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Can We Save Our Audio-visual Heritage?

Daniel Teruggi describes PrestoSpace, the new FP6 Integrated project for the preservation of our disappearing audio-visual heritage.

Memory is our major link to the past; it has greatly influenced the evolution of humankind. Since the beginning of humanity, we have sought to preserve memories through the creation of artefacts that will transcend our own lifetime and so assure ourselves some form of posterity, perhaps even eternity. For some time writing has been the major complex medium of preserved reality. Not only does writing record human actions, beliefs and emotions, but it is an intellectual tool in itself, giving a temporal perspective on our thought as well as providing increasing levels of abstraction. Other forms have always existed: drawing, painting, architecture, sculpture, music; all of them trying to grasp the essence of a moment, of a belief, or of a way of thinking.

At the end of the 19th Century new forms of external memory appeared; first came photography, that brought a totally new sense of realism to images; then sound transmission and sound recording, which separated the space-time unity of perception. Finally came moving images which gave the illusion that life could be recorded, simulated and invented. These new approaches to memory gave birth to new media: radio, cinema, television, and their further evolutions. Common to all these media was the fact that they could only exist through intermediates; for the first time humanity's perception could only address information through an intermediary, which transformed electric or digital information to an accessible form for our senses [1].

Cinema used moving images and progressively sound to create a new art form, initially similar to existing performing arts, but gradually developing its own aesthetic, techniques and standing with the public. Cinema's capacity to evoke reality and to build new realities in people's minds has perhaps represented the greatest artistic revolution of the 20th Century. Sound recording brought about music recording, and in time, electronic music and hence the ability to create music through any kind of sound, be it synthetic or natural. Sound recording and moving images paved the way for yet more new media: radio and television; yet another technological but also social departure, for neither could be characterised as special events which an audience attended. Rather they became progressively part of everyday life, complementary artefacts of communication between individuals and the world around them.

However, the nature of the information conveyed by radio and television conferred upon these latest media an entirely new position in our relationship with the world about us: for they transmitted an immediacy like no other. They reflected everyday life; they brought the world into every home, mixing information with fiction, entertainment with culture, and became the window through which we now access our environment. Conveying such immediacy also meant keeping a memory of and for society, building a historical record through both trivial and historic events that have accumulated over time and so have created a huge repository of our collective memory.

But radio and television were not the only mass producers of information; all areas of human endeavour introduced recording technology so as to keep track of their own activity. Science, research, museums, government bodies, corporations, as well as private individuals, began to record their own memory and organise it in collections, either as a working tool or simply in order to document their activity.

The Birth of Audiovisual Archives

It took time before the new technological society became aware of the progressive and massive accumulation of material it was producing - and of its future importance. It took a long time before the first archives were founded in order to organise that burgeoning material and describe it properly so that it might be made accessible for reuse. Audiovisual archives were built within the production structures; audiovisual objects (boxes with audio-tapes, films or video) were kept on shelves with labels as if they were books stored in libraries. Yet some objects differed greatly from books in one particular regard: they were difficult to access due to their time-dependent nature and, even more unexpectedly, their life span was proving terrifyingly short, no more than 50 years even under the best of conservation conditions. Admittedly occasional problems arose, (defective tapes or mishaps during operation or processing), but nonetheless there was a degree of confidence in the likely evolution of the required technology and the general durability of the media.

The arrival of digital systems somehow reinforced the idea that these media were eternal. The fact that a digital signal was less susceptible to the ravages of time and that it could easily be cloned without loss of data gave rise firstly to the belief that digital description would prove more durable and, secondly, that, thanks to the emerging concept of 'migration', a solution to overcome the deterioration over time of magnetic tapes was within our grasp. (However this was far from the case: the advent of digital media brought about a far worse state of affairs; namely, the increasingly rapid and relentless alteration in media formats which created an ever-changing technological environment with which it became increasingly difficult to keep up).

As a consequence, the mistaken belief developed that analogue material was no longer in danger, because 'some day' all the analogue tapes would be efficiently transferred for good. There was too much confidence in the future and insufficient awareness of the potential problems that have subsequently proved all too real. And so we waited for the perfect digital medium and format to come along that would guarantee long-term preservation.

