Beyond Theory - Interview to La Digitalizadora. By Vicenç Ruiz and Juan Alonso

The Beyond Theory interview series is a recent project by the PAAG-ICA group designed to offer photographic and audio-visual management-related content, enabling operational possibilities through a pragmatic approach. The main goal is to interview relevant and highly experienced professionals, who deal with different aspects of the audio-visual and photographic workflow. This is the third interview of the series and it was an asynchronous email interview. 

Beyond Theory -  Interview to La Digitalizadora. By Vicenç Ruiz and Juan Alonso

Recently, we have witnessed an increasing number of audiovisual archiving initiatives growing outside the framework of institutional archives. These initiatives mainly arising from civil society and collective collaborations may differ both in terms of technology and political and/or ethical commitment. Amongst these initiatives is the collective La Digitizadora, a "citizen platform" created in 2019 with the aim of accompanying social groups and individuals in digitising, describing and disseminating their audiovisual memory, which is preserved in analog supports (video-recordings and films) at risk of decay. The group consists of archival, audiovisual, arts, community engagement and computer professionals. They define themselves as "A non-profit collective wishing to contribute to preserving the audiovisual memory of social movements through a participatory process, and recognising Collective Memory as part of a plural perspective of History".

According to your website, the collective emerged in 2019 with a variety of complementary professional and civic profiles, and with a fairly well-defined focus and methodology. Could you explain how did you reach this level of formalization? Were there previous attempts or had collaborative networks already been built that allowed for that level of maturity? Or were you inspired by an existing framework at a national or international level?

It was a staggered onboarding process. At first we joined audiovisual professionals residing in Seville and members of the Andalusian Association of Archivists who already knew each other and had developed projects together. Perhaps a germ of the project is the celebration of the "Creative Archives" congress where, for the first time, we created a space for dialogue between archival, audiovisual and arts professionals.

Other professionals joined as the initiative took shape, many of whom we did not know. To this day the network of collaborators continues to grow.

The group is organized in the form of circles, depending on the degree of involvement of each participant. In this way, there is a nucleus that acts as a motor group, currently made up of about 8 people. Around this first group there is a second circle of collaborators of more than 20 people. These are collaborators who voluntarily carry out specific and punctual tasks. A third circle is that of supporters, who are people that follow the development of the initiative and support it in different ways, such as by sending us information about funding opportunities, technical resources or by publicizing the initiative.

Finally, thanks to the first financial support, there is a last group of people with temporary contracts to carry out specific tasks as well as internship students who carry out very important work in the day-to-day life of the project.

Regarding other experiences, we were moved to see the many initiatives that, individually, exist on the internet, where groups try to preserve themselves, with very uneven results and in many cases of very poor quality, both audiovisually and archivally. That made us understand that there is a demand and that there is a group of people willing to dedicate hours of work to safeguard their assets.

What moved us to self-organize was the awareness that all this valuable audiovisual heritage is beyond the reach of public institutions and that it does not have the financial resources to guarantee its safeguarding through private offerings. If the preservation of this memory is a collective problem, the solution should also be collective/communitarian.

What we want with our initiative is that these groups and individuals have a professional guide and accompaniment so that the result of their effort has the highest possible quality.

The territorial framework seems very focused on Seville. In fact, you are based at the Civic Center Hogar San Fernando City Hall of Seville, where we imagine that the digitization station is also located. The feeling is that this project works well within the local, municipal framework or the fabric of communities. Is your intention to cover other spaces?

Indeed, it is in this space provided by the Seville City Council Citizen Participation Delegation where we have our multi-format digitization community station, which we have been able to set up thanks also to donations and transfers of technical material (recorders, computers, etc.) from various people, groups and institutions that have shown interest in supporting the initiative.

Although we have members located in other cities, such as Malaga or even London, it is true that most of the core group is in Seville. The collections around the memory of the urban periphery have so far focused solely on neighbourhoods in Seville, specifically in the neighbourhoods of San Diego and La Bachillera, since they require working very closely with the local groups involved.

In this regard, we are currently trying to establish alliances with cultural institutions close to citizens, such as the municipal public library network. It would be great if, among the things that a citizen could do in a local public library, there was the possibility of digitizing and describing their audiovisual memory and sharing it with the city.

