This is the newest post in our There’s an Archivist for That! series, which features examples of archivists working in places you might not expect. In this article, Camri Kohler talks about her job as the Archivist for PBS Utah.
1. How did you get your gig?
While I was in grad school at the University of Utah, I worked part-time as an AV archival project assistant at the Marriott Library, specializing primarily in U-matic tapes. Then once I graduated with my MLIS, AV specialists in the library science field were pretty rare, and I was already familiar with U of U assets. PBS Utah is owned by the university, and they were hiring their first full-time archivist as I was finishing school. The archivists of the Marriott Library and I still work together all the time.
2. Tell us about your organization.
PBS Utah was originally KUED. When Brigham Young University’s PBS station went private, we became the only PBS station in the state, so we changed our name. We’ve been making wonderful nature, music, human interest, local, and historical programming since 1957 and we have wonderful weekly episodic programs like The Hinckley Report, Utah Insight, and This is Utah.
3. Can you describe your collections?
Our collections are both analog and digital, ranging from 1” reels to ProRes digital files and everything in between. We have multiple formats and instantiations for all of our programs, including Figure it Out! which are exercise videos produced in the 70’s along with an on-set pianist, and Family Circle, a panel discussing the pros and cons of women in the workplace. We also have documents, photos, and music preserved as assets to those programs.
4. What are some challenges unique to your collections?
Because Digital and AV archives are still such a new priority, the community is small. I’m not just the only AV archivist in the building, I’m the only archivist. I don’t have anyone to share the workload with, or to plan with, or innovate with. It can be a lot of pressure, particularly because few people in the production environment have a good understanding of what my job entails.
5. What is your favorite part of your job?
I love finding the fun, niche programs we made in the past! They say a lot about the times in which they were created and it’s values and interests. Making those programs accessible digitally, bringing them into the present, is so gratifying!
This interview is part of the Archival Innovators series on the ArchivesAWARE blog. The Archival Innovator series aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.
The ArchivesAWARE blog is ran by the Committee on Public Awareness (COPA), under the auspices of the Society of American Archivists. In this installment, Archivist and COPA Member, Rachael Cristine Woody, interviews Brian Pope, Founder and Executive Director of Arc/k Project. Arc/k Project is a nonprofit organization focused on a citizen-science approach to digital cultural heritage preservation.
Rachael: Okay, thank you for joining us. I am Rachel Woody, and I work with Society of American Archivists Committee on Public Awareness, and for today we are doing an Archival Innovator interview, and I am joined by a founder of an organization that is just amazing and I’m really excited to have a conversation with him, Brian, would you please introduce yourself and your organization.
Brain: Hi, sure. A pleasure. Thank you for having us Rachel. I’m Brian Pope, I’m the founder and executive director of Arc/k Project, which is a 501C3, a nonprofit that I started to generate a citizen science approach to digital cultural heritage preservation, specifically using techniques like LiDARr and photogrammetry.
Rachael: So, for Arc/k Project and and I know you got into just a little bit of this, but I would love for you to describe specifically the role that Arc/k project plays in preserving cultural heritage, at, how do you do it, I know there’s a lot to it and so, I mean, please feel free to share and describe as you see fit.
Brian: I think that our primary role, as we’ve defined it since the founding of the organization is disrupter, just difficult obnoxious unorthodox. We try to be literally deliberately, all kidding aside, a kind of disruptor in the sense that at the time that I founded Arc/k Project, I got very much a sense that there are inadvertent gatekeeper paradigms at play in how cultural heritage is archived, how it’s accessed and who gets to be a player in, in, in, archiving, in deciding what gets archived. and I, that hit me on a personal level because I guess I’m a person who tends not to really accept any barrier or boundary that I come across, and I myself have, you know, monolithic tastes I love monolithic architecture and so on, but I cannot, and never have accepted the idea that, that is all of heritage. Heritage is the intimate, heritage is how you personally define it, and I saw a niche that needed to be filled there in terms of how we define cultural heritage, how we archive it, who gets to decide how that heritage is archived and what resources can be brought to bear for it. And whether that is considered valid science and so that’’s actually one of the things that my organization uses as its rallying call, which is the ability to generate what is, you know, casually referred to as citizen science. We absolutely believe that archiving cultural heritage can be democratized and that citizens, the average person is completely capable of both deciding and executing a cultural archive for themselves and for their culture.
Rachael: I love that you described yourself as a disrupter, and, and I very much view it as like a badge of honor that you have definitely earned, and, and just wanted to note that, you know, the series is called Archival Innovators, and I have found in my experiences that you don’t have innovation, unless you are disrupting the status quo.
Brian: Agreed, agreed. You know, we actually employ a full time archivist, Michael Conyers, I think you’re acquainted with him, and he actually inadvertently gave me one of the greatest compliments I’ve been given since we’ve been engaging in our project, he called me and you may want to bleep this, I don’t know, shit disturber. I wear that badge with honor and pride. I think we all do at Arc/k Project. And it’s not that the archival community is in any way, lacking cultural heritage community there are some fantastic people that have given their life’s work for this right, but any organization, any institution, any workflow can almost always benefit, I think, from somebody from the outside, saying, wait a minute, let’s shake this up a little bit, let’s let’s rethink this you know, for better or worse,
Rachael: Mostly for better is what I’m seeing on this.
Brian: Thank you, very gracious Thank you.
Rachael: So, while we’re still on your origin story so to speak, yes, was there a particular catalyst event that the idea came to you to create our project, what inspired it?
