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4.2 Selection and audiovisual collections

Helen P Harrison, Media Library Consultant, Open University, UK

Although this paper is written in the context of the Memory of the World programme of UNESCO it is not intended as a recommendation of a set of criteria which the programme could adopt, rather as an analysis of the existing need and an illustration of how selection is carried out already in archives and collections. The type of collection, its purpose and the context in which it functions will influence the degree, level and philosophy of the selection process. It also deals with selection in Audiovisual collections and the parameters involved need some explanation.

The Memory of the World project will have different priorities to those in a single institution and will serve different ends - it is after all considering the Memory of the World, not a particular collection whether national, regional or specialised. The Memory of the World project will rely heavily on the existing collections to collect, preserve and make accessible material within their particular remits. The project has as its first task identification of the endangered collections, then selection principles will have to be employed to decide on priorities within those collections, which to save first - is it a case of moving them to safer areas, or better storage conditions, is it a question of physical preservation/restoration? Then selection of the most appropriate means of conservation. Some of the principles of selection or more appropriately in this case, appraisal, will stand comparison across most situations, others will not.

What are Audiovisual materials?

What constitutes audiovisual material? It has to be admitted that no two people quite agree on the definition of 'audiovisual', much discussion is being devoted to the topic, but no positive definition has emerged. There are several definitions of the term including those for working purposes and those for legal purposes but it is difficult to pin down. One definition which has been generally accepted is that in the Kofler study, where, to paraphrase:

Audiovisual materials are to be understood as visual recordings (with or without soundtrack) and sound recordings irrespective of their physical base and the recording process used. This definition is meant to cover a maximum of forms and formats, including films, filmstrips, microfilms, slides, kinescopes, videograms, optically readable laser discs, magnetic tapes, discs, soundtracks or audiovisual recordings. Such definitions do not include the still photographs which many regard as an audiovisual medium.

While a suitable definition is being worked out it is easier to mention those audiovisual materials which will be considered here. The paper will consider the moving images of film and videogram, the sound recordings and the still images in whatever format or on whatever carrier they may appear now or in the foreseeable future, including the electronic formats which are seen as high density storage media with an increased capability of access and transmission or distribution (copyright and neighbouring rights notwithstanding).

The properties of the materials can limit the selection process and set some of the options. Each of the materials has its own physical characteristics and carriers and this will influence selection and present different challenges on different timescales. There are three elements in audiovisual documents and some or all have to be accounted for in the selection process. There is:

a) the information content
b) the artefact, or carrier
c) the aesthetic content

Much material is collected for its information content, as a record of an event, cultural, sporting, political, educational. The most obvious of the av materials would be newsreels and newsfilm, but documentaries and straightforward recordings of cultural events may be included eg. a concert performance, ballet, opera or dramatic work recorded as the event happens.

The artefact or carrier will designate the form of the audiovisual and it will also, for technical reasons frequently influence selection. Can this material be replayed in the collection which acquires it, or is the carrier so esoteric it has only antique value and the capacity to fill storage space; is the carrier in good physical condition or will it be subject to transfer and/or restoration before or on receipt or is the damage irreparable. This has inevitable cost implications and also implications for damage and disaster to the rest of the collection - the canker present in one item, may spread to others if stored untreated and without inspection. The carriers add another dimension to the collection. Audiovisual collections have to maintain a range of playback machinery to suit the various formats acquired. Material has to be collected and stored in a form which will be accessible for as long as required, or at least will be available for easy transfer when its useful life in one format comes to an end.

The last factor is extremely important when considering artworks whether it is a fine film, selected for its performances, photography, dialogue or direction; or a particular performance of a musical work chosen for the interpretation of an instrumentalist, singer or conductor or for the ensemble playing, or a photograph chosen for its aesthetic quality as an example of a particular photographer's work, its subject content or as a record of a unique event. All too often we hear that what we should be trying to preserve is the information content and cramming work into dense formats in order to preserve more of it at the risk of losing its intrinsic quality. Audiovisual collections may include several interpretations of the same work, or several records of the same event carried in different types of document: a film or video version, a sound recording, series of photographs and so on.

Although there are many collections in which audiovisual materials may be found, in the context of this paper we will be concentrating upon those collections which maintain long-term goals of retention, preservation and access to the audiovisual heritage. In effect these are archival institutions or those collections which have an archival function.