More than expanding the geographical scope of action, we are interested in explaining the model of La Digitizadora in other places, in case they find it replicable, obviously adapting it to each context. In this sense, workshops have been held at the Andalusian Institute of Historical Heritage and public institutions in Madrid, Zaragoza, and soon in Valencia. The objective of these workshops would be to facilitate the implementation of autonomous motor groups in those places, which are in charge of energizing these neighbourhood memory processes. To serve as inspiration so that other networks of professionals and citizens, with our support, can replicate the initiative in other places.

On the other hand, the community digitization station is a service that is being used by groups and individuals throughout the Spanish state. While the methodology is easy to replicate, the technological devices are harder to come by, so it makes sense that the community station could meet that demand beyond the local level.

In this line, we have opened some collections that arise from other territorial areas, such as the one dedicated to an experience of pedagogical innovation that took place in Riotinto, Huelva, in the 70s. We also have another collection on the Conscientious Objection Movement (MOC) in Tenerife. And the collections intended to collect the work of authors transcend in many cases the geographical area of Seville. At this time, we are also considering the possibility of resorting to funding from the European Union to establish a network of collective memory digitizers in other cities of country members.

Regarding the temporal scope, you focus on “the last third of the 20th century”. There are initiatives that train activists to archive and preserve their current video productions, such as Witness. Have you considered managing the material produced by more contemporary social movements, even if it has not been generated in analog format? On the other hand, when does an audiovisual document come under the concept of "memory" for you?

The answer to the first question is no. What worries us and seems urgent to us is all that memory that has been trapped in obsolete supports. Videotapes are like opaque boxes of memory when one does not have the technical means to reproduce them. Our community digitization station aims to be a space for interested groups and individuals to bring these images back to life.

It was in the 70s when making video recordings began to be within the reach of groups that went beyond the professional field of audiovisuals, in such a way that activist groups and neighbourhood associations - which at that time began to hatch all over the Spanish State coinciding with the last years of the dictatorship – can begin to generate their own audiovisual documentary records. Little by little, this technology became more and more accessible, until it was incorporated into the domestic environment of many families throughout the last decades of the 20th century.

The result is invaluable documents both from a historical and anthropological point of view, which can help us better understand the collective struggles waged by various activist movements as well as daily life in specific local contexts. The degradation of magnetic media makes it vital to digitize these tapes as soon as possible and thus prevent them from being lost forever.

At the end of the 1990s, a digital transformation began that today no longer depends on magnetic recording media. It's not so much a question of analog versus digital, but of support, since digital formats such as mini-DV or DVCPro are based on magnetic tapes that are equally exposed to the same deterioration processes. Obviously, digital media that does not depend on magnetic media comes with its own problems, which are not few, with regard to the preservation and access to audiovisual documents. But our work is focused on those materials that are most at risk and therefore we focus on that period.

Regarding the criteria that we apply when considering whether or not an audiovisual document is valuable for the collective memory, it is precisely this collective dimension that weighs the most. We are interested in recordings that capture important moments for social movements or that illustrate ways of life in specific times and places. The value of the documents is also determined by the possibility that people as close as possible to the production context get involved in their description.

One of the aspects that we believe makes the digitizer an inclusive space is that we do not have a priori very closed definitions of what is memorable and what is not. We prefer to make decisions based on the specific collections of documents that appear. It is important to remember that we are not looking for audiovisuals out there, but that we support the groups that contact us and the collections that our informal network of collective memory "gleaners" locates.

The only line that marks where we act and where we do not is the idea of the collective, that is to say, we are not interested in recordings of private life but in the recording of public life, understood in a very broad sense. 

We have seen your website and all the work done. You have 10 collections with 170 documents, all digitized and described with the ISAD-G international standard by professional archivists or researchers, and you have implemented ICA-ATOM. In addition, you use the material to make new productions and already have 29 documents generated from the archival material. You also carry out training workshops on citizen participation methodologies for archives and other cultural memory institutions. You have done very creative activities of collective description and rephotography or returning to space to give voice to the protagonists of the images. All these practices are linked to experiences of the so-called community archives. Precisely, one of the most worrying issues in this area is sustainability since, contrary to institutional archives, these do not have an associated mission resulting from legal powers or the budget that accompanies them. How do you approach this challenge?

