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Last modified: Thursday, October 1, 2009

Study of media at IU Bloomington reveals critical preservation needs

Media archives seriously endangered; 44 percent of holdings unique or rare

Oct. 1, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University Bloomington holds more than 560,000 audio and video recordings and film reels, many of which are historically significant, all of which are actively deteriorating. And the window of time to save these materials is closing fast; most archivists agree that such audio and video materials could be lost forever in 20 years or less.

That's the urgent conclusion of the just-released IU Bloomington Media Preservation Survey, a comprehensive study produced by a task force of archival experts drawn from around the campus.


Photo by Alan Burdette

Audio and video recordings at IU Bloomington in a variety of formats

Print-Quality Photo

To determine the state of audio, video, and film holdings on campus and the scope of the preservation challenge at IU Bloomington, the task force conducted the survey throughout the 2008-09 academic year. Supported by the Office of the Provost and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the survey team interviewed media-holders, physically inspected holding units, and collected data on audio, video, and motion-picture film from 80 units on campus, ranging from the Department of Astronomy (23 media items) to the William and Gayle Cook Music Library (195,596 media items).

Commitment to preserve such valuable resources runs particularly deep on the IU Bloomington campus, due in large part to former IU President and University Chancellor Herman B Wells, says Ruth Stone, who led the survey initiative and is Laura Boulton Professor of folklore and ethnomusicology and associate vice provost for the arts at IU Bloomington.

"Herman Wells believed strongly in historic preservation -- from the campus's natural landscape to its intellectual holdings," says Stone. "He was very keen on IU taking a leadership role in preservation not just for this campus or the state, but in the larger world. It is by virtue of Wells' guidance that IU possesses the unique array of special collections we are striving to preserve today."

Video Tapes

Photo by Patrick Feaster

Early digital audio carried on videotape at the Music Library, including a 1985 performance by violinist Joshua Bell.

Alan Burdette, director of the Archives of Traditional Music and associate director in the Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities at IU Bloomington, coordinated the work of the survey task force. Mike Casey, associate director for recording services at the ATM, designed the study and wrote the final 115-page report. Patrick Feaster, an expert in early recordings, conducted the interviews and surveys with cooperation from media specialists and content holders at IU Bloomington.

The final report presents a detailed look at the characteristics and condition of audio, video, and film media on the campus, including numbers of holdings, general condition, and preservation risks. (This survey focused on one class of media and did not include photographs or other physical objects in special collections.) Among its major findings, the report reveals that IU Bloomington:

  • Has media holdings dating back to wax cylinder recordings of Native Americans made in the early 1890s
  • Holds an estimated 154,136 unique (one-of-a-kind) items
  • Holds an estimated 94,993 rare items
  • Holds a larger and more diverse film collection than almost any other U.S. university
  • Has at least 180,000 items that are at high or very high risk for loss of content

"Large portions of IU Bloomington holdings are seriously endangered due to inadequate storage, degradation of media, and format obsolescence," says Casey in his introduction to the survey report. "Some media preservation efforts on campus exist, but none are sustainable, and none are at a scale or pace that will allow them to preserve more than a tiny fraction of their holdings before it is too late."

Carolyn Walters, interim Ruth Lilly Dean of University Libraries, noted that "specialized collections, in whatever form, distinguish IU. Because the IU Libraries steward more than half of the media collections on campus, this report is especially helpful in documenting and prioritizing critical needs. Preserving collections is as important to us as providing access to them."

In today's digital age, the historical, cultural, and research value of IU Bloomington's media collections is extraordinary, according to the survey report. Notable media held at IU Bloomington include:

  • Performances by world-renowned musicians such as Janos Starker and Joshua Bell
  • The Peter Bogdanovich Film Collection, from the director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon
  • Home movies of Hoagy Carmichael
  • 276 cylinders documenting Native American musical traditions recorded 1907-13
  • Lectures and other events featuring figures such as Mikhail Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates and Will Shortz
  • One of the largest educational film collections in the country dating from the 1920s

"The special collection holdings of the Bloomington campus are a rich part of IU's history as a great research university," said Provost and Executive Vice President Karen Hanson. "These materials document important artistic, social, and cultural moments. Their preservation is a paramount concern."

Vice Provost for Research Sarita Soni commended the efforts of the task force, saying that media preservation fits well with the campus's important research mission. "The primary mission of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research is to provide support to faculty as they pursue wide-ranging research and creative activity in all disciplines," she said. "The media holdings on this campus are essential to many of those projects, and we must find ways to preserve them for future generations of scholars."

The preservation crisis at IU Bloomington is shared by universities across the nation and the world in institutions that hold similar audio and moving image media. Growing awareness of this crisis led to the survey, which is the most thorough and extensive study of its kind conducted by a large American university to date.

Additional members of the Media Preservation Survey Task Force included Julie Bobay, associate dean at the Wells Library; Stacy Kowalczyk, associate director of the Digital Library Program at IU Bloomington; Brenda Nelson-Strauss, head of collections and technical services at the Archives of African American Music and Culture; and Barbara Truesdell, assistant director at the Center for the Study of History and Memory.

For more information on the survey, see