Paul Eisloeffel is Curator of Audiovisual Collections at the Nebraska State Historical Society, where he has helped build the collections program of sound and moving image recordings since 1988. He also teaches for the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin School of Information Studies on audiovisual archives as well as operates his own consulting business specializing in 16mm film. Paul is active with the Association of Moving Images and the Midwest Archives Conference.
This interview was conducted by the A&A Social media Intern, Kira Baker, on February 3, 2017.
Tell me about what your current role is at the Nebraska State Historical Society and how acquisition and appraisal is a component of your position?
We have several archivists here that deal with various formats and my role is to work exclusively with audiovisuals – that is, moving images on film and video and sound recordings. Each of us do all the different archival tasks relating to all those specific materials – meetings with donors, take stuff in, accession it, describe it, store it, and preserve it. I also digitize it for reference purposes. So my work really runs the entire gamut of the archival enterprise but specifically with audiovisuals.
Can you describe what appraisal criteria or factors that typically come up in your work?
Well, when we are offered something or we proactively seek something out, we want something that will fit the institution’s collecting policy and mission. For us, it’s a geographic collecting scope, so we’re looking for materials relating to the lives of Nebraskans and activity in Nebraska. Once it fits the collection mission, we look at things like provenance, how well documented it is, what is the content like, and is it unique or is it representative. We’re really interested in any kind of accompanying material or documentation too, because, as you can imagine, with audiovisual materials it’s very important to have some sort of description outside of the item itself, because of their machine dependency and how difficult it can be to access their content. We look at condition as well. So those are really the main factors that relate to appraisal.
When I was a student working at the Media Commons (at the University of Toronto Libraries), a number of collections are connected with film production companies and my supervisor would emphasize taking in materials that really showed the various points of production and the creation process. Relating to, as an archivist, having knowledge of the industry, how film is put together, what kinds of films were used for what purposes, etc., as part of archival appraisal.
Right. It’s really important in collections like that to have access to the production material. Certainly any kind of documentation about the production is useful, but also media that didn’t make it into the final production. Some of that will be the best stuff – you’ll have interviews that had to be cut short because they had to fill a certain amount of time, or footage of events that didn’t make it into the final product. Having these so-called “production elements” is pretty terrific if you can manage it.
I like that you point out having the documentation, how that becomes so important because of machine dependency as well.
Yes, and I wanted to talk briefly about the factors that affect archival work on audiovisuals that aren’t necessarily the case with other kinds of documents. First and foremost is that of machine dependency. With every other kind of document you could use your hands or your eyes to access the content; even with photographic slides, you don’t really need a machine to access them, but just light table and a magnifying glass. With audiovisuals, you really need some kind of machine to access the content. And this is especially important because of the second factor, which is format evolution. You know, audiovisuals haven’t been around for all that long, about 130-40 years, but in that time there have been numerous different formats of film, videotape, audiotape and now digital recordings. It’s been an evolutionary process that has rendered some of the formats obsolete and it is very difficult to find machines that will run them anymore. Last year, for example, the last manufacturer of VHS machines on Earth stopped production, so there are none of these made any longer. So machine dependency, format evolution, and format obsolescence are the three factors that come into play with audiovisuals that are not present when working with traditional documents.
Let’s talk about playback. At the Nebraska State Historical Society do you have your own equipment? Do you network with other archives? Do you send materials out to be digitized?
All of the above. We are lucky to be able to play about 95% of the formats we have in our collection. We did a media survey a few years ago and found that the bulk of what we have is 16mm film and ¾ inch U-Matic videotape, and then audiocassettes and audio reel to reel tapes. We can play all of these, and some other more obscure formats as well. So we’re pretty lucky in that regard. But I would say, if something comes your way that would add to your collection and you don’t have a way to play it back, that that is not necessarily a reason to turn it down. As you point out, there are ways to collaborate with other institutions, there are labs you can hire to make you copies that you can then play and so forth, so, having playback equipment isn’t necessarily the thing that has to be in your tool box. But it’s always very helpful if you do have it, and that you can trust that equipment.
How does copyright play a part in your work?
That’s a big part of accessioning, appraisal, acquisition and access of just about anything in an archives. With audiovisuals it gets to be especially complex because a lot of times the donors will be broadcast organizations or ad agencies or some other kind of creator that is some type of corporate entity, and a lot of the time they are not willing to give up copyright. One thing I’ve been able to do in a couple of instances is to work out a deal whereby everything older than a certain number of years comes into the public domain; the donors have been okay with that. In these instances, every day we get a little more intellectual control over what that original donation was and eventually we’ll have it all. It’s an innovative way to acquire materials and work with someone who might be a little afraid of signing over copyright.
