At Risk of Losing Everything: The Challenges of Caring for Audio-Visual Materials

The Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum and education and research complex with 19 museums, nine research facilities, and the National Zoo. As such, it should come as no surprise that understanding the size and scope of audiovisual collections across the institution, as well as determining the cost of preserving those collections, is a significant challenge.

2016 Pan-institutional Survey

In 2016, the Smithsonian’s Audiovisual Archivists Institutional Leadership (AVAIL) group received funds to complete the Smithsonian Pan-Institutional Survey of Audiovisual Collections. The primary goals of the survey were to document the quantities and formats of the collections at a group level and gather data about the Institution’s greatest strengths and needs in audiovisual collections care. The eight units who hold the majority of audiovisual collections at the Smithsonian participated in this survey in order to provide the best representation of general needs for these materials. The survey was designed with four components: a multiple-choice questionnaire, an inventory, a general condition assessment, and a narrative staff interview. The inventory and condition assessment spreadsheets were pre-populated by existing collection management system data (if available) and then continually updated throughout the inventory process to gather quantitative information about formats, storage spaces, and locations. More qualitative data about current preservation practices was collected through the questionnaires and interviews completed by unit staff. ​Each of the participating units received their inventory spreadsheet and a unit report that highlighted collection formats, storage spaces, and inventory methodologies specific to their unit. The Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) served as the lead unit, but the project was completed by an independent contractor over the course of 14 months. The Final Project Report is available through SIA’s website.

Once the survey wrapped up, AVAIL had accumulated great foundational data regarding collection format counts but was questioning how prepared we were for long-term preservation of these audiovisual collections. It was determined that in order to move forward with properly caring for these materials, it was necessary to first conduct a readiness assessment. This assessment would provide additional insight to where things currently stand and would assist in identifying the steps it would take to move forward with a more robust audiovisual preservation plan. The main goals of the readiness assessment would be to develop a system to prioritize the collections within each unit, taking into account format degradation and content value; to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of current digitization workflows, staffing infrastructure, and costs of preservation; and to determine what the risk of collections loss would be under current practices as well as two additional preservation scenarios with constant variables. ​Based on these goals, the Audiovisual Preservation Readiness Assessment (AVPRA) was developed.

Audiovisual Preservation Readiness Assessment

AVPRA was designed as a three-component project by staff at SIA, and was based on several assessments that have been performed at other organizations, such as New York Public Library’s Audio and Moving Image Collections, Facilities, and Workflows Assessment and Indiana University’s Meeting the Challenge of Media Preservation: Strategies and Solutions. The project received funding from an internal competitive grant in 2017, and a contractor conducted the assessment from December 2017 to May 2019.

For Component One, the collections survey was expanded to include three additional units who showed interest in being part of this project. This utilized the same methodologies from the 2016 survey, and the original eight units could provide collection additions in order to utilize the most accurate numbers for further analysis. Component Two consisted of collection prioritization using a modifiable, easy-to-use system to identify collections deemed high priority based on format degradation and content value. Component Three assessed the Institution’s overall readiness to undertake audiovisual preservation, determined our risk of collection loss with the current preservation rates, and provided two preservation scenarios. ​


During both the narrative interview portion of the 2016 survey and the individual unit review of the readiness assessment five themes emerged as common challenges to audiovisual preservation.


For every participating unit, the primary concern was inadequate collection storage. Several units reported that the temperature and humidity in their storage spaces is often out of the appropriate range for audiovisual collections, and those with adequate climate controls reported having little to no room for future collection growth. Several units also stated that their audiovisual materials were stored in inappropriate physical housing, citing rusty film cans and acidic cardboard boxes as the primary housing issues. Improper physical housing and storage conditions increase the chances of degradation through sticky shed and vinegar syndrome and reduces the overall lifespan of the materials.

Equipment Obsolescence and Maintenance

Most legacy playback decks are no longer manufactured, and the parts needed to repair them are increasingly hard to find. It is also becoming more difficult to locate maintenance engineers with the expertise needed to diagnose and repair these decks. While it is possible to preserve motion picture film without a projector, it is not possible to preserve video and audio content stored on magnetic media without the appropriate playback decks, making access to appropriate equipment and parts crucial to the preservation of these materials.

Intellectual Control

Five out of the eleven units surveyed reported having less than 50% of their audiovisual collections cataloged at the item level, creating a barrier to intellectual control of those items. Cataloging aspects such as title, running time, base substrate (acetate, polyester, nitrate, etc.), format, medium, and known condition issues for each item can greatly assist with preservation prioritization and project planning. For example, this can assist in determining prioritization of the most at risk items first or all the items of a specific format first. Additionally, knowing the content of each collection can help encourage advocacy for preservation because people are often drawn to the “cool” or “unique” stories that the collections can tell. 