Thus the problem of conservation was put to one side; some problems were encountered here and there but these were regarded as local difficulties that did not affect the general approach adopted. Consequently, grounded in the double and mistaken beliefs that analogue magnetic tape would last for a long time and that digital storage would solve the problem of magnetic decay in analogue tapes once a definite format had been decided, no major action was undertaken until the end of the 1980s.

First Initiatives

During the 1990s, it became clear that analogue media were decaying at a far greater speed than anticipated and that initiatives had to be undertaken in order to prevent a major loss of audiovisual heritage. But the ideal digital storage format did not appear and the resultant and ever-increasing volume of stored media brought with it a second problem: access. Navigation through tapes and films was a rather clumsy process and most archives were kept closed to external users. Archive documentation which could provide descriptions capable of facilitating access was frequently entirely lacking. Major European archives, such as the BBC, INA and RAI, initiated plans for inventory, documentation, preservation and digitisation in order to conserve their rich heritage for future generations. There was an implicit economic interest in these initiatives, since these organisations employed a large amount of archive material in new internal or external productions; but there was also a heritage-related concern to preserve the history of their country through these archives.

The First Attempt: Presto

However, preservation is expensive both financially and in terms of human effort. The technology is not particularly adapted to old media and keeping audiovisual archives means keeping the technology with which old media was produced. In 2001, INA, RAI and the BBC worked together in a FP5 project named Presto [2] [3] in order to conduct an initial survey of the volume of European archives and to develop specially adapted machines and tools which would reduce the costs of preservation. This project was the first initiative to develop specific tools for archiving and to address problems chiefly requiring solutions to improve digitisation control for audio and video and an automatic re-splicing machine for films.

The results of the survey conducted on European holdings proved quite simply staggering: for broadcast archives alone, the estimate was in the order of 50 million hours of audio, film and video material. But for all audiovisual archives, the estimate doubled, bringing the figure to almost 100 million hours! Only 2% is preserved and an even smaller amount is digitised, accessible and browsable online. It was then clear that, unless a major initiative was brought to bear, most audiovisual archives would disappear due to chemical degradation and technological obsolescence, as the investment required to sustain a programme of systematic preservation would be almost impossible to drum up in the light of current preservation costs. Concerted action had to be taken to inform both the political and cultural communities to make them sensible of the magnitude of the problem and the real danger of losing this aspect of our cultural heritage altogether [2].

Digitisation Opens the Door to Access

These investigations into preservation and digitisation brought further disturbing news: nearly all audiovisual archives were inaccessible. Most archives were closed to external access, either due to technical or rights issues. So the overwhelming majority of production of the 20th Century was not accessible to the public except by dint of random and eventual reuse of material in subsequent television productions. Thus research for historical, societal or sociological purposes is currently almost impossible. It was then clear that the only way to open access was through digitisation, i.e. via online access to digital content. However, access could only be obtained if that content is placed in a digital format, so the major impediment remained the fact that most of our audiovisual memory is in one analogue format or another.

Preservation and Access: The two motors of PrestoSpace

PrestoSpace was founded with the intention of providing solutions to this huge cultural heritage problem. The main objective is to develop systems that will permit quick, efficient and economically accessible preservation of analogue media. Such a preservation programme brings together all the components essential to the comprehensive exploitation of material, namely: restoration, storage, archive management and description (metadata). These processes are all essential to the provision of access to large communities of users of cultural heritage and so to their understanding of the evolution and richness of our culture through the study and use of this digital content.

The Project aims to provide technical solutions and integrated systems for digital preservation of all types of audio-visual collections. Institutions traditionally responsible for preserving audio-visual collections, (broadcasters, research institutions, libraries, museums, etc.), now face major technical, organisational, resource, and legal challenges in taking on the migration to digital formats as well as the preservation of already digitised holdings. Technical obsolescence and the sheer physical deterioration of their assets call for a wide-ranging and concerted policy to provide efficient technical services to guarantee long-term digital preservation.