An AV archive has been defined as: an organisation or department of an organisation which is focussed on collecting, managing, preserving and providing access to a collection of AV materials and the AV heritage. This will include collections of national importance, housed in national archives and libraries as well as the many smaller collections housed in other libraries and archives. A specialist national collection may only collect one material eg. a film archive or a television archive. Other institutions hold smaller, but unique collections of material in single format, and there are other collections of national, regional, local or academic importance which may concentrate on one or two materials: the moving images, the still images and the sound recordings, or they may have a mixture of the materials. The collections involved here can often be regarded as the collections of last resort, they are available for access, but have other functions such as the collection of unique or original material which is being conserved and/or preserved for posterity.

But archives are not storehouses or dumping grounds for material in the hope that it may come in useful some day - when that day comes with audiovisual materials unless they have been correctly selected stored and conserved, the material may have disappeared into a sticky mess or a pile of rust.

Some form of records management is essential to impose an order upon the record and make it manageable and accessible to future users of the archive, whether these users are researchers, browsers, those with a commercial concern to reuse the material or interested members of the general public. Archivists are not store-keepers. They must impose a discipline of management on their collections, and one of the more important disciplines will be the selection process. Selection, like management, is not an exact science, nor is it an art. It can be argued as more of an art than a science, but I prefer to consider selection as a craft, practised to achieve certain ends with suitable criteria or guidelines to meet these ends.

There are inevitable constraints placed on any archive which make it necessary to adopt selection policies. These constraints may be basic and arbitrary ones such as space for storage or the high cost of storage, or they may be constraints imposed by the available resources in terms of people and time as well as financial resources to prepare the material for storage, conservation and subsequent access.

What is selection.

Selection and its related activity; appraisal, are essential elements in collections management. Selection has an importance at all levels of collection from the lending or access situations, either by direct physical means or provision in data banks for electronic transmission, through to the national library and the archive. Selection is arguably the most important and at the same time the most difficult of all the activities of the archivist, curator or librarian, especially those dealing with audiovisual materials and imposes a discipline on the collector almost from the beginning. The very consideration of what to collect or how wide a range of material one includes in a collection is one of the first principles of selection.


This has been mentioned already and although it is closely allied to selection it may occur on a different timescale and has a different purpose. It is the intellectual decision making which should precede selection: it is the activity which attempts to determine the value and disposition of records based on their administrative and legal use; their evidential, informational or research value; their arrangement and their relationship to other records. Appraisal is also aimed at determining the intrinsic value of the material, that is records which have qualities and characteristics which make records in their intrinsic form the only acceptable one for preservation. eg. The presentation of a musical work as a recording or a series of pictures produced as a motion picture has an intrinsic value in the form presented: a piece of textual information has its own value, regardless of the form. It is argued that this concept adds another dimension to the selection and appraisal of audiovisual materials, and it is often a difficult decision to make for technical reasons. The form (not the format) of presentation acquires a greater significance for audiovisual materials.

In theory appraisal should precede acquisition, in practice it seldom does with audiovisual documents. Appraisal is usually applied to whole collections or bodies of material; the audiovisual archivist seldom has this amount of material to choose from, and has to deal in what has managed to survive until the point in time he is able to collect or preserve the material. Selection in audiovisual collections is more akin to 'reappraisal' to rationalise the collection.

Why Select?

Selection is an inevitable process and there are several powerful arguments for its application. The first could be said to be that we cannot collect and conserve everything, it is a physical impossibility, another is that a collection has to appear as a coherent and cohesive body of material useful for a particular purpose, usually the collection involved, another is that if we do not select with reasonable care then what is the point of spending resources of time and money documenting, storing and preserving material which is not of archival value?

Selection has been made even more imperative as a result of the increased ease of recording. As tape recording has become easier and the equipment less cumbersome more and more recording is made possible by a greater variety of people. No longer is it the sole province of a technician to record material for preservation purposes.

We cannot keep everything. That is rule number one. A recent World Survey carried out by the Library of Congress produced some startling figures. Remember that we are talking about audiovisual materials of moving image and recorded sound which have been around for just over a century. The World Survey indicated that some 93,731,000 items (74,403,500 sound recordings; 10,108,500 reels of film; and 9,219,000 video recordings) are housed in the 500 archives surveyed, let alone the large collections. When one looks at the commercial output of moving images and sound recordings the figures rise exponentially. There is also the mass of material produced non-commercially, and by broadcasting, where far more material is recorded than transmitted and untransmitted material may be potentially valuable for later usage. Specialized subject collections may also contain recorded material or the archivist may have conducted interviews which have been edited down for public access purposes, but the unedited material has its own value.

