Friday, 29 August 2014

Audiovisual achievements - National Archives of Australia

I always get a sense of achievement from a job well done, and this week the audiovisual IT project I have managed at the National Archives of Australia (NAA) over the last 2 years has reached fruition – on time and under budget, which makes the achievement even better. 
The project was a big one costing several million and was the implementation of both an audiovisual asset management system, and an audiovisual digital preservation system.   It has been a long held ambition of the NAA to achieve these two goals. The concept crystallised into a firm plan in 2006.  Implementation commenced in 2012 and the project became the highest strategic objective of the NAA for the next two years, involving approximately half of the 400 NAA staff in some capacity. The Chester Hill office at Sydney took the lead because this office is the centre of expertise for audiovisual collections.  I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such a fantastic and knowledgeable group of people.

The project which is known internally at NAA as ‘AVAMS’ (audiovisual asset management system project), and its achievements is described in more detail in my AVAMS presentation available on slideshare.

The chosen software that has been implemented is Mediaflex from a UK based company called TransMedia Dynamics.  The National Archives is the second Archives client to install the Asset Management Software as the Collection Management System for both physical and digital audiovisual assets, and the first client in the world to install the Mediaflex digital preservation platform.  Other Australian clients include the National Film and Sound Archive, and DAMsmart an audiovisual digitisation contractor.
The project has been important to the NAA because firstly audiovisual is a significant part of the collection amounting to nearly 1 million items, and secondly there is a need to increase capability and capacity to ingest born digital audiovisual from transferring agencies.  One of the main agencies transferring audiovisual material to the NAA is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) who creates all radio and TV programs digitally now and has done so for some time.  Because older parts of the NAA audiovisual collection are analogue, and these formats deteriorate quickly there has been an active and ongoing NAA audiovisual digitisation program to convert analogue to digital formats for at least the last 10 years in state-of-the-art digitisation labs onsite at Sydney.
This youtube video gives a small glimpse behind the scenes at the Sydney Office, and a sample of a very  deteriorated analogue film now digitised is available to view on youtube in 'a cautionary tale'.  
For these two reasons the NAA already holds a sizable store of digital AV assets. These are now being migrated into the digital preservation system ‘the AV Digital Archive’, which will replace the previous rather clunky and very slow system that was based on a system backup procedure.  It will give increased surety that important digital assets are secure and preserved into the future. It is a giant leap forward to have a robust and easy to use digital preservation system.  The screenshot below shows the console that an archivist would use to manage the digital preservation copies.  The traffic light system is particularly easy to use.

The requirements to manage audiovisual digitisation workflows, storage of physical items, ingest and digital preservation of items are much more complex than those for other format types such as photographs or paper.  In order to better manage and search on collection items a data model with multi-layers is needed.  It is usual in libraries to have 3 data layers, and for archives to have 5 or 6 for paper formats, however in the case of audiovisual the ideal data model has 12 layers.  This is the new model that has now been implemented at the National Archives. It has caused great excitement for those who understand the complexities of audiovisual metadata and realise the benefits this will bring long-term to the management of the collection.  However it has been a steep learning curve for staff to become familiar with the audiovisual data model.
An ambition for Archivists has been to expose more of the audiovisual collection to public searchers, because at the moment for various reasons it is largely invisible.  The new data model means that can be changed and improved.  In addition Mediaflex can automatically create low resolution digital access copies on the fly, which brings the potential to make more of the collection digitally available.  There is still more work to be done in this area since RecordSearch is remaining the front end for public searchers for the foreseeable future.  Therefore a fair amount of configuration work has already been undertaken to enable exchange of metadata between the Audiovisual Asset Management System Mediaflex and RecordSearch.   
An immediate benefit that Mediaflex has brought is the ability to much better manage storage of audiovisual items.  These items require repositories of different temperatures e.g. cold and cool, and conditioning rooms between for the gradual movement of items into room temperature for access or digitisation.  In addition there are a variety of different shelving configurations for different sizes and types of items.  Mediaflex allows the management of all this, but in addition 'capacity management'.  A visual interface shows where spare space is and how full shelves are in real time.  This really helps to micro manage over 30 km of audiovisual repository space in multiple locations.

It is rewarding to see how the project achievements - the implementation of an audiovisual asset management system and digital preservation system are already having positive benefits for the NAA. As I reflect on the last 2 years (which feel as if they have passed in the blink of an eye) I attribute the success to the fantastic project team members at both the NAA and Transmedia Dynamics, as well as NAA making the right choice of software. The core project teams contributed their audiovisual expertise and worked diligently under my direction with enthusiasm and total commitment towards the end result.  There is no doubt it was challenging at times, but everyone rose to the challenge with tenacity, determination and persistence.
The National Archives of Australia is now strongly and ably positioned in the audiovisual digital arena.  It has the capability to undertake its core business much better, as well as do groovy and amazing things with the new software.  It’s very unfortunate that the current tight fiscal constraints may now hamper the capacity of the NAA to uptake the new benefits as quickly as it would like, but I am assured it will happen in time. This project achievement has boosted the confidence of the National Archives of Australia and is indeed a job well done!
 Mediaflex in use in the sound preservation lab at National Archives of Australia, Sydney Office.