Brian: There was, there were a few moments that were sort of offset in time but they played off one another. I was sitting in a cafe in Paris, struggling through the print version of Le Monde, if I recall, when I came across a story about ISIS project and it was one of the earlier reports of how they were basically doing an either cash and carry or destroying strategy toward cultural heritage. Anything that they couldn’t pick up and sell for illicit trafficking on gray and black arts markets, they would blow up. And at that point, the ancient city of Palmyra was being targeted. And the reason I say two parts, then for that catalytic moment was because it reminded me of, I must have been in my early 20s then, when I remember reading about what the Taliban had perpetrated against the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and of course obviously as this interview is being recorded that’s incredibly timely. Once again, the Taliban has just within the last week, assumed full control at a staggering speed, that apparently nobody foresaw. No comment. And I remembered an extreme sense of hopelessness. When I had been you know, as a young man, seeing what was done against the Bamiyan Buddhas and then seeing something similar happening with ISIS and Syria, and Palmyra. And I remember simply rejecting that sense of helplessness, that sense of personal hopelessness and. And I also I will credit that moment with the realization that, look, these, these artifacts, whether they are monolithic heritage, or something much more intimate, say the recognition of the way a section of a city might change from one ethnic or demographic background to another. If we don’t track these things, we lose a sense of ourselves, and we lose a sense of both, where we come from yes, but then that makes us more vulnerable to manipulations about ideas of where we are going, and who we are. And because I was, I am a former visual effects artist who had very intimate knowledge of certain technologies that are casually used now in visual effects, I realized before I even found out that there were other organizations who had already begun doing things like this and that, in fact, there were techniques that were part of the cultural heritage community to scan heritage in 3d I realized that this was completely something in my wheelhouse, something that I could engage in, and as I began learning about other organizations that were out there doing it already, I found that there was a badly needed element that was missing, which was democratized activation of people, of citizen scientists of of heritage being recorded at every scale, not just the monolithic, not just the archeological, of, of, arguably dead cultures, but rather, living cultures, equally important, at least as important. And I determined that I would do something about it, I just didn’t want to feel helpless the way I had back when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. I didn’t want that feeling again. And in fact, the inaugural project of our project, of Arc/k Project, our very first full scale project was a crowdsourced photogrammetric digital recreation, that’s a mouthful I know, of Palmyra. And so, several of my staff of the newly formed organization, learned how to search in what I call the shutterbug cultures. The Japanese and German of websites. They’re tremendous they’re fabulous for being global tourists– shutter bugging, everything, everything, and of course also searching in Arabic and a few other languages, we cobbled together over 13,000 images of Palmyra, that had been taken over a span of, I think, eight years was the largest time period that our earliest to latest photographs, accessed, and we were able to generate a photogrammetric recreation of Palmyra, that even a scholar at the Metropolitan Museum, specialist in Near Eastern antiquities said, You know, and she had been there herself multiple times, said, this is actually the best restoration I’ve ever seen. And so we took that as our cue that we were doing something right. And, and then figured out later tried to figure out later, how that could fit into the cultural heritage community, and whether it could. And that’s something we’re actually still figuring out today.
Rachael: I still appreciate just not only the natural curiosity and the desire to problem solve, but also knowing that it was not a straight path, and, you know, trial and error and learning how to search in Arabic, like, I mean just the amount of problem solving that you did in order to find a solution that works. I think this leads nicely into my next question which is, when thinking about our project, launching it and continuing to do the work you do today, what are the barriers and challenges that you experienced initially, and maybe some that may still continue?
Brian: There are significant barriers in what we’re doing. There’s no question. Initially, I will admit that I was naive, going into what we are doing, because as a potential disruptor, of course, that means you’re going to ruffle feathers and we’ve ruffled quite a few of them. But I was surprised and and initially I was disheartened by the fact that I think a lot of our work was either sometimes it felt almost as if we had been deliberately misunderstood. There were, there are established professionals, and there are established institutions that had been engaging in cultural heritage preservation for longer than I’ve been alive. And so, here we walk in being technologically empowered, and maybe with a slight sense of naivete and and entitlement, maybe just a little. And, we weren’t always greeted with the kind of open arms that I had hoped. And, as I said naively expected. And so, that that was one barrier, but there is also the simple barrier that these technologies that we are using: LIDAR, photogrammetry, citizen science enabled consumer driven recording technologies you know because a lot of what we teach is that with the right training, even a bloody iPhone can be a recorder of heritage, and in the lack of a 100 megapixel Hasselblad. It’s perfectly it’s so much better to have any archive than none at all, particularly if you have responsible metadata reporting practices, right, so, so we came at this utilizing technologies that had previously been either unavailable to the masses or strictly used in strict ways by professionals who had been trained lifelong in certain forms of institutionally oriented heritage archiving inherited heritage preservation and heritage access which I think is also crucial right. So it’s quite right, that some of these technologies should be created with suspicion because with some data, that’s the genie out of the bottle moment. Once that data is out in the real world, well, you’re never getting that back. And so, I, I, grudgingly acknowledged that some of the suspicion and and reticence that these technologies have been greeted with is in fact appropriate, and we’ve always tried to take the position that while anyone might be engaged in data acquisition in helping to archive their, their heritage, that doesn’t necessarily mean that that data should itself then be freely accessible to anyone. Because these technologies are powerful. And data is powerful. And so we’ve, we’ve wrestled with that a little bit, we’ve wrestled with trying to gain the respect and acceptance of established heritage institutions, while at the same time, having no problem with walking right into the same conferences, right into those same same professional moments and saying, well, we’re here, get used to it, and, and, and trying to engage them in such a way that they, I think over time have grudgingly begun to accept what we do more, and I do credit our organization with being one of those, one of those very few that has pushed the envelope in getting a democratized citizen science concept of cultural heritage archiving to be more accepted, and in fact there are some stodgy organizations that I will not name that have been part of the scene for a long time that had begun sort of altering how they speak about cultural heritage about how they speak of how it can be archived, and where those data sources can originate from and I don’t mind crediting my organization with being the one to have been part of that.
