Guidelines for Processing Collections with Audiovisual Material



The following chapters were originally written as part of a workflow development and processing project at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution from 2012-2015, with funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources “Hidden Collections” grant program. For more information including links to the finding aids for the project collections, see Uncovering Hidden Audiovisual Media.

Since the original guidelines were shared in 2015, there have been updates to standards and tools on many fronts – at the archives, the Smithsonian Institution, and in the wider profession – compelling the revisions in the current document. The most obvious update is the migration to ArchivesSpace from Archivist’s Toolkit, reflected in this document’s revised chapter on description. Additional changes to practices in each stage of the processing workflow are found throughout this document. Further updates to the description guidelines are anticipated when EAD3 is adopted at the Smithsonian Institution.

The guidelines were written to help archivists with arrangement and description of archival collections containing sound recordings and moving image materials in obsolete analog formats. They supplement the Archives’s general collections processing manual with audiovisual-specific guidelines, including tools for assessment of AV in collections (Chapter 1), strategies for processing AV to different levels (Chapter 2), guidelines for re-housing media objects and seating them in collection containers (Chapter 3), archival arrangement (Chapter 4), describing media in finding aids according to DACS and EAD2002 (Chapter 5), and resources for identifying obsolete audiovisual formats (Chapter 6).

Each of these chapters was written for local use at the Archives of American Art, but it is hoped that they will be useful to other repositories. Users of these guidelines elsewhere should expect to adapt them to local processing policies, storage practices, descriptive practices, and procedures for research access.

These guidelines advise against certain common default practices for arranging and describing audiovisual material, such as including detailed technical specifications in archival description, arranging all the audiovisual material in a mixed media collection by format, and describing audiovisual media at the item level. Instead, these guidelines support the goal of conveying an understanding the AV material in the context of the collection as efficiently as possible. Practically speaking, that means that description must provide enough information to enable:

  1. intellectual access (users should know what the content of a recording is, how it relates to other collection records, and to agents and activities involved in its creation and use), and
  2. physical access (users should know how to access the content of the records)

Although there are times when detailed, granular description may be warranted, following the general principles of archival description outlined in the new DACS principles, such enhancements to description should be based on demonstrated user needs or the requirements of the repository. Technical specifications about the media objects themselves are not typically needed by users for intellectual or physical access. Requiring such details to be included in description as a default creates unnecessary bottlenecks for processing archivists. The same could be said of item-level description of media in finding aids. Description of media in the aggregate may suffice to make AV records available for research, and more granular intellectual access can be added as internal or external demand warrants, whether in the finding aid itself, or in linked item-level records, or some other means of access.

As for the common practice of creating format-specific series as a default, DACS principles clearly state that archival arrangement and description should convey evidence of relationships among records, creators, and activities impacting records. To meet this standard, the intellectual arrangement should reflect the activities that produced the records or resulted in their pre-custodial accumulation, which may or may not result in materials of the same format being arranged and described together. Records that belong together intellectually but resist physical co-location due to format considerations can still have their relationships expressed in their intellectual arrangement and description. See Chapter 4, AV Arrangement Guidelines for more on the Archives’s preferred approach to archival arrangement of AV material in mixed media collections.

To meet the second requirement of physical access, archives that collect and hold audiovisual material should have procedures in place for providing reference access to their holdings as far as they can. When AV formats fall outside the repository’s in-house capacity for playing or copying media due to the common challenges of format obsolescence and condition issues, repositories should still be prepared to describe the records as best they can, and to respond to requests for access. Ideally, this means internal users – processing archivists, reference archivists, curators – understand the repository’s capacity and procedures and can work together to provide intellectual and physical access, and to articulate potential restrictions, delays, and costs when requests are made.

The guidelines in this document reflect the Archives’s approach to making clear what external users can expect when requesting access to AV, while providing enough information to internal users for them to be able to provide a definitive response to specific requests. Whatever the situation, the ideal finding aid will contain accurate and actionable information about audiovisual materials in collections sufficient to support intellectual and physical access by both internal and external users.

Sources of Information

When beginning a processing project involving audiovisual material at the Archives of American Art, processing archivists should be aware of the following sources of information about audiovisual materials found in collections. Instructions for using each of these resources are found on the Archives' shared drive.

1. The AV Survey Database: All audio, video, and film

The AV Survey is our comprehensive inventory of AV material found in collections, found on the Archives' internal shared drive. Follow instructions for generating an “AV Survey Collection Report” to see the AV in your collection.

Contact the AV Archivist if you find AV in a collection that is not in the AV Survey database. New accessions may not have been entered yet, and AV may have been missed in older accessions.

2. The Film Inspection Database: All motion picture film

If there is film in your collection, it’s likely that the film will not be in the containers you pull to process the collection. All of the Archives’s motion picture film is now stored in cold or frozen storage, for both processed and unprocessed collections. You will know there is film in your collection if you see the remote storage location in the collection record, which will note the number of reels. You should also find a removal slip in the collection stating that film has been removed to cold storage.

You must still describe the film in your finding aid, and you can consult the film inspection database on the Archives' internal shared drive. For most collections, each reel of film should have a record in the Film Inspection database, with information about the reel, links to photographs of original housing, date estimates, and labels and titles found.

If you find film in the collection that has not been put in cold storage yet, let the AV Archivist know so that it can be inspected and re-housed while you are processing. Film cans will need to be barcoded and treated as top-level collection containers, and you will need to assign container numbers for each reel. See Chapter 5 for specific instructions for AV-specific Top Containers.

3. The DCD and SI-DAMS: All digitized AV

Any audiovisual material that has been digitized after 2008 will have a descriptive item record in the Archives’s DCD, and the digital surrogates should be stored in the SI DAMS. Search your collection in the Archives’s CIS to see if there are digitized items. Instructions for searching the DCD and accessing the digital surrogates in the DAMS are found on the Archives' internal shared drive.