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  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

Thinking About Audio-visual Material

The purpose of the Jesuit in Britain Archives is to collect, preserve and make available records concerning the Jesuits in Britain.

This is the basic principle by which we in the Archives work on a daily basis. For hundreds of years, people have been creating records on paper and parchment and the Jesuits are no exception, with some of our records dating as far back as the sixteenth century. For Archivists, these types of records are fairly easy to preserve and manage; once they have been transferred into acid-free archival folders and boxes, they remain relatively stable as long as their environment stays within the remits set out by national guidelines: between 13°C and 20°C and with a relative humidity of between 35% and 60%. These traditional formats are also straightforward when it comes to cataloguing. The International Standard of Archival Description (or, as we call it, ISAD (G)) states that there are five main identifiers that must be recorded for each item or file to create a functional archive catalogue: a unique reference number, title, date, level (which demonstrates the item or file’s place within the hierarchy of the catalogue) and the physical extent (e.g. 1 volume, 2 files, or 3boxes). This information is usually relatively easy to ascertain, particularly if a collection has obvious series within it such as account or minute books, but less so if you are presented with boxes of unsorted papers.

Audio-visual material, however, proves to be much more complicated. As World Radio Day is marked on 13 February, we were prompted to think about some of the challenges we face when it comes to preserving and making available the audio material we have in the Archives. Recently, a visitor was interested in listening to one of our tapes. We have a number of cassette tapes and a player on which to play them, however the tape of interest in this case was a reel to reel tape, for which we had no means of playing it. This problem really demonstrated how quickly such non-traditional formats can become obsolete compared to paper documents, and, since we had no player, in this instance we were not able to fulfil our principle to make records available.

The storage and cataloguing of such items is also more complicated than paper records. They cope less well with fluctuations in relative humidity, and should ideally be kept cool at room temperature or below, and about 35-40% humidity. Because we cannot exercise such precise control over the environment here, one solution would be to undertake a digitisation project of our audio-visual collection, which would help to preserve the content of the tapes and would create a usable version that visitors can access. But this also throws up issues of copyright and long-term preservation. Cataloguing is also a more complicated process as there is metadata that has to be recorded as well as the basic information about content. This would include the length of the recording or video, the file size of electronic records, and data about copies made if a digitisation project is carried out, which our cataloguing software does not currently cater for.

In a world in which technology moves at such dizzying rates, being an Archivist is no longer a case of looking after precious paper documents, we must also investigate ways of preserving and making available formats that are becoming obsolete at an ever-increasing pace.

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