Memory Labs and audiovisual digitization workflows with Lorena Ramírez-López

Hello! I’m Ashley Blewer, and I’ve recently joined the ACRL TechConnect blogging team. For my first post, I wanted to interview Lorena Ramírez-López. Lorena is working (among other places) at the D.C. Public Library on their Memory Lab initiative, which we will discuss below. Although this upcoming project targets public libraries, Lorena has a history of dedication to providing open technical workflows and documentation to support any library’s mission to set up similar “digitization stations.”

Hi Lorena! Can you please introduce yourself?

Hi! I’m Lorena Ramírez-López. I am a born and raised New Yorker from Queens. I went to New York University for Cinema Studies and Spanish where I did an honors thesis on Paraguayan cinema in regards to sound theory. I continued my education at NYU and graduated from the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program where I concentrated on video and digital preservation. I was one of the National Digital Stewardship Residents for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. I did my residency at Howard University television station (WHUT) in Washington D.C from 2016 until this June 2017. Along with being the project manager for the Memory Lab Network, I do contracting work for the National Portrait Gallery on their time based media artworks, joined the Women who Code community, and teach Spanish at Fluent City!

 

Tell us a little bit about DCPL’s Memory Lab and your role in it.

The DC Public Library’s Memory Lab was a National Digital Stewardship Project back in 2014 through 2015. This was the baby of DCPL’s National Digital Stewardship Resident, Jaime Mears, back in the day. A lot of my knowledge on how it started comes from reading the original project proposal, which you can find that on the Library of Congress’s website as well as Jaime Mear’s final report on the Memory Lab is found on the DC Library website. But to summarize its origin story, the Memory Lab was created as a local response to the fact that communities are generating a lot of digital content while still keeping many of their physical materials like VHS, miniDVs, and photos but might not necessarily have the equipment or knowledge to preserve their content. It has been widely accepted in the archival and preservation fields that we have an approximate 15- to 20-year window of opportunity to digitally preserve legacy audio and video recordings on magnetic tape because of the rate of degradation and the obsolescence of playback equipment. The term “video at risk” might ring a bell to some people. There’s also photographs and film, particularly color slides and negatives and moving image film formats, that will also fade and degrade over time. People want to save their memories as well as share them on a digital platform.

There are well-established best practices for digital preservation in archival practice, but these guidelines and documentation are generally written for a professional audience. And while there are a various personal digital archiving resources for a public audience, they aren’t really easy to find on the web and a lot of these resources aren’t updated to reflect the changes in our technology, software, and habits.

That being the case, our communities risk massive loss of history and culture! And to quote Gabriela Redwine’s Digital Preservation Coalition report,  “personal digital archives are important not just because of their potential value to future scholars, but because they are important to the people who created them.”

So the Memory Lab was the library’s local response in the Washington D.C. area to bridge this gap of digital archiving knowledge and provide the tools and resources for library patrons to personally digitize their own personal content.

My role is maintaining this memory lab (digitization rack). When hardware gets worn down or breaks, I fix it. When software for our computers upgrade to newer systems, I update our workflows.

I am currently re-doing the website to reflect the new wiring I did and updating the instructions with more explanations and images. You can expect gifs!

 

You recently received funding from IMLS to create a Memory Lab Network. Can you tell us more about that?

Yes! The DC Public Library in partnership with the Public Library Association received a national leadership grant to expand the memory lab model.

During this project, the Memory Lab Network will partner with seven public libraries across the United States. Our partners will receive training, mentoring, and financial support to develop their own memory lab as well as programs for their library patrons and community to digitize and preserve their personal and family collections. A lot of focus is put on the digitization rack, mostly because it’s cool, but the memory lab model is not just creating a digitization rack. It’s also developing classes and online resources for the community to understand that digital preservation doesn’t just end with digitizing analog formats.

By creating these memory labs, these libraries will help bridge the digital preservation divide between the professional archival community and the public community. But first we have to train and help the libraries set up the memory lab, which is why we are providing travel grants to Washington, D.C. for an in-depth digital preservation bootcamp and training for these seven partners.

If anyone wants to read the proposal, the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences has it here.

 

What are the goals of the Memory Lab Network, and how do you see this making an impact on the overall library field (outside of just the selected libraries)?

One of the main goals is to see how well the memory lab model holds up. The memory lab was a local response to a need but it was meant to be replicated. This funding is our chance to see how we can adapt and improve the memory lab model for other public libraries and not just our own urban library in Washington D.C.

There are actually many institutions and organizations that have digitization stations and/or the knowledge and resources, but we just don’t realize who they are. Sometimes it feels like we keep reinventing the wheel with digital preservation. There are plenty of websites that had contemporary information on digital preservation and links to articles and other explanations at one time. Then those websites weren’t sustained and remained stagnant while housing a series of broken links and lost PDFs. We could (and should) be better of not just creating new resources, but updating the ones we have.

The reasons why some organization aren’t transparent or updating the information, or why we aren’t searching in certain areas, varies, but we should be better at documenting and sharing our information to our archival and public communities. This is why the other goal is to create a network to better communicate and share.

 

What advice do you have for librarians thinking of setting up their own digitization stations? How can someone learn more about aspects of audiovisual preservation on the job?

If you are thinking of setting up your own digitization station, announce that not only to your local community but also the larger archival community. Tell us about this amazing adventure you’re about to tackle. Let us know if you need help! Circulate and cite that article you thought was super helpful. Try to communicate not only your successes but also your problems and failures.

We need to be better at documenting and sharing what we’re doing, especially when dealing with how to handle and repair playback decks for magnetic media. Besides the fact that the companies just stopped supporting this equipment, a lot of this information on how to support and repair equipment could have been shared or passed down by really knowledge experts, but it wasn’t. Now we’re all holding our breath and pulling our hair out because this one dude who repairs U-matic tapes is thinking about retiring. This lack of information and communication shouldn’t be the case in our environment when we can email and call.

We tend to freak out about audiovisual preservation because we see how other professional institutions set up their workflows and the amount of equipment they have. The great advantage libraries have is that not only can they act practically with their resources but also they have the best type of feedback to learn from: library patrons. We’re creating these memory lab models for the general public so getting practical experience, feedback, and concerns are great ways to learn more on what aspects of audiovisual preservation really need to be fleshed out and researched.

And for fun, try creating and archiving your own audiovisual media! You technically already do with taking photos and videos on your phone. Getting to know your equipment and where your media goes is very helpful.

 

Thanks very much, Lorena!

For more information on how to set up a “digitization station” at your library, I recommend Dorothea Salo’s robust website detailing how to build an “audio/video or digital data rescue kit”, available here.

 

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