In order to have intellectual control over collections, it is imperative to have adequate staffing, which was listed as another concern by the units participating in the project. Across all eleven units, it was discovered that only one person is dedicated to preservation 100% of the time and only four people spend 50% of their time doing preservation work. Of the thirteen staff members who spend time on out-of-house preservation, only four of them are also engaged in in-house preservation activities; however, the most amount of time any one person spends between the two activities is 40%, with the majority of their time being spent on out-of-house preservation tasks. For the purposes of this project, in-house preservation includes the full digitization workflow of pulling and preparing an asset (including any cleaning or repairs, digitization, and quality control review of the resulting files) and out-of-house preservation includes preparing and packing of the materials, administrative management of the vendor contract, and quality control of the files upon receipt from the vendor.

Further investigation revealed that the reason so little staff time is spent on preservation is because not all staff responsible for audiovisual preservation are dedicated audiovisual archivists, and many staff have other duties outside of caring for these collections. Additionally, a fair amount of time is spent trying to gain intellectual control over material within the collection in order to secure funding for preservation.


Funding plays a critical part in the preservation of audiovisual collections. When participating units were asked where their funding for preservation comes from, the two most frequent answers were “internal competitive funds” and “external competitive grants.” This means that many units expend valuable resources, such as staff time and expertise, on writing grants to receive financial support for audiovisual preservation instead of being able to spend time on actual preservation activities. Less than half of the units have a line item in their budget for audiovisual preservation, making the funding received from grants crucial to doing this work.

Risk of Loss

The survey identified 293,586 audiovisual assets, with a little over half of those being audio, and the rest being split between video and motion picture film. During the project, it was estimated that approximately 87% of the audiovisual assets across the participating units are currently unpreserved. As part of the readiness assessment, the contractor was asked to provide risk of loss data for those assets based on current workflows and two different preservation scenarios. 

Current Workflows

As part of the assessment, units were asked to report the approximate number of audiovisual assets they preserve in a year. The numbers were then added together and averaged, and the result was that approximately 485 total assets per year are preserved across all units. Calculating this average gives us a better sense of a general rate of preservation and eliminates any data skewing that may occur from special projects with limited funding and support. ​This rate of preservation means that approximately 188,893 assets will be lost after 15 years. The 15-year timeframe is based on the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan for magnetic media, which estimates that after that time, collection items will no longer be viable for playback. While some of the collections, such as film or assets stored in optimal environmental conditions, may be viable past that timeline, many of our collections will not. Since losing approximately 64% of the collection because of format degradation is not an ideal scenario, the assessment also provided two alternative preservation scenarios to compare projected outcomes.

Fifteen-year Plan

The first preservation scenario provided data on what resources are needed in order to preserve all the unpreserved assets in 15 years. In order to preserve 254,368 assets in 15 years, the Institution would need to preserve 16,958 assets annually, as opposed to the current annual rate of 485. The ideal strategy would be to preserve our most common formats in house, such as compact audio cassettes and ¼-inch open reel audio tapes, while about 25% of unpreserved collections would be sent to a vendor for digitization. This accounts for rare formats that would require specialized knowledge and facilities, as well as any materials that require extensive conservation treatment beyond our capabilities. The estimated cost for staffing and vendor digitization is $2,721,575 annually, or $40,823,625 over 15 years.​ It should be noted that the number of assets to preserve does not take into account collection increases.

Five-Million-Dollar Plan

Scenario Two is based on a five-million-dollar, one-time budget. This scenario did not take into account the preservation work already happening at the units; it simply looked at what preservation goals can be accomplished with five million dollars. The estimated number of assets that can be preserved with that budget is 32,783, leaving 221,585 assets lost. The report recommended that the funds be spent at the proactive preservation rate of 16,957 assets per year based on the previous scenario. ​Since under the Five-Million-Dollar Plan the funding would be limited, it was recommended that the highest priority collections, as identified by the collection prioritization component of the assessment, be preserved first.

Next Steps

Since the initial survey wrapped up in 2017, several collaborations have been undertaken that support audiovisual preservation. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office recently oversaw completion of a mass digitization pilot project for ¼-inch open reel audiotapes, one of our most at-risk and largest formats. The project consisted of a combined total of 272 tapes from two units being sent out to a vendor for digitization. During the process of sending out the tapes, workflows were established for preparing and documenting the physical tapes, conducting quality control on the resulting files, and ingesting the files into a long-term preservation storage environment. The intention for this pilot is to eventually scale up to mass digitization of this format, or potentially another at-risk format. 

The Smithsonian Transcription Center has also recently launched its audio transcription platform, TC Sound, to aid in the generation of invaluable metadata to help make these collections more accessible to the public. This platform helps to increase advocacy for these collections by educating the public on the importance of their preservation. ​

Additionally, AVAIL hosted a two-day video digitization workshop in July 2019 to train staff from across the Institution on how to conduct preservation-level digitization in-house. This training will help to increase in-house rates of preservation, and hopefully encourage more units to engage in preservation activities. Training also helps staff to feel more confident that the end result is free of any errors introduced during digitization.

While there is still quite a bit of work to be done in order to meet our preservation goals, the challenges unearthed and the scenarios provided by the survey and assessment are playing a major role in helping to secure the resources necessary to meet those goals.