It is a dereliction of our duty as information providers not to select the material for preservation and future use. Not only is there not enough storage space, there are not enough resources to keep all the material intact. Additionally audiovisual materials are very slow to work with, they take real time to view, listen to and hopefully appreciate. Selection principles try to produce a collection which is easily accessible. Too much information can be as difficult to handle as too little - it is equally difficult to access and discover the material which would be most useful. The idea that you can, with the aid of modern technology, store everything easily on data banks or those convenient little cassettes appeals to the research worker, but they forget the amount of time needed to access audiovisual materials even with sophisticated retrieval techniques, and also the amount of time and effort required to enter the information on to the database in a retrievable or accessible form.

There are three stages in the collection and management of materials - any materials - where selection is necessary.

1. Before acquisition, or on acquisition of a new collection or item, to determine whether this item will add to the value of the collection
2. After acquisition to rationalise the collection and
3. To determine priorities for preservation and conservation of the collection whether it is recently acquired or long received.

Each of these stages has its own requirements, rules and criteria.

Who Selects

It is necessary to establish who will select the material and then formulate the criteria for selection. Some archives have selection staff who concentrate on the areas of acquisition and selection, others use a system of selection committees. But selection by consultation and committee is not necessarily a good thing. It is fraught with difficulty when sectional interests appear and squabbles break out between people from different disciplines. A short piece paraphrased from a book on Archive Administration written in 1922 by Hilary Jenkinson serves to point out the dilemma and;

"The archivist is concerned to keep materials intact for the future use of students working upon subjects which neither he nor any one else has contemplated. The archivist's work is that of conservation and his interest in his archives as archives, not as documents valuable for proving this or that thesis. How then is he to make judgements and choices on matters which may not be his personal concern. If the archivist cannot be of use, can we not appeal to the historian - he may seem the obvious person to undertake such a task. As soon, however, as the historian's claims in this connection are investigated it becomes clear that the choice of him as arbiter of the fate of archives is at least as open to criticism as that of the archivist. Must he not be regarded, where his own subject is concerned, as a person particularly liable to prejudice? Surely there will always remain the suspicion that in deciding upon a policy of archive conservation he favoured those archive classes which furthered his own special line of inquiry. The very fact that a historian is known to have selected for an archive is fatal to its impartiality".

Given the guiding principle that selection is of necessity a major concern of the archivist it is suggested that the people responsible for the collections are best able to judge what should be included, and all the ramifications of the selection decisions. Specially appointed staff in the archive can see the wider implications and if thoroughly versed in the aims and objectives of the particular archive are in a good position to select, but to be effective they must be carefully chosen, and they should have a set of criteria to work with.


As an essential part of archive and collections management selection has been discussed for many years and the criteria used have been developed and in some cases published. There is a general, and not surprising, concensus of opinion about the essentials in many of the guidelines. There are several sources for guidelines which have been given a wider coverage than the collections for which they were developed. These include the RAMP studies of UNESCO for moving images, sound recordings and photographs, by Kula, Harrison and Leary. Selection in Sound Archives, edited by Helen Harrison and Sound Archive Administration by Alan Ward contain useful material, in Selection in Sound Archives the National Archives and Record Service of the USA criteria are reprinted, and the criteria used in the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia appear in the Phonographic Bulletin.

Many of the guidelines and lists of criteria contain similar elements and these can be summarised:

Function and terms of reference of the archive

If the first principle of selection is to produce a collection of relevance and manageable proportions within the institution, the purpose of selection is to ensure a balanced, representative collection of material relevant to the nature of the subject matter of the archive concerned. This means different archives will have different selection policies according to the intended use of the collection. Selecting material within areas of interest of the individual archive immediately raises the question of what is in the field of interest and what is outside? There will, almost inevitably, be grey areas where the material could be considered of use to the archive in conjunction with the rest of the collection.

Is the material relevant to the collection, does it add significant, or useful material of interest to the present and future user of the collection, and if so can the costs of storage and preservation be justified. How much can the collection cope with? If the material is of doubtful use to a particular collection should it be referred elsewhere. Should material already in the collection be deselected as a result of the new acquisition?

