Archival Challenges of Practice Research Publication

In addition to the formative peer-review process and opportunities for knowledge exchange that are afforded by academic journals, another key publishing incentive is the preservation of one’s work. Findings presented in journals are traditionally indexed and archived in libraries, kept safe and accessible for future researchers to build upon in their contribution to knowledge. For Screenworks and other practice-research publications focusing on screen media, the process of archiving work is much more complex.

The challenges of longevity for digital moving imagery have been widely discussed but I would suggest that emerging forms of academic publishing which revolve around content in this format are another important area of consideration. The necessity of a preservation strategy for Screenworks became apparent to me when looking through our journal’s current online archive. As Screenworks was initially distributed on DVD with the Journal of Media Practice, much of the earlier content that was migrated online can now only be shown in standard definition, often featuring heavy image and audio compression that obscure nuances of the original work.

Currently Screenworks reviews and displays content through Vimeo but in the long-term future this could lead to similar quality issues as online streaming employs lossy processes like intra-frame compression and a restricted colour pallet to achieve greater data efficiency. During online streaming, much of the image is essentially guessed by an algorithm which interpolates detail through neighbouring pixels or frames. Once moving imagery has been compressed into a display codec like Vimeo’s favoured MPEG-4, the original quality will never be regained even if the work is migrated back to a higher quality format.

Moreover, some of the earlier published Screenworks content was completely inaccessible during the creation of the current website, leaving gaps in the journal’s history. This problem could be compounded as specific hardware and software combinations that enable playback of moving imagery today are replaced or misplaced, like the outmoded DVDs of our past editions. In an industry driven by commerce, all consumer formats have an uncertain future due to volatile digital storage solutions and the rapid change of predominant technologies. MPEG-4 currently provides a useful display method but it is dependent on the correct computer operating system or software and already outdated by the more sophisticated MPEG-5 codec. Writing uncompressed data to LTO tape or printing imagery out to celluloid film are the best current archival strategies to truly ensure that moving imagery is preserved.

The solution to this archival challenge is twofold then and will initially require new procedures through which we can obtain ‘master’ copies of practical work at the best possible quality from the journal’s contributors. Moreover, we will need to find a solution for the safe and searchable storage of these high-quality moving image files alongside text-based statements in order to successfully preserve the content for future researchers.

If we do not correctly master, store and care for our practice-research artefacts any claims to knowledge or understanding are potentially redundant as, in the case of Screenworks, the intrinsic moving image content may become inaccessible. This risk applies to many digital humanities disciplines but it is particularly heightened for research featuring moving imagery due to the inbuilt obsolescence of capture and display equipment as well as the widespread use of online streaming efficiency codecs.

Alex Nevill
(Associate Editor of Screenworks)
20 Feb 2018

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