Interview conducted with Erica Titkemeyer by Morgan McKeehan in March 2019.
This is the second post in a new series of conversations between emerging professionals and archivists actively working with digital materials.
Tell us a little bit about the path that brought you to your current position.
As an undergrad I majored in Cinema and Photography, which initially put me in contact with many of the analog-based obsolete formats our team at UNC works to digitize now. It was also during this time when I saw how varied new proprietary born-digital formats could be based on camera types, capture settings, and editing environments, and how these files could be just as problematic as film and magnetic-based formats when trying to access content over time. Whether projects originated on something like DVCAM or P2 cards, codec and file format compatibility issues were a daily occurrence in classes. After undergrad I went through NYU’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program where courses in digital preservation helped instill a lot of the foundational knowledge I use today.
After grad school, I spent 9 months in the inaugural National Digital Stewardship Residency cohort in Washington, D.C., where I worked at Smithsonian Institution Archives to explore digital preservation needs and challenges of digital media art.
My current position is primarily concerned with the timely digitization, preservation and access of obsolete analog audiovisual formats, but our digital tape-based collections are growing, and there are many born-digital accessions with a myriad of audio and video file formats that we need to make decisions about now to ensure they’re around for the long term.
What type of institution do you currently work at and where is it located?
I work within Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s University Libraries. I am situated in the Southern Folklife Collection, which holds the majority of audiovisual recordings in Wilson Library; however my team has expanded to work with all audiovisual recordings in the building as part of a new Andrew W. Mellon grant, Extending the Reach of Southern Audiovisual Sources: Expansion.
What do you love most about working with AV archival materials?
I’ve always been excited to learn about moving image and sound technologies and how they fit into historical contexts. Even if I know nothing about a collection except for the format, there’s enough there to understand the time and circumstances the recordings were created in. This is just as much the case for born-digital audiovisual files as it is for analog. We’ve seen file formats, codecs, and recording equipment go by the wayside, and so they exist as markers of a particular time.
What’s the biggest challenge affecting your work (and/or the field at large)?
Current and future digital video capabilities can provide a lot of options for documentarians and filmmakers, which is great news for them, but it also means there’s going to be a flood of new file formats with encodings and specifications we have not dealt with, many of which will already be difficult to access by the time they make it to our library because of planned obsolescence. We’ve already started to see these collections come in, and it’s impossible to normalize everything to our audiovisual target preservation specifications while still retaining quality for various reasons. Fortunately, there are a lot of folks thinking about this who are building some precedent when it comes to making decisions about the files. Julia Kim at Library of Congress, Rebecca Fraimow at WGBH, and I have also done a couple panel talks on this and recently put out an article through Code4Lib on this topic (https://journal.code4lib.org/articles/14244).
What advice would you give yourself as a student or professional first delving into digital archives work?
Everything can seem very overwhelming. There are a lot of directions to take in audiovisual preservation and archiving, and digital archiving and preservation is the shiny new frontier, but there’s a lot to gain by starting with what you know and taking it from there. I think building my knowledge and expertise in analog preservation risks inevitably helps me in tackling some of the more challenging aspects of born-digital audiovisual preservation.
Morgan McKeehan is the Digital Collections Specialist in the Repository Services Department, within the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In this role, she provides support for the management of and access to digitized and born-digital materials from across the Libraries’ special collections units.