Lest We Forget: Preserving our Audiovisual History

Canadian Officer Training Corps students at Windsor Street Campus, ca. 1940.

Did you know that October 27th was World Day for Audiovisual Heritage?

If you didn’t- well, now you do! As Remembrance Day draws near and we spend time reflecting on the past, it’s worth considering how we as a society preserve our collective history.

Unlike books and journal articles, audiovisual (AV) materials can be difficult to access. They’re also more challenging to preserve. Luckily, through Saint Mary’s, you have access to audio visual heritage materials via the University Archive. The physical Archives are located on the third floor of the library, but you can access some materials online through the institutional repository.  

Here’s a quick Q&A with Hansel Cook, the librarian responsible for archives and special collections, on the status of audiovisual materials at SMU.

Q: What are audiovisual (AV) materials?

A: You can broadly describe AV material based on either the output format – audio, video, and photos being the obvious ones, of course – and the transmission medium, which includes digital files, as well as tapes, film, CDs, and a whole lot more. You can make the case that the definition of AV material could be expanded to include many more non-text formats, from video games to 3D printer files!Even if they are not the same thing, they have many of the same preservation and access concerns. 

Q: Why is the preservation of audiovisual materials important?

A: The two big concerns with AV material are: 1. decay of the physical medium, which includes things like video tapes becoming unplayable, and 2. loss of transmission standards, specifically, the inability to read the format even if the file itself has not decayed. This could be because it is using a piece of software that is not readable by current standards (how many people can open a WordStar word processing document?), or because the player/reader itself is obsolete (anyone own a Beta tape player these days?). 

Q: What are the challenges to accessing audiovisual materials as part of our documentary heritage?  

A: One of the solutions to access is also one of the solutions to preservation: transfer the AV material to a new, more-accessible digital format before the physical medium decays to the point that you can no longer read it. The challenge is that you still need to make decisions on transmission format and medium, which may make it easier to access the material now, but is it archival? How long will this new medium last? 

Other challenges include much larger file sizes, and the fact that every time you digitize something you may lose some of the authenticity of the original format. For example, oral history interviews transferred from a cassette tape format into a digital format are, in theory, more accessible, but are you losing anything in the way of authenticity? Did the fact that most cassette tapes record in 30-minute chunks play any part in how the original interview was conducted, and would you know that from a digital file? 

Q: What contributions can audiovisual materials make to research (as opposed to print materials like books or journal articles)?

A: AV material is an important primary source, and one that, due to the preservation issues mentioned above, has a higher chance to be lost through decay than more stable formats (like most paper). Also, AV material is, for lack of a better word, flashy! It’s an easy way to get people interested in your collection or in a topic and can be shared via social media and other formats to increase awareness, in a way that print materials cannot. If a picture is worth 1000 words, a video might be worth even more… 

Q: What audiovisual materials are available through the Patrick Power Library Archives?  

A: Most of our AV materials are related to the University itself, and includes oral history interviews with past staff, faculty and students, and video tapes of convocations and other university events. Much of our material has been digitized for the Institutional Repository, including old sports films from the 1960s of football and basketball games, as well as our entire University photo collection. 

There is so much to explore at the University Archives. You can visit the University Archives section of the institutional repository and take a trip to the past at Saint Mary’s University through audiovisual materials! This includes SMU’s involvement in the World Wars. AV materials in the Repository include an oral history interview with C. Anthony Law, the first curator of Saint Mary’s Art Gallery, who enlisted in the Canadian Navy in 1939 and went on to become one of Canada’s most prominent war artists. More information on Tony Law’s collection can be found at MemoryNS. You’ll also find a documentary on Stanisław Swianiewicz, a former Professor of Economics at Saint Mary’s, who served in the Polish army in World War Two and is the only known survivor of the Katyn Forest Massacre.

If you’re interested in learning more, or have additional questions, feel free to connect with a member of the Research Help team at the Patrick Power Library.

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