The depositors often submit extremely detailed documentation, and the archivist must possess enough subject knowledge to interpret this accurately and catalogue it correctly.

Because of the proliferation of culture centres of indigenous peoples with oral traditions, dissemination is becoming increasingly important. These centres provide access to our media of direct experience, and the people can learn in the traditional ways of seeing and hearing rather than by reading.

Some research archives have an active programme of creation of audiovisual material. In my own institution, an exchange ceremony, a Rom, from Northeast Arnhem Land was commissioned to be performed in Canberra, and the resulting video and audio material became valued parts of the archives. In some cases, research grants are awarded because the grantee will record data that fills a gap in the archive's holdings from a particular place or time. Some research archives have cadetships for students so that they may assemble either finding aids or recordings from archival material, thus giving them university credit for research within the archive.

Libraries, by virtue of their responsibilities to users, place a high value on cataloguing and retrieval. This responsibility also requires that they keep current media holdings according to users' demands. Of course, this material must be in good condition. The function of creation comes last because libraries do not focus on making their own media.

Finally, the commercial production archives serve as a holding place for the masters of their own creations; thus preservation and conservation become very important, especially in the case of a re-issue. Dissemination also ranks high with them because they must deal with these re-issues. Classification and listings are not as high a priority, as any discographer will heartily agree! Finally, production archives place a high value on collection of their own productions, but they do not seek to build up large holdings of other publishers.

Total scores

In totalling the priorities, I found surprising results. My typology shows that the most important task in media archives is preservation/conservation- not really a surprise, but dissemination, as number 2, was not what I was expecting. However, the pressures upon archives to publicise their holdings and justify their existences by creating a high profile could be one reason for this ranking. Classification and collection come third with an equal scoring. Creation ranked the lowest. A final interesting feature is that no one type of archive followed the ranking of the total scoring column.

I would expect that priorities would continue to change as technology develops. I would like to see someone do an analysis like mine in a year or so and see how the results may differ.

In any case, my classification and priorities are based upon the archives I have visited and worked in; I have tried to give a starting point and methodology so that others can fill in the missing information and agree or disagree with me. What I hope most is that you are challenged to analyse your own places of work and to see how the coming changes in technology will affect your own priorities.

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