Quantity. Many audiovisual materials may be collected in greater numbers than others if only because several versions of an event or several interpretations of an item have to be retained. one would not contemplate keeping only one interpretation of a musical work, the performance has an influence and an interest. Edited and unedited, cut and uncut versions of many audiovisual works have to be retained as the unedited material contains far more information than was ever distributed. Unedited material also forms the basis of many future productions. A film may be available in cut and uncut versions, for example we are increasingly getting the directors' cut for the authentic view of the work, or the producers cut for commercial release. All these may have their value as records of the work, or as a statement of the social aura at the time of release. How do you choose and what do you choose? All episodes of a television series may have to be kept - for it is always the episodes discarded which will be remembered for something special. Serials of course have to be kept in entirety or not at all. News items may have to be kept in several versions, perhaps in separate collections to reflect different points of view. Newsreels are historical records and should be kept in entirety. The same has been argued for television newscasts and it has even been argued that complete transmissions from a year should be kept. Television has a huge output and the selection process is usually much more stringent than in many other collections.

Uniqueness or rarity

Material for archival preservation should be either unique to a collection or not duplicated in several existing collections where there may be a waste of resources preserving the same thing three or four times over. Is the material offered a rare source of information on its subject. The audiovisual archivist has to bear in mind that legal deposit has been rare until recently and material may have been dispersed or collected erratically so that one archive cannot assume that any other is collecting in a particular area or country of origin. In these circumstances it becomes important for all archives to have selection policies and to discuss their policies with other archives both nationally and internationally and ensure that valuable material is kept somewhere, but not in each and every archive.

The status of the copies could also be taken into account, are they original recordings or copies where the original is inaccessible for some reason.

Integrity. Selection has always had to be sophisticated in assessing the material for disposal. There have been many fakes or manipulations involving av materials. This can range from the use of substitutes to illustrate events - the substitution of the Mauritania for the sinking of the Lusitania, pictures from one conflict used as 'illustrations' of another, bias created by inaccurate juxtapositions of shots and interviews, mis-identification of people, places and things, wrong locations for films, tidying up of performances where a musical work has literally been stitched together making the performer sound better than they were. I watch with horror some of the manipulation of images on a computer, just as I watch with horror the writers of second-rate research papers plagiarising original thought, word and image, cobbling the materials together to misrepresent and clogging up the access mechanisms. The selector has to be aware of these manipulations and misrepresentations and try to maintain the integrity of the collection.

Intrinsic value.

This is a difficult principle to apply and it relates to many of the other principles mentioned already. It is the archival term applied to permanently valuable records which have qualities or characteristics that make the records in their intrinsic form the only acceptable for preservation. Difficulties will arise with audiovisual materials for technical reasons, but some records may be kept as examples of the artefact or particular recording material if this can be done safely.


This is a relative principle; closely related to the unique quality of the material. In theory the best quality or material closest to the original should be selected, but sometimes when the only available material is of poor quality its unique nature overrides the principle of quality. A closely related factor is that of technological change which may mean a recording is only available on an 'obsolete' carrier. Archives should not select on the basis of whether or not they can replay material - this is library selection. An archive must consider other qualities of the material and if it is essential to the collection, but on an unplayable medium, an archive needs facilities to transfer it to a usable medium. If the material is in poor condition the selector has to be able to justify the cost of preservation work with the unique or rare content.

Digital vs analogue. This is not the place to go into technical details, I would not presume so far. But it is almost certain for the near future that material which will be selected for special treatment by the Memory of the World programme will have to remain on its original carriers for a while yet. It cannot remain so indefinitely, sooner or later the carrier will decay the nitrate film may moulder and worse spontaneously combust, film or magnetic tape may develop vinegar syndrome, the CDs will develop 'laser rot' or the surface oxidise - a recent article spoke of tell tale signs on a CD after 5 years, photographic film will deteriorate in density and colour of image. Constant transfers of analogue data will result in a degradation of the image or sound quality, whereas material transferred to the digital mode should at least retain its information and not degrade. This does not necessarily mean that digital data is better than analogue per se to my untutored mind, but it is better for the longer integrity of the information.