We have a typical action philosophy of a social movement. That is: once a problem was detected, we began to solve it while improving the processes and working methods. It is an approach based on action with available resources and collaboration with professionals, institutions and citizens. This network is our main strength, the doors are still wide open, as from the first day, for other professionals and institutions to add their resources to the task and achieve a certain sustainability.

We set ourselves this challenge from the management of 3 different forms of support: 1) projects in various fields that can help finance a specific part of the work carried out (mediation, training, digitization, documentary production...); 2) institutions interested in safeguarding the memory of one of the collections, which finances the work carried out in that collection; and, 3) search for sustainable financing for the structure of the project during a certain period, which can, at least, sustain the daily work of the driving group. This structural financing would have to come from European, national or foundation aid, which can support medium-term financing and offer tools to enrich the initiative.

It is evident that without this institutional support it is difficult to think about the sustainability of the initiative beyond our capacity for voluntary work. But we are in the south of southern Europe and that is complex to achieve here. So far we have been able to demonstrate that a community approach is effective in solving the problem of preserving audiovisual social memory, it is possible and we have contributed to focusing on the relevance of all this collective memory. That alone is already a feat that fills us with satisfaction.

Being able to guarantee access to our collections in the long term is something that worries us a lot from the outset, especially considering the limited resources we have at our disposal. The solution we have chosen in this regard is to use the Internet Archive as a repository in which to house all the content that makes up our collections. It is an American non-profit foundation that carries out fundamental work for the preservation of contemporary digital culture and that makes its infrastructure available to anyone who wishes to use it for free (although we make an annual donation according to our possibilities). Its solid track record gives us guarantees of long-term continuity, even if La Digitizadora were to disappear at some point. Of course, it is a much more appropriate alternative for dissemination and preservation than unreliable "free" and private platforms such as YouTube, despite the fact that, paradoxically, its use is so widespread in some Spanish public institutions.

Another strong point of the so-called community archives is to generate "archival autonomy" in the groups they represent. That is, to socialize professional knowledge to empower producers so that they can autonomously manage the materials they generate. In your case, you are clearly interested in the content of the documents, but you do not preserve the analog material for which you give the option of donating it to public institutions or having the donor keep it. In this sense, since you define yourself as a citizen platform, what degree of "agency" do you bring to the producers that differentiates you from a public archive? And, on the other hand, do you think that this distribution of functions, between dissemination and custody, could reinforce a social image of archives as a mere "store" of documentary heritage?

Precisely we try to play between two different fields that are interrelated, the safeguarding of an archive that is part of a documentary heritage, and the reactivation of communities through their own archive, and we as an organization accompany this process.

We try that the archive is not only something that we extract from the neighbourhoods, but something that the neighbourhood learns to manage with us. So much so that we can even understand the percentage of collectively described material within a collection as an indicator of citizen participation during the memory recovery process.

Something similar happens with the collections dedicated to social movements. Organizations of social movements that have been disconnected from the citizenry or former members, meet again for a process of description and (it can also be) to enjoy nostalgia. Our role in these processes is to empower members of the collectives who are no longer active to share their story to try to facilitate a generational change, which is a pending issue in many of these organizations.

The collectives always have the last word on what is disseminated and what is not, as well as on the access conditions, which are determined by the type of Creative Commons license they decide to apply. The only requirement is the application of one of these licences, since our work only makes sense at the moment in which the digitized contents enter circulation; and we consider that this would be tremendously limited if all copyrights were reserved according to current legislation on intellectual property. This is something that would also facilitate the possible future inclusion of these materials in institutional archives.

Archives dedicated to the conservation of material documents, whether public or private, have the ideal conditions and means to assume custody of original supports. An initiative like La Digitizadora did not arise to assume this custody responsibility, but to carry out a task of energizing citizens that is essential when it comes to generating a community archive like the one we are co-creating with the donor communities.

However, we do offer some basic advice so that donors can try to minimize the environmental factors that are most detrimental to the conservation of these supports, such as high levels of humidity and heat. Our hope is to be able to at least help ensure that the deterioration is as little as possible until the day that some public archive takes an interest in these materials, if that happens.

Archives only make sense to the extent that they facilitate access to knowledge and therefore “institutional” archives must also assume responsibilities for the dissemination and activation of their collections, something to which more and more attention is being devoted.