Audiovisual content is widely distributed while archive owners are heterogeneous in nature and size: institutions, commercial enterprises, regional and local government bodies and communities. Up to now, the economic cost and technological complexity have prevented these stakeholders from elaborating and implementing their own cultural heritage policy; meanwhile they have to hope for governmental guidelines and subsidies from on high. The principal aim of the Project is to establish preservation factories which will make available affordable services to the custodians of all kinds of collection so that they may manage and exploit their assets effectively.

diagram (21KB) : Breakdown of PrestoSpace Project Activity

Breakdown of PrestoSpace Project Activity

Project Workplan

These developments will be implemented in the following four distinctive Work Areas (groups of Workpackages):

The Work Breakdown structure has one common integrated view which is sustained by a number of Project-wide Workpackages in respect of:

These Workpackages operate therefore at the project level maintaining an overview of all developments within the project. Their key objective is to verify that the resultant solutions are interoperable and easily integrated. Moreover two further items, Training and Dissemination, will contribute to the spreading of know-how.

The project intends to provide deliverables (devices, software, reports, and recommendations) for the preservation process and its management. Some examples of results are as follows:



Storage and Archive Management:

Metadata, Delivery and Access:


Archive owners, service providers, industrial bodies, universities and institutes of applied research from 8 European countries and the US are participating in the PrestoSpace Project [4]. A strong group of users, service providers and representatives from industry will provide the requirements, functional feedback and knowledge on current practices and will test the solutions developed. The partners contribute by directly addressing the archiving problems, implementing the results of research and building the tools and components necessary for the preservation process, for new restorative technology and for access provision.

PrestoSpace started on 1 February 2004 with a project duration of 40 months.

An Integrated Approach

The way to achieve the goal of 'preservation for all collections' is with an integrated approach, to produce sustainable assets with easy access for wider exploitation and distribution to both specialists and the public alike. The basic concept is simple enough: an accessible item is more valuable than an item on a shelf. An integrated process will provide this access, generating revenue that will fund activity and developing the resources to finance collection maintenance.

Access requirements involve: providing whole documents or excerpts with the adequate metadata, rights clearance and rights management; quality restoration where needed and effective delivery systems for commercial and public access. There are unsolved problems with regard to digitisation, metadata extraction, restoration, storage, network bandwidth, secure interaction, and end-user delivery. Partial solutions exist, but in general they are not robust, scalable or affordable and definitely not integrated end-to-end within a sustainable commercial and legal model. Today many initiatives are funded on a project-by-project basis which offers a poor foundation for long-term strategic pan-European collaborative effort in this field.

In order to enable any European archive owner, from small collections to the largest, to manage an autonomous and realistic cultural heritage policy, including preservation and exploitation of digital assets, PrestoSpace will push the limits of the current technology beyond the state of the art, bringing together industry, research institutes and stakeholders at European level to provide products and services for bringing automated preservation and access to Europe's diverse audio-visual collections.


The 20th Century radically changed our relationship with information and therefore our environment. Radio and television are not only powerful and influential media they constitute the essential record of our memory. This memory is in danger, the risk of losing it remains very high, mainly because it decays over time. It is not the role of archives to decide what will be conserved or what can be forgotten, it is their role to preserve for future generations the maximum of human production in the domain. If no effective solutions are found, most of society's audiovisual memory could be lost over a period of ten years; but in order to save this memory, specific technology and procedures have to be conceived and developed. It is the mission of PrestoSpace [4] to develop answers that will help in the battle against time, by simplifying methods, lowering preservation costs, accelerating the preservation process and proposing efficient and economic solutions to archive owners.


  1. Monaco, J., "How to read a film", Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 2000.
  2. Presto project: http://presto.joanneum.at/index.asp
  3. Wright, R. "Preserving Europe's Memory", Cultivate Interactive, issue 7, 11 July 2002 http://www.cultivate-int.org/issue7/presto/
  4. Project information: PrestoSpace: An integrated solution for Audio-visual preservation and access http://www.prestospace.org/

Author Details

Daniel Teruggi
Research and Experimentation Manager
INA (National Audiovisual Institute)
4, Av. de l'Europe
94366 Bry-sur-Marne Cedex

Tel: 0033 1 49 83 29 08
Fax: 0033 1 49 83 25 82 Email: dteruggi@ina.fr Web site url: http://www.ina.fr/recherches/index.fr.html

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