Rachael: So I’m gonna go off topic for a minute here Brian and I hope you’ll indulge me. I am familiar with our projects work I have been lucky enough to be able to work with you on some projects and I know on the back end the commitment that Arc/k Project has to the standards in the field, digital preservation standards, I mean, you guys are using cutting edge technology and you’re, you’re sometimes helping people write the standards on using those technologies. But then I also want to acknowledge it and share with the larger audience here that Arc/k Project, compared to some of the other players in the field, places, I think such a great emphasis in giving agency to the culture whose heritage you’re helping to document and that whole question of who owns digital culture I think the Arc/k Project’s been a leader in that I would love to hear your thoughts on that and why you took on that mantle as important for Arc/k Project to do.
Brian: Thank you, thank you for, for seeing that Rachel, I think you’ve always been gracious about your awareness of what we’re trying to do, and you know oftentimes that means asking the hard questions, not necessarily having the answers. We hope to have the answers we hope to evolve them, but we don’t claim to, I think the questions that we’re asking are at least as important as the answers that will ultimately be derived. And, yeah, to that end, democratization was crucial, because, again, as much as I love monolithic architecture and and archeology, it’s a fact that at this point, cultural evolution and cultural change has in fact become far far more rapid and often destructive, and you might think that because we are a digital society, a digital civilization that these things are being archived. As part of that, because we communicate digitally, but that’s not necessarily the case. A tremendous amount of crucial data about how we express ourselves, how we think of ourselves, is in fact considered digital flotsam. t’s not being archived because there’s simply too much of it right. So, when we began engaging in in generating Arc/k Project and trying to figure out how we should position the organization and where we were needed the most, it became clear that there was no place yet for citizen science in digital archiving and in fact it’s still considered a little bit of a gray area. But also, it occurred to me that as much as I adore going to a huge institution, museum or a university collection, these do not represent necessarily the standards and the and the priorities, and the, the sort of most dearly held tenets of cultures, especially cultures that are impoverished, or in states of extremis. And so, two things had to happen: one was, I felt an extreme need to sort of legitimize our practices, which meant that we studied. We already knew photogrammetry from a visual effects standpoint, many of my staff members are actually former visual effects artists who, like myself, wanted to turn our craft towards something a little bit more important than Star Wars Episode One opening weekend, right, and so we, of course took those techniques that I think are some of the best in the entire field. But then we wanted to legitimize them by. So, for example, I made sure that my staff was trained by the absolute best in the academic and archival field of photogrammetry. CHI- cultural heritage imaging in San Francisco and I adore those people, even to this day we credit them all the time with teaching us the very best techniques in photogrammetry. And I think because of where we were coming from, and taught them a few things and so there’s been a beautiful exchange of knowledge there, but that also meant hiring a professional archivist, full time staff member, so that he could advise us on archival techniques that’s Michael Conyers, I don’t know if you know this. He’s the world’s most famous archivist, as he calls himself it’s it’s a running joke. I adore it.So that so that we would be coming from a position of legitimacy, but then it also meant changing things up and that’s where the disruptive part came in, which meant specifically engaging cultures that are in states of extremis. So one of the first examples of that and actually to this day, the most successful example of that, if you can talk a little bit about the Venezuelan campaign. We used to call it Viva Venezuela, and so so we partnered with a fantastic organization called IAM Venezuela, that is largely an expat organization, mostly in and around Miami for Venezuelans who’ve emigrated. And yet they maintain a really really healthy volunteer base in Venezuela, and we developed a round tripping technique and a program by which we trained them on how to shoot for photogrammetry, and how to archive the kind of metadata that we need for an authentic archive. And rather than dictate to them, except in one or two specific cases where there were specific artifacts or sites that we knew were either endangered or have been specifically requested from say museum curators, that they be archived. We allowed our volunteer base themselves to determine what they were interested in recording, and we’re so proud of that because we now, at this point, maintain for what we call the Venezuelan people we maintain for them an archive of over 400 I think we may be close to 500 sites and objects, some of which, due to their intrinsic value in materials– bronze, copper, tin, aluminum, steel– have actually been destroyed. Well, because of our volunteer base, because of the techniques that we perfected in training remotely on how to shoot for photogrammetry, while we continue to do most of the software heavy lifting on our side, we have archived these things to such a high degree of technological acuity and fidelity that at some point, when hopefully there is a more stable period in Venezuela, we will round trip that data back to them and those objects and sites, artifacts, sculptures in some cases that have been destroyed, we will actually be able to repatriate that data back to them. And, please understand, you know it’s not the belief that digital heritage replaces in any way the physical heritage and this has been one of those odd moments when we get these sort of sniping remarks, occasionally from heritage organizations or heritage professionals who seem to think that we are trying to supplant what they do when nothing is further from from the truth. These are overlapping mutually beneficial techniques. But the point in what we do is that the digital helps preserve the memory and the symbolism of an object which then makes it immortal, whereas the physical existence of an object continues its vulnerability. The two together, though, can form an impenetrable shield by which the symbolism and the importance and the cultural memory seeded into an object, whether that’s a physical object now, or a digital object or both. Over time, those things remain intact and that’s what we care about, that’s what’s important. And that’s what we’re trying to teach.So sorry I’m not even entirely sure that answers your question but I get excited about the mission.