In any case, since these archives have the most appropriate conditions to carry out the tasks of preserving original documents, a community initiative with such profiles as heterogeneous as ours is probably in a more advantageous situation when it comes to facilitating processes of participation and co-creation with the groups that have produced the content on which we focus.

One aspect that sets us apart in this sense is the effort we put into the production of new content that serves to contextualize the originals through the memories of its protagonists today. In this sense, time is pressing not only because of the deterioration of the images, but also because many of these protagonists are of advanced age and we are even losing them already.

On your website and social networks you encourage groups and individuals to send you material that may be of interest. You even have published a document delivery form and a guide to make a preliminary inventory. Until now, have you been proactive in the acquisition of fonds or collections, or rather have people or communities been the ones who, knowing about your project, have been encouraged to make transfers? How does this material transfer process work? Do you have a limited fond acquisition policy that establishes what you accept and what you don't? For example, in the province of Seville, the squatter movement has relied on several generations of activists in a continuous mobilization struggle and, in this sense, the five years of activity of the CSOA Casas Viejas is well known. Have you started contacts with the squatter movement or other movements linked to the struggle for housing?

One of the initial questions when we started with all this was: and now how do we find the recordings that deserve to be preserved? The answer was again: through collective action. That is why we have created an informal network of "gleaners" that is made up of people who during their lives have been linked to different social movements. They are the ones, through their memory and their network of personal contacts, who remember who recorded, which group has which collection, and send us work proposals. Word of mouth is our best ally in all of this. Especially because of the trust generated by reaching a collection by the hand of a trusted person for that group or individual.

Regarding the policy on what material is likely to form a collection, we only follow a very simple rule based on the border between community contexts versus purely private ones. "Public life" understood in a very broad sense, as that which occurs fundamentally in the public space and that has to do with "being in company" beyond the family environment. We are interested in the former because they are a collective matter that deserves to be collectively preserved. For the documents of private life there are already equally private alternatives to which any individual can resort to preserve them.

In addition to problems of obsolescence and degradation of the material, the essential premise is perhaps to intervene when there is a high risk of loss of content that we know to be historical, despite the fact that there is no valuation, knowledge, or motivation for its use.

There is no precise definition for, a priori, excluding materials. On the contrary, limits are established in particular cases that have been presented to us. To give an example, we have digitized some tapes of a congress of a minority union and, after viewing them and providing the copies to their owners, we have decided not to include them in the digitizer's file because we believe that they violated the privacy of some of the people who appeared.

Regarding the last question, the answer is yes. Intermedia Producciones itself, which is one of the founding entities of the initiative, already has very valuable material in this regard in its own archive, which we hope to be able to deal with one day. 

Robert Wright, formerly from BBC Archives, said in 2013 that “75% of the analogue video held in Europe in 2006 will be lost by 2023 when video digitisation will simply have “ceased to be.” […] “So that's it. Going, going, gone for analogue by 2023”. There are other more optimistic opinions, but they do not go much further. In fact, one of the most important international video archiving conferences has the name of No Time To Wait. We are already in 2023 and you work with material from the last third of the 20th century. Signals from consumer formats, no matter how good the tapes and players were, have suffered signal deterioration, either due to magnetism, detachment of particles, dirt or worn heads, etc. We have seen that you use a Blackmagic capture card that, although it is common in some Anglo-Saxon audiovisual archives and libraries, is an excellent product when it is oriented towards stable and “modern” signals and perhaps it is not as efficient with that type of deteriorated signals. In addition, the players (which have been donated by the producers of the images, social movements or even schools) also often cause problems that are difficult to solve since it is difficult to find technical assistance or spare parts. In this challenge of analog digitization, now almost in a period of extinction and in which you also work with material that has been preserved in non-professional environments, what kind of problems have you encountered during your digitization practice? What are the most common deteriorations? What are the most critical aspects of digitizing this type of material?

We love a phrase by Néstor Almendros who said: you have to work with what you have and not in spite of what you have. This is how we act, we digitize with the equipment we have and, when we receive a donation that allows us to do better, we celebrate it a lot and improve our work processes. What other alternative do we have? The arrival of a TBC last year was celebrated with a great party, but it is evident that we are far from reaching the standards of some institutions or private companies. Contributions in this regard are always welcome and we would love, for example, to be able to incorporate a more appropriate capturer or an oven to remove tapes into the station.