I am wondering if you have had any experiences having to deal with orphan works?
This is a big issue especially in the motion picture archiving world because copyright can really gum up the whole issue of access and use of materials. In our acquisition process, we have people turn copyright that they may have over to us. We have had to try to track down copyright owners on occasion. A lot of times what happens in archives that we’ll put that burden on the user rather than maintain that themselves; but an archives has to be very considerate of those issues because if they try to put materials online (for example) as a clip on Youtube, they have to make sure they have the rights to do that with that particular item.
In talking about format evolution, format obsolescence and machine dependency, you have already touched upon this, but can you share some of the other challenges of being an audiovisual archivist?
One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the fairly recent interest in audiovisuals. People want to see them, they want to use them, whether they are private individuals doing family genealogy, or they are media producers, they are really interested in getting footage or audio because our culture is now so heavily centered around audiovisual media. One of the challenges that we have that goes along with that is to try and make things as accessible as possible, which is difficult because of those three factors. At the Nebraska State Historical Society we don’t allow access to the originals, so whenever something is needed by the public we have to digitize it on an as-needed basis. That way, we build not only our collection of reference copies but that particular user gets access to the materials as well. So it’s kind of a challenge to accommodate the public. They want access to it and providing access is a very delicate and time consuming endeavor.
And cost. It sounds like the Nebraska State Historical Society has really incorporated this into the budget — that funds have gone towards the archives for doing such digitization work.
Yes. Digitization is a real-time event when it comes to audiovisuals. Not only do you have to play it, but then working with the digital file that is created and doing any kind of description work with it, takes, I figure, three to four times the actual running time of the recording to do it up right. So, it is very time consuming, even if you have the machines that you can trust.
Do you do a lot of digitization on-site then?
Yes we do. As I mentioned, it’s mostly on an as-needed basis or I’ll just encounter things in our collection that I think would be of particular interest. Whether it be sound or moving image, content on Native Americans, transportation, aviation, railroads, agriculture, and various things like that are highly used and sought-after topics. So we try to focus on those and digitize those to be available.
Do you watch samples of the media?
Yes I do. It’s a way for me to access the material. What’s it’s condition? Should we work to preserve it better? Should we describe it better so it’s available to the public more quickly? Should we digitize this? I tend to sample everything that comes through the door.
I try to do at least a sampling at the time [of initial appraisal] so that I can talk to the donor. That would help us determine right off whether we should take it or not, and, I can also advise the donor, if we don’t take it, who might be interested in it besides us or ways to get it re-formatted in a format they can use. Potential donors are often interested in finding out what they can do with their audiovisuals, how they can keep them from deteriorating, how they can make copies so that they have access to them. So I advise them on those issues if we are not interested in taking what they’re offereing.
And that brings up another point I wanted to make: If something comes in that doesn’t fit our collecting scope, which happens quite a bit, it’s likely that there is a repository that would be very happy to have it. So I’ve got a couple of shelves here in my office that are full of materials that really should go elsewhere. And I slowly go through it, and make the contacts and get materials off to a new home. But it’s something that we all do or should do in the profession: Work with one another and try get the right materials to the right place.
You have been at Nebraska State Historical Society for over twenty years now. How has the approach to appraisal and acquisition changed over that time?
I think it has changed, not only here but elsewhere. As a profession we started getting interested in audiovisuals, and we took everything we could. We grabbed everything because there weren’t materials being thoughtfully collected. After we all realized how great these things were we just took everything. But we can no longer do that – the space, the cost, the time forbids it. Also, as we all know, like with traditional documents, we’ve reached the realization that they’re not all worth keeping. This has made us turn to that most sensitive of archival tasks: Appraisal, wherein we have to actually look at things and figure out thoughtfully whether something is worth keeping or not. So there is a lot more of that going on.
Is there anything else you’d like to add with regards to appraisal and acquisition?
I think the first step in appraisal is to know what you’ve already got. I have done a survey of our materials and it’s pretty important to know what you’ve got so that you know what your strengths and weaknesses are. It can be a challenge to do that, because of the machine dependency, but using labels, accompanying documentation and that sort of thing can help. In the last few years, good assessment tools have been created and become available thanks to a few institutions who have been willing to take on this challenge. One of the ones I have looked at and really like is from the University of Illinois. It’s called the Audiovisual Self-Assessment Program (or A/V SAP) and it was created to help people at repositories quantify and qualify their audiovisual holdings. That’s the kind of tool that can really make a difference on what you should collect, what are your most prominent formats, prioritizing what media should be preserved by reformatting – all these kinds of archival decisions can only occur after you know what you’ve got and what condition it’s in.