Rachael: You know as a fellow business owner and obviously you, you run your organization it’s, you know, it can be tough, and, and it’s a bit of a hustle, sometimes, etc. And so I just want to point out that it is remarkable, I think, and laudable, you know Arc/k Project’s been around for a while now and you are passionate. It’s just, I think it’s a testament to like you’re doing what you were meant to do, because you still have so much passion and, you know, it’s just it is so palatable so like I really appreciated that answer and thank you for letting me sort of go off topic with that question.
Brian: No, not at all. Thank you. Can I also mention that, you know some of this work continues to be very difficult and heartbreaking, in the sense that we’re trying to reach communities that in some cases, let’s talk about Indigenous Indigenous cultures, let’s talk about Native American, Native Canadian cultures First Nations peoples. For example, we believe that within certain constraints, a lot of the work we do can be immensely valuable, but you’re when we try to reach out to Native American bands or tribes. Look, there is a tremendous culture there a tremendous history of trauma of deceit of betrayal and we fully recognize that we have a lot of work to do there, in understanding in not preaching to but rather learning from and we, we are absolutely dedicated regardless of whether we personally do work with these with these tribes and these, these entities that the standards that are developing in the cultural heritage community about how to work with these people is something we absolutely believe we have a clear vision toward. And we want to make sure that as 3d standards and practices and protocols and workflows and industry sometimes entire fields, developing around heritage, are developing, that they are done so with Native American voices as part of that. And with their priorities, their standards held far above anyone else’s. And we think there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done there, but it’s also heartbreaking work. There’s a lot of distrust, there’s but and our young, still young, in some ways, organization, you know has had missteps there too and we continue to, to be just absolutely dedicated to the idea that we can be of assistance in this, and you know we’re, but it’s a, it’s a long path. And we absolutely want to make sure that the digital. I call it a cultural Gold Rush, that’s taking place in some ways, right now in our society and multiple societies, not run over Native Voices, this time. And so anyway, just to say there’s a lot of work to be done there, and we don’t pretend by any means to have all the answers. But, again, I will credit us with being one of the few voices who are asking the questions that need to be asked and I will continue, we will continue that work.
Rachael: Thank you for sharing that. Sure. I know that you shared a bit about the Venezuelan project, and one of my questions was to ask about some of your example partnerships with organizations and cultural communities. Do you have any other projects that you would like to share with us?
Brian: Sure. Oh gosh, so many, but given a limited amount of time. Let’s talk about first, I mean, we’re working with a fantastic group of people, ARTIVE and the work is sort of behind the scenes with them right now. t’s largely about generating more compatible overlapping databases, because there are a lot of different organizations out there that have data which can be immensely important in curtailing illicit trafficking, especially out of the Middle East right now. And I think we’re probably about to see a huge influx of illicit trafficking of antiquities from Afghanistan as well, for reasons that that should be obvious to everyone right now. And so getting databases to be more open, more compatible. And then once compatibility is established, to then get those databases into the hands of not just import export authorities, organizations like that, but rather to generate destruction of plausible deniability right so we’re talking about auction houses, antiques dealers, private collectors. We want to absolutely end plausible deniability in ignorance, that when you are trafficking in an object, don’t know exactly what you’re doing right so the first step of that we believe and ARTIVE has been amazing working with them so far we want to generate that that overlapping database. But at the same time it’s been a long time with COVID, and we’ve just been dying to get back in the field, and, at long last, I think we have an interim project that we can execute outdoors, which we’re very excited about in Miami. And so, a partnership with some of the people who originally were part of IAM Venezuela. Actually, we’re working with them to generate the kind of living map of the murals which are now this incredible journal of the cultural life of Miami. Miami has become one of those cities that has a world culture, people coming from so many places, especially in the Latin world, of course, and murals are one of the beautiful, beautiful canvases by which this culture is literally painted, but because these canvases are the sides of buildings, buildings, the sides of privately owned businesses, there is no framework by which these are necessarily perpetually kept and held dear, and without warning, a given mural can disappear overnight as an, as a new artist paints atop, you know this, given an incredible public canvas. And so the idea is we’ll actually be executing this in the in the next several months, a volunteer base campaign so we will be training once again just like the IAM Venezuela campaign, we will be training people on the ground, how to take the photographic and drone based images, gathering data about the cultural importance of a given mural at a given location, the names of the artists, why they why they painted, hopefully even including interviews of those artists. But accepting the fact that these murals are non permanent, we will be constantly updating this living city map almost to kind of a living palimpsest of culture so that through a digital, let’s say maybe an iPhone or iPad based app or a mobile app, you’ll be able to access at any given moment, years of different murals, at a given location. So, even though the mural itself may cease to exist, the memory, the cultural importance and the lineage, because many of these murals actually bounce off one another right so you end up with a living memory of culture that is digitally held, but physically dispersed, and so it’s both in the physical and in the digital at once, and we just think that’s immensely exciting because culture, then stacks vertically over time and horizontally over over access, and neither destroys the other, I just think it’s going to be a fascinating model for heritage preservation that will actually transcend, just the format of murals. It’s super exciting and we’re using state of the art technology and volunteers and enthusiasts to engage in it and so it just hits all the buttons of what we care about. And so please stay tuned. I hope you’ll have me back actually when we, when we begin executing that project, and also I will mention that we’re not private about these things. Whenever we generate a model for interactivity and volunteer activation that works, we want to talk about that model so that other organizations can copy it as well. It would be nice if we get a credit here and there but yeah, hey, whatever you can do, whatever you can do. But the idea being that we want these models of heritage preservation to be proselytized.
Rachael: Yeah, I have to say and I know you touched on this in some of your answers, the, the way the Arc/k Project, how you created it and how you and your team have chosen to conduct yourselves and make those ethical decisions. I think we’re now sort of belatedly seeing in the historian and archives fields that that, that belated reckoning of the historical record being so incomplete and inaccessible to so many, so I think that’s all to say that, that you saw that early on, and the work that you’re doing, the practices you’re establishing are something that both the archives and historian fields could certainly use at this point.
Brian: Thank you. We actually like to think of our work as dissolving the boundaries between archives and exhibitions, so that they almost become undefinably together fused.
Rachael: Yes that’s my personal opinion, everything should be together. Yeah, no silos. Brian: Exactly, no silos, I love that. I love that. Rachael: Yeah. Wonderful. Well I think my next question for you, I know we’ve touched on a couple examples of this, but in your own words I would love to hear you describe the importance and urgency of capturing the you know the digital tapestry of these different cultural heritage sites.
Brian: I do believe there is. On some days it’s almost difficult not to have a sense of panic about how rapidly some cultures are changing, about how little is being done to archive them, particularly on the intimate, well, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s been a source of bitter irony, sometimes for me when I see how much academics of ancient arguably extinct cultures, will spend on understanding a piece of garbage from say Pompeii, and yet we do so little to archive the personal and the Internet and the small scale and the low brow, or, or simply low finance aspects of human existence. Now, in cultures that, particularly because they are say perhaps poverty stricken, or in states of political and social extremis are rapidly evolving, and those stresses that those cultures are going through, then generate a level of creativity and adaptability, and flexibility that is a real credit to human creativity and human adaptability, and those are the moments that are desperately in need of being archived, and of being valued. And, yeah, some days it’s hard not to have a sense of panic about it. You know, I, if we had the funding I’d be sending cameras and recorders, everywhere, particularly with languages right so due to an involvement with a very good friend of mine Lena Herzog and her fantastic work in what’s called The Last Whispers projects. I gained a new sort of sensitivity to what’s happening with language extinction. And, you know, Arc/k Project can only be spread so thin, but it was interesting to discover through the connections that Lena very graciously made available some fantastic people. A linguistic Institute, running out of, out of London for a while I think now out of Berlin. The idea that much language archiving is actually not done with a physical or visual aspect. And yet, if you’re talking about archiving a language in say a material culture, that is very much, say, a sustenance, culture, a developing culture right, the language and the material expression of that culture are so tightly bound, the idea that you would archive the language and the grammar without archiving the material expression of the culture seems insane to me. And so I don’t know that that’s maybe one of our next disrupter moments, you know, but, but, again, we want to make those tools available, and we’ve begun working with some in the field linguist archivist to try to help generate a material aspect to how they archive the grammar and vocabulary of languages, and there’s so much work to be done, it’s just where do you where do you begin, you know, yes.
Rachael: Yeah, I can, I can very much imagine and empathize with the, the feeling of urgency to the point of panic. And yet, I mean you only have so much time. We have yet to access at least for daily people cloning technology, for yourselves so, right. Yeah, I can only imagine it must be very difficult to have to prioritize.
Brian: It absolutely is. It’s, it’s painful, and it’s, it’s something that we almost refuse to do in the sense that we’re simply all about proselytizing the tools. We’re actually speaking, I think it’s okay to talk about this at a very early stage, an academic model, through which various grad student programs in various colleges might work with say the parks services to generate a data acquisition model to monitor, especially built heritage, out in the field. You know in in parks in areas that can always be policed against vandalism, let alone, natural wear and tear. We want to generate models by which citizens, volunteers, engaged local heritage organizations, even just children, they can be immensely powerful as data acquisition tools. And those are the models that we are working on so that we won’t have to prioritize, and I’ll keep you abreast on any successes.
Rachael: Yes, please do. Related to thinking about Arc/k Project and the evolution of the projects that you’ve done, and the partnerships and the standards and tools that you’re proselytizing, I would love to hear your perspective on when you were thinking about the process of creating Arc/k Project and, and the years since then, there some lessons learned that you could share with us or anything that was surprising to you that came up that, you know, when thinking of fellow innovators what could be helpful for them?