Legal deposit has been a rarity for audiovisual materials until recently and audiovisual collections have other acquisition policies in force. These may come with certain restrictions imposed by the donor. Some material may in effect be 'unusable' because of copyright or contractual restrictions. Restrictions imposed on the archive by the donor may involve not permitting copying of the material for preservation purposes, not allowing access and other strictures such as return of material on demand. If the depositor imposes restrictive conditions then the selector must decide whether the material is of sufficient value to justify the cost of administering the restrictions. Film archives have some of the most difficult decisions to make in this regard. Audiovisual collections need to select for acquisition, for preservation and for access, and all of these may be restricted by contracts, and copyright. The decisions have to be taken before deposit.


The timing of selection is also an important principle. It should never be a once-and-for-all decision. Some material need be kept for only short periods while checks are made on existing material which it may duplicate. Better quality or more complete material may be offered. Other material can be looked at retrospectively after a period or periods of time. Most archives which practice selection will be found to use this principle.

Objectivity within guidelines

This is one of the main principles of selection rather than a criterion. Selection staff should be as objective and free from bias as possible within realistic parameters. Hindsight is a useful mechanism and it can be achieved by adopting a long term policy of selection. Optimum selection decisions are best taken after a 'decent' interval.

Repatriation and deselection

Deselection has already been mentioned in the context of relevance to the collection, or the acquisition of more complete material, or better technical quality. Repatriation is another consideration closely allied to survival, restoration, selection and deselection. Many institutions currently hold material which belongs to another country or a redeveloping country. Spoils of war are included in this definition, as also are materials rescued from the ravages of neglect and natural disasters. Ethical considerations may suggest that such materials should be repatriated to the country of origin, but this is not always possible, and the materials may be being repatriated to an area or institution which has neither the resources, nor the current physical or political climate to cope. It is a dilemma for the archivist, especially when the means for conserving all the materials, both those relevant to the collection and those of more peripheral interest are both involved.

Related Documentation. With audiovisual documents the documentation which comes with the 'blind' materials is of great importance. Without some background materials, a shotlist, a script, a descriptive sheet, the material could be unidentifiable. Such related material should also be retained and maintained as well as matched with the material. If related documentation is not available the research and effort involved in tracing the material will have to be weighed against the value of the material itself. Related documentation will also have to be stored separately and kept linked to the material on a database.

Selection of audiovisual materials and the Memory of the World project.

The Memory of the World programme is an attempt to save a proportion of the cultural heritage and the documents which form and portray that heritage. Audiovisual documents, most of which have been produced in the 20th century are an important record of the cultural heritage of this century, but they are among the most vulnerable to destruction, and/or manipulation. What should we try to save first. In order to decide this initial steps are being taken in providing inventories of lost and endangered collections as well as work in progress to save the material. The lost collections will be a sad reminder of the ravages of time, chemistry, natural and man-made disasters; the endangered collections will provide the core of material to which selection principles and priorities can be applied. The inventory of work in progress will help to avoid duplication of effort and waste of resources. Information about existing collections in the way of Directories of holdings can supplement these inventories.

When considering the Memory of the World project we are not talking about all selection - we are actually talking about more stringent decisions. It has to be left to the established institutions and archives to look after their own materials and then perhaps be enlisted to rescue in addition the endangered collections, for it is only the existing institutions and commercial laboratories who can save such collections. Once the collections are saved, restored, or whatever has to be done to them a permanent home has to be sought to safeguard the continuing existence of such a collection. There is little point in using resources to save a collection which then has to go back into a situation where the prognosis for survival is poor.

Already it has been realised that selection will be of paramount importance in the Memory of the World project and the draft report identifies certain principles of selection for survival.

The project will also concentrate on collections, rather than individual items - they can and should be saved by the relevant institutions. Factors to be considered in the selection will include:

"The content and its artistic, cultural, literary or scientific value, the national, regional or international significance, the context, the physical condition, the degree of risk the material exists in (for example, a war zone or disaster area.) and the project's feasibility (whether it can be carried out in a reasonable period of time). Priority will be given to activities concerning a region, a number of countries or a national project which is of international importance and to an entire collection rather than just individual items. Special consideration will be given to the problem of reconstituting the memory of a people in the case of dispersed or displaced holdings. Combinations of these criteria will determine the uniqueness of the collection or holding and the consequences of its loss for humanity should it become irreparably damaged."10

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