Planning a Video Digitisation Project
The digitisation of an existing video collection has many potential benefits; newly digitised materials offer opportunities to reach new users and to engage with new and existing users in new ways. Digitisation may also prove to be the only viable way to make our vulnerable video materials available to generations of future users. The complexities of achieving a successfully digitised and fully accessible video collection can be considerable but through careful preparation, the task can be broken down into manageable stages.
Digitising video from tape is a time consuming process. Older tapes may have deteriorated and require external conservation work to make them playable. Aging labels may be misleading or have detached altogether and so archival research may be required in order to identify content. Prioritisation for digitisation should reflect the status and usefulness of materials within a collection and take into account the relative vulnerability of those materials.
Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all solution exists. The digitisation of video may take place for a wide variety of different reasons; in order to commercially exploit a collection, in association with a defined research project or as a digital preservation measure. Scale too might vary dramatically, from an individual staff member equipped with a VHS deck and a stand-alone DVD-video recorder to a huge semi-automated process digitising many thousands of videotapes. The outputs of each scenario will be digital video in the widest sense but may differ radically in terms of file format, management structure, expected lifespan and mode of delivery.
At the beginning of the project there are a number of tasks to be carried out and decisions to be made which will inform all future activities:
- Clearly establish the needs of end users and the expectations of all key stakeholders. These expectations can then be quantified as deliverables and used to inform the overall structure of the project. This is a vital step for assessing the progress of the digitisation project.
- Identify and address any intellectual property rights, copyrights or moral rights issues relating to the digital duplication and subsequent use of the collection. If a large number of rights holders must be contacted before digitisation can commence workflows may be significant affected.
- The desired format of the digital video materials and their respective modes of delivery must be decided upon before digitisation can begin and should be informed by the needs of end users and the expectations of stakeholders. Are the materials to be delivered via an institutional intranet, the Internet, DVD-video discs or handheld mobile devices?
- Even at such an early stage, sustainability of the eventual digital resources must be considered. If the project is time-limited, how is the output of the project to achieve longevity after the project has finished? Identifying and working to sector specific standards from the outset can assist with interoperability across institutions and ease the later repurposing of digital materials.
- Successful integration of both digitised materials and the digitisation project itself into the host institution's wider support framework should also be considered from the outset. Factors such as the co-operation of archive or library colleagues and IT support can impact massively on the success of the project. Digital materials, once generated, must be compatible with an institution's wider data management strategy.
- The preparation of a preservation strategy can help to ensure the safety of digital materials even before they are created. Technical aspects of the preservation strategy, such as the generation of checksum values are best carried out as part of the digitisation workflow making early adoption desirable.
- A metadata schema that facilitates the use of digital materials and helps to guarantee their usefulness must be identified and a suitable application profile chosen or constructed. As the larger workflow is put through its paces, so too should the process of collecting metadata.
- Equipping a digitisation project can be a complex operation. Hardware and software should be chosen with reference to the identified project goals. For each purchase a company or individual must be identified who is ultimately responsible for its repair or replacement: this can be particularly challenging when dealing with obsolete playback equipment. In the case of vital pieces of equipment, time frames for repair must be agreed upon in writing as part of a service agreement.
- Conducting a feasibility study, which includes every stage of the digitisation project, will allow any potential weaknesses or bottlenecks in the workflow to be identified. Several feasibility studies will almost certainly have to be carried out in the early stages of the project to allow basic refinement of the workflow. Quality assurance measures can be put into place to address any potential risks identified. A successful feasibility phase will allow the project manager to construct an initial schedule for the project and estimate costs and resources involved.
Once proven to be viable, the digitisation workflow should be documented in detail in a workflow manual. This manual will help to prevent confusion and ensure standardisation of practice across the project team. It will also help prevent project creep by specifying exactly which materials are to be digitised. A high level of detail is especially important if part-time staff or volunteers are engaged on the project. Ideally, the documentation should assume no prior knowledge of the process and contain the contact details for individuals who are to be called upon should anything go wrong.
Each of these steps should be under constant review; only with repetition will subtle refinement be possible. Larger projects can expect technologies and standards to advance during the course of digitisation and so workflows should be flexible enough to allow the exploitation of these advances for the benefit of the project.
- Sticking to a standardised day-to-day workflow for digitisation is crucial if quality assurance measures are to be effective. Such a workflow might be:
- Check playback and capture equipment. Test footage should be run through the system to check capture is working correctly, and determine whether playback heads require cleaning. A check should be made of available hard drive capacity to ensure sufficient space exists for the planned capture session.
- Transit of video tapes to the digitisation suite. If the long-term home of the tape collection has security and environmental controls it may be desirable to take only as many tapes as can be digitised in a session. A written record should be kept indicating when tapes are removed and returned to their permanent home.
- Make a basic condition assessment of the tapes. This should begin with a visual assessment and move on to testing through playback. If any major problems are evident conservation work may be required.
- Playback and capture. The playback of sound and image should be closely monitored. Playback settings may need to be finely adjusted for individual videotapes.
- Trimming and/or dividing of video clips, if necessary in a video editing application.
- Check captured files. If errors are present a tape may need to be recaptured. If no errors are present, the capture file may be given the status of ‘preservation master'.
- Rename and integrate preservation master files into the file management structure. This may be sited on peripheral devices, removable media or networked storage. Preservation master copies should be written in duplicate if resources permit.
- Populate metadata record with information relating to preservation master files.
- Digital restoration techniques such as colour balancing may be carried out on copies of preservation master files. This second ‘re-mastered generation' of video will also require renaming and integration into the file management structure.
- Populate metadata record with information relating to re-mastered files.
- Generate surrogate ‘access status' video files in lower resolution formats suited to delivery.
- Rename and integrate access status video files into the file management structure.
- Populate metadata record with information relating to access status files.
- Complete any routine paperwork required to assess the progress of a project. This may be as simple as crossing tapes off a list or automatically generating reports for project managers using database software.
- Return videotapes to long-term storage and sign them in.
There are several actions that can be taken at the conclusion of a time limited project which will help secure the future survival of a new digital collection:
- Preparation of a ‘lessons learned log' may be a great help to future projects of a similar nature and is of increasing interest to funding bodies.
- A usage manual should be prepared which describes how the digital collection should be used. This will contain a clear explanation of the status of materials. For instance, it should describe in what circumstances preservation masters are to be drawn upon. Any codecs, applications or other software required for playback of the collection should be clearly specified.
- The workflow manual should be reviewed to check that all systems, methodology and standards are covered. Ideally, the workflow manual will be sufficiently detailed to allow the project to be repeated in full with no further instruction.
- Responsibilities for the continuing development of the collection, error checking, and future migration to contemporary formats should be clearly allocated.
Ensuring researchers have access to well-documented and sustainable digital moving image materials can be a challenging but hugely rewarding experience. Although each project will be unique, it is important to identify the most significant precedents and then to draw upon their experiences.
JISC Digital Media offer a helpdesk service and have produced a wide range of advice documents. Together, these resources enable project staff to make informed decisions on each aspects of the digitisation process.