Brian: Oh, so many lessons learned. Yeah, some positive some negative, not to take no for an answer, is a great one to begin with. Also, the use of tools, the choice of tools. I recall very, very clearly, that when the hurricane that decimated Puerto Rico happened, e found it very difficult to bridge between established heritage professionals, very well meaning, and the tools that would be on the ground in Puerto Rico at that time to do emergency heritage archiving, because even, even, actually, many of the museums and larger cultural institutions in Puerto Rico did survive the hurricane itself structurally, but then without power, in the humidity and heat, many structures became unfortunately biohazards due to black mold and things like that, right, and there was, it was shocking it was it was a real lesson learned that there was no immediate way to bridge between the tools that established cultural heritage institutions use and a place like Puerto Rico. There was no common bridge whatsoever, and especially as a young organization which does not have any clearance to be say a first responder or a second responder yet, it was immensely frustrating. We think that those are bridges that desperately still need to be built. And, and we’re always open to try to enter into discussions and so on. Another lesson learned is that in order to do what we do at the level that we insist on doing it, we had to accept that, unlike what many cultural heritage professionals would prefer, we use commercially available software. We have actually, we have zero loyalty to any software package, I will say that, and we migrated from one to the other to the other and finally settled on, we actually currently use Reality Capture, I do, absolutely I can absolutely attest that it is the best software available for photogrammetry. Now whether that will continue to be the case right now we’re, we’re sort of watching and waiting and listening for clues as to what the new owners of that software package plan on on doing with it, and it has been one of the points of criticism and argument between heritage organizations- should we be using open source software for this? And we, the lesson to be learned and the philosophy that we developed from that is simply based on actually some of the original philosophies that CHI helped teach us with, which is the idea that the 3D model that you can access, you can work with, you can directly experience, while incredibly valuable, is not the archive. The archive is the metadata, the archive is the photographic data and those are mature data collection channels, and that’s the archive, that’s what matters. The 3D model is simply how you access that archive right so that was a lesson learned, that frees us up to do to continue to do the work that we hold dear and to do it at a rate and a level of fidelity that nobody else can can equal, and it will continue to be something that we watch very closely, maybe a few years from now. Open source software will be of such a, such a level of fidelity, and speed because sorry but speed does matter, in this case because there’s so much to be done, and the ability to round trip to a given volunteer in a remote location what is missing what is was incorrect or insufficient or incorrectly done for a given 3D archive, that, that ability to rapidly round trip is crucial in developing volunteer techniques. So who knows maybe in a few years open source software will be the way to go but right now we continue to proselytize that commercially available software is the way to go. And in fact, that particular software package may in fact become free as part of the new owners Epic Games and, and what they want to do with it. We would love to hear from them, some, some pronouncements about their commitment to cultural heritage functions for that software and its, its rightful that it might make some heritage professionals, and heritage institutions nervous. The proximity between the software that archives the heritage and the software that puts it in a game. And so that’s a dangerous moment, and, and. So the lesson learned there is simply to be vigilant, and to keep, keep, keep keep watch. But I think we’ve also learned that there are so many overlapping organizations and interests out there that you can’t spend too much effort, you can’t spend too much effort, too much time building bridges with other organizations, because at one point I became impatient. I’ll admit it with cultural heritage gatekeepers who seemed more interested in deliberately misunderstanding and and taking issue with the digital as if the digital were trying to replace the physical, I became really really impatient with philosophies like that and with with knee jerk, frankly silly responses like that. And we had work to do. And I just said, You know what, enough, we’re busy, I don’t need your approval. And I don’t want it anymore, right. So, I think it’s time to start trying to, okay, come around, come full circle and let’s see if now we can speak a little bit less shrill than before about these about these issues and build bridges so that we can keep everybody responsible and accountable, and absolutely cutting edge.
Rachael: I would love to hear from you, why are archives important in your own words?
Brian: Archives are important because, ou know, regardless at how accessible they are, and access is important, it’s crucial, it’s the memory of who we were and I do not believe that if you forget who you were, that you can responsibly, and accountably and safely not who you want to become. I, I look at what’s happening in Venezuela right now and I look at how cultural memory is being erased, not because of, say, religious extremism, as will probably happen and has been happening in parts of the Middle East, with the takeover of Islam, the extremis, created by civil war in Syria and now the Taliban consumption of Afghanistan and what’s about to happen with Sharia law But it doesn’t have to be anything so deliberate, it can be simply the forces of modernity, or, or economy international financeshen I look at what’s happening in Venezuela, and I look at sculptures being cut up overnight statues like monolithic scale statues being vivisected a piece at a time, over a week, and melted down for their constituent medals. I don’t see it as a loss of history, I see it as a loss of direction. And when I look at Venezuela,I think about Chinese development loans, and American oil companies, and international fast foods, and all the things that will seed themselves and redirect Venezuelan culture, the moment that they have that capability, and that I think is what we’re fighting against and that’s why archives and especially making archives, not just having them but making them more accessible, making them more vivid and engaging. That’s not just entertainment. That’s, that’s, that’s getting them into the hearts and minds of people so that they maintain a sense of themselves that can be resistant, that is sufficient to resist the forces of fast foods and quick easy loans, and American oil interests, right. That’s right, that’s so crucial. If you forget who you were, I don’t think you have a chance of deciding who you will become. And, and that’s, that’s what we’re all about. That’s what, that’s what heritage preservation has to be about, as well as its purely scientific validity on, it has to it has to be strong enough to carry both missions at once, I believe.
Rachael: I have just one last question on my part Brian, and that’s what’s next for Arc/k Project.
Brian: Oh wow, okay. So, so many things, so many, so many irons in the fire at any given moment. I did describe the Miami Project, the murals archiving project so that’s in our immediate future. We’re also looking at engaging in some software development applications. It has long occurred to me that a, I don’t know if you’re familiar with, sort of distributed computational platforms, like the way I pronounce it is simply BOINC, B-O-I-N-C. It’s a, it’s a globalized distributed processing framework by which the average computer user can donate spare processor cycles to very worthy projects like SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which spent decades, analyzing radio data from Arecibo and other radio antennas, as well as more modern functions very much present functions like folding proteins, pharmaceutical design, weather modeling, etc. I would love to see Arc/k’s efforts go toward a distributed software processing platform that would allow all of the world’s spare processor cycles to be engaged in computing 3d solves for endangered heritage. So that’s something we’re always looking at. One other thing that I’m really excited about we just inaugurated is an Advisors Council, within Arc/k Project and two of the first gentlemen to join our advisory council. are ur gentlemen who have been involved in cultural heritage scanning for decades actually, and one of them was even involved in developing the techniques by which the Dead Sea Scrolls were scanned and sort of unfolded digitally. And we’re incredibly proud to have Eric Doehne and Greg Bearman on our advisory council. As we again try to sort of deepen our scientific roots, even as we become more and more unorthodox about how we engage volunteers. And so that’s happening at both ends. Very, very excited about that. And, in fact they are helping us design a program by which we will engage various colleges and graduate programs with using volunteer accessed data from the field to do cultural heritage archiving and translation programs.