Here we want to make a clarification, for the Super 8 scan we have all the wisdom, equipment, patience and volunteer work of José Luis Sanz of  “8 y pico”. There are few professionals in Europe who work as well as him (ask at Filmoteca Española). 

Surprisingly, there has not been a large percentage of the materials on magnetic media with problems that make them irreproducible. Of course, there is a loss of signal quality, but the vast majority of tapes we have received have been able to play normally. Only some loose has brought a fungus problem, so it has been set aside and is pending cleaning.

However, many of the donated VTRs do have several problems, which we have “inventoried” so that we can solve them when we have the necessary means. In the community network project that we are preparing, we have managed to establish contacts that can be of great help for its repair. We are lucky that in Seville there have been professionals in the repair of VTRs, cameras, film projectors, etc. who have clung to their profession until after the transition to globalized digital, so now is the time to count on their help, before there is a generational loss of knowledge and make the work of treatment of machinery more difficult. 

One of the most delicate aspects of the audiovisual archive is the preservation of the large amount of space occupied by uncompressed digitized information. What are your digitization and preservation profiles ? And how do you store this digital information? Do you have a digital preservation plan? What model is it based on? How is the digital preservation paid for?

Our digitization parameter (in the case of digitization on magnetic support) is MOV lossless compression (DVCPRO 50 / PRORES), since we do not have enough resources for digitization without compression in our community station. However, the film support materials, scanned in 8ypico by Jose Luis Sanz, are stored in an AVI container without compression, of which a copy is made to MP4 H264.

From these digitized files we make a copy to MKV VP9, the free software container that allows independence from companies like Sony or Apple, and that could be replicated in another system in the future. The VP9 codec allows us a lossless compression, although our goal in the future would be digitization without compression and free access copy in MKV FFV1, an uncompressed format standardized among small archives internationally for digital preservation.

For each tape we therefore have 3 different types of files: 1 MOV DVCPRO50 (raw digitization + "mezzanine"); 1 MKV VP9 (closest to preservation); 1 MP4 H264. Of our entire archive we have 2 copies on different hard drives that are being acquired thanks to the financial aid of institutions, companies and individuals.

We understand that digitization with lossless compression responds to our need for the creation of a community archive without an expectation of long-term preservation (at the moment in which we find ourselves). Our digital archive, catalogued, shared, and free, facilitates access, and we consider it a necessary step to be able to meet international digital preservation standards in the future.

What would you advise other citizen groups or platforms that want, at this time, to start digitizing their entire analog collection? Do you think it makes sense to build digitization stations in collections of fewer than 1,000 documents? Or is it better to outsource? Is it important to, as you have done, work with multidisciplinary teams? To what extent should they work with the protagonists of the images? What is the potential of this type of project?

The original premise was that if we have a COLLECTIVE problem with the preservation of audiovisual social memory, the solution must also be COLLECTIVE. Hence the idea of setting up this community station that serves to respond to this need.

Our community station was built little by little, with a drip collaboration, and in permanent revision, since our idea was to continue collecting material and to be able to have the necessary equipment to digitize it. If a collection has less than 1,000 documents and is not going to be expanded at any time, perhaps it makes more sense to collaborate with "digitizing agents" at home, in libraries, in institutes, in our community station..., and address that collection with a lot of patience. However, multidisciplinary collaboration is necessary in any project of this type, since any collection may be closer to the realities of the people involved, it may be treated with care by professionals who feel a connection with the materials to be collected and can be shared around the world as part of a community historical heritage.

As for working with the protagonists of the images, it is probably the dream of any archival professional, but in the case of community archives it is essential. It is lucky to be able to sit next to them to describe their documents and we cannot fail to take advantage of this opportunity.

Regarding the potential, carrying out neighbourhood memory compilation processes has pleasantly surprised us. The ability of audiovisual memory to remind people of the things that we are capable of when we coordinate and get down to work is impressive. These processes have strengthened neighbourhood self-esteem, the desire to get together and do things in the present and is the most obvious reason for the relevance of projects such as La Digitizadora de la Memoria Colectiva.

The great potential of prioritizing the collaboration network is the information capacity that can be shared. Beyond what is recorded in the academic world, in inaccessible documentary archives or in the media/television narrative of a social movement or a community... a sphere of shared knowledge with great social impact can be created independently and self-reported for its protagonists.

Learn more about La Digitalizadora throught this link.