Rachael: So, just a couple projects.
Brian: Yeah, just a few things here and there, while still trying to figure out how to fund ourselves. Right now we continue to be entirely privately funded. We have gotten a few small grants. We’re continuing to reach out into the granting world, but we’re also doing that with a certain amount of skepticism. We’ve been well trained by granting professionals, you yourself actually early on in our organization’s genesis, helped us learn how to navigate the kind of landmine minefield of what’s out there so that one can access grants but one has to be careful not to allow one’s mission to be decentralized or deterred. Because grants, while a beautiful source of funding, can also eat your organization if you’re not careful right so we continue to hold granting at somewhat arm’s length, we’re hoping over time, that we’ll develop that as a better arm for funding the organization, but we’ve also not wanted to have too many external influences when it comes to granting. And we’ve been lucky in that we’ve had a few private donors who’ve been extremely generous, that have allowed us to plot our path without having to owe too much to worry about where that money came from. So we’ve continued to be self directing and and self empowering, in that, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
Rachael: Well Brian, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that I should have or anything that you would like to share with us before I let you go?
Brian: I would just like to share that, I think there is a genesis happening, there’s something new happening in an awareness of what we do. I think it’s an exciting time that we don’t actually have to spend 20 minutes now explaining to the average lay person, the technology that’s behind us. That itself has been amazingly liberating making this a really really exciting time to see how the culture and technology are intertwining to make our job easier and easier in some ways, and I will also say that thanks to people like you and thanks to organizations like SAA, we are finding it easier to get the word out there.e don’t have to fight so hard to have a sense of legitimacy in what we’re doing and I absolutely credit you and the archivist organization in being part of that. It’s getting easier and easier to sell what we do. And now we don’t have to worry so much about basic arguments of legitimacy.ow we can start working on creating synergy and creating ethics and protocols by which everyone should be abiding, to really, really make something stellar happen with the fusion of these technologies and these interests over the next five or 10 years. I think it’s going to be a super exciting time, and we have people and organizations like yours to thank for them.
Rachael: Thank you so much, Brian, I really appreciate your time and, and you sharing so much about our project with us, and we’ll go ahead and conclude the formal recording of this interview.
Brian: Very well, thank you so much for having us.
This is the latest post in our series Archival Innovators, which aims to raise awareness of individuals, institutions, and collaborations that are helping to boldly chart the future of the archives profession and set new precedents for the role of archivists in society.
In this installment, Archivist and COPA Early Career Member, Kristi Chanda, interviews Mary Kidd. Mary Kidd currently works in the Preservation and Collections Processing Department at the New York Library as their Systems and Operations Manager. She also served as a Project Lead for a two year grant based project called Preserve This Podcast!, which worked to teach preservation skills to independent, individual producers.
KC: What is Preserve This Podcast! and how did it originate?
MK: Preserve This Podcast was a two year grant funded project. It ran for a finite period of time, from January 2018 to January 2020. Thankfully, it ended right before CoVid and lockdowns hit North America, so good timing on our part. Its primary purpose was to teach independent or “indie” podcasters (that is, podcasters working out of their home as opposed to for a radio station or a media corporation) about digital preservation, especially in terms of preserving digital podcast files and everything else that makes a podcast. So that, in short, was Preserve This Podcast.
In terms of how it originated, a few years ago, back in 2016, I was working at the New York Public Radio archives. I was part of a National Digital Stewardship Residency cohort that year, and I was paired with NYPR on a project where I was looking at all of their born-digital output and documenting the flow from the point at which someone created something to be broadcast up to the point where it was placed into long-term storage.
As part of my program, I was attending a bunch of conferences and one of them was the Radio Preservation Task Force conference. This was the first conference of its kind addressing radio preservation so it was pretty exciting for me to go. It was being held at the Library of Congress that year so I traveled out to Washington D.C. By chance, I met Dana Gerber-Margie who was one of the co-leads on Preserve This Podcast. She was working at the time at the Wisconsin Historical Society on an oral history project. We had a lot to talk about, since we each had a foot in archives and another in audio-visual preservation. Fast-forward a year later, she contacted me and a few other people and asked us if we wanted to be part of hosting a workshop at the Personal Digital Archiving Conference (PDA). It was being held that year at Stanford University in Palo Alto. She wanted to facilitate a workshop around podcast preservation. That was the first I’d ever heard of this concept of podcast preservation, so you could say PTP originated from Dana’s brilliant mind. I agreed to do it and it was a lot of fun. The workshop was geared towards indie podcasters, but we were primarily talking to archivists because this was an archivist’s conference. So we were preaching to the choir a little bit. Fast forward another year, I was contacted by Molly Schwartz, who was working as the studio manager at the New York Metropolitan Library Council, also known as METROfor short. She was working on a podcast called Library Bytegeist, which is a really great podcast about librarians and archivists working in New York City. So, a super fun podcast for people interested in that kind of stuff. She contacted me and said, hey, I heard that you hosted this workshop on podcasts preservation and I think that’s a really good idea. Why don’t we apply for a grant? So, Molly, Dana and myself started meeting over the summer of 2017 and eventually we were put in contact with the Mellon Foundation. They were really receptive to our idea. By January 2018 we launched the project and hit the ground running. So that’s the story of Preserve This Podcast.
KC: Why is this organization significant in the podcasting/archiving community?
MK: I think most podcasters, unless they work for a radio station or media company with an archive, are not always thinking about long-term preservation. The point of Preserve This Podcast was to produce a suite of free tools for people to get them thinking about it. One of those tools was a five part teaching podcast called the Preserve This Podcast podcast that spoke directly to indie podcasters to make them aware of the problems plaguing digital files, and here are the reasons why you should take time out of your day to take certain steps towards preserving your content. Indie podcasters’ digital content is at more risk than big box podcasts like This American Life. That is because indie podcasters are likely time and resource-strapped. They don’t have a lot of cash. They are working by themselves or on a small team kind of outside of a day job or raising families. They don’t necessarily have the resources to take on a preservation plan and as any person in our field knows, preservation always takes time and resources. So I think it was important that we put out this suite of tools for people to make it easier for them to learn a new skill. Our podcast is a really fun listen with high production quality. We worked with a team of people to produce this podcast, including an editor, and a soundtrack. We really wanted to speak to podcasters in the language that they’re most familiar with, in order to bring the message of preservation to them.
In terms of PTP’s importance for archivists, potentially an archivist listening to our podcast or encountering our work may also be the first time for them to consider podcast preservation. Not a lot of institutions have a podcast collecting policy or focus on podcasts as part of what they acquire. Some institutions do, but by and large you just don’t hear about podcast collecting. I think, in part, it’s because it’s contemporary to us, it’s here now, and so there’s kind of this notion that it’s just like here and it’ll be around for a while. One example that we talked about at librarian and archivist conferences is concrete proof that some of the earliest podcasts produced 20 years ago have already disappeared. So this is something that you all should pay attention to and not take for granted the fact that this is a popular medium now, but you could say the same thing for VHS tapes thirty years ago. So that’s what we brought to the table for archivists and people working in preservation, nudging them and saying, this is something to look at and this is something important that you should consider for your collection development or preservation policies.
KC: What were the challenges that you had to overcome while working on the project?
MK: I think our greatest challenge was convincing people of the problem. We really did our due diligence in a lot of ways and did a lot of research to prove that podcasts have already disappeared or were at-risk. One of the first things that we did was we worked with a data analyst, Jacob Kramer-Duffield, who helped us to design a survey that we distributed out to podcasters. We took the results of that survey and we were able to qualify the fact that a lot of indie podcasters have not thought about preservation or put a preservation plan in place, compared to their non-indie peers. Through this survey we were able to support our hypothesis that indie podcasts are at risk. In addition to the survey, we also looked at a collection of some of the very first podcasts ever made, called 2005 Podcast Core Collection, hosted on the Internet Archive. The person who compiled this collection was Jason Scott, who works at the Internet Archive now and back in 2005 he wrote this script that crawled a directory of podcasts that existed at the time. For each podcast, the script would scrape the audio and any RSS XML data. This script ran for about two years. One of the things that we had podcasters do when they attended one of our workshops was to call up this collection, choose a podcast at random, and then try and see if they could find it listed in Apple Podcasts or by performing a web browser search. By and large, for most of these podcasts, you could not find them.This exercise was a concrete example showing that podcasts made only 20 years ago have disappeared. I’m sure a lot of these original creators never expected that their podcasts would just disappear. Giving podcasters this example really hit home, and I think it spoke to people on the urgency behind podcast preservation.
KC: What did you hope your audience will gain from attending the workshops and conferences?
MK: We really wanted people to walk our of workshops with some sort of plan. At the end of our workshops we would say, okay, given what you’ve learned about things like metadata, backup plans, and file and folder organization, what are some steps that you can take today? Even as that’s like, I have a no open container of coffee rule at my desk, that was fine. Then what can you do in the next week, month, six months, and try and see if you can also incorporate these steps into your podcast production workflow, because I think that was the key to making sure that people would go home and actually take these steps. If you don’t incorporate it into sort of your everyday workflow it will probably fall to the wayside. So one of the things that we wanted them to walk away from you know from our workshops is an idea of how they can incorporate preservation into producing a podcast. We tried to incentivize them. One of the things that Dana pointed out was that, more often than not, podcasters will get some sort of request. NPR will email a podcaster, and say, “Hey, we’re really interested in using this 30-second from your podcast episode from three years ago into our news segment, can you send us a file by the end of today?” If you have a file and folder organization plan in place — which is something we taught at our workshops — with , you are more likely to find the file really quickly. If you don’t, then you’re scrambling. The lesson here is that file and folder management is not just something you do for preservation, but it can also help monetize your podcast.
In terms of what we wanted archivists and librarians to learn from us, we wanted them to understand the technical aspects of podcasts that make them unique assets. We especially wanted to drive home the point that podcasts are not just digital audio files. There may be an mp3 file, as well as unedited raw audio, a soundtrack, transcription metadata, and release forms which can affect things like rights metadata. You may also have an accompanying website, which is also a rich trove of descriptive metadata or even artwork and branding. There is also the RSS XML metadata, which is like a really rich source of standardized metadata, which you can use to your advantage to automate incorporate into existing preservation workflows.
KC: Are there any plans/goals set for the future?
MK: Preserve This Podcast lives on in a number of ways. A few of us have been asked to guest lecture classes and teach workshops post-grant. An exciting and new development is an upcoming NEH grant-funded project, Open Sources: Training Communities of Practice for Complex Born-Digital Collections, which will be spearheaded by Myriad Consulting. This project will see the “development and implementation of curricula, resources, workshops, and community events tailored to smaller cultural heritage institutions focused on preservation of and access to born-digital materials”. The formation of this project took some inspiration from Preserve This Podcast, and will be using a teaching zine to teach digital preservation concepts. So although it’s not a project aimed specifically at preserving podcasts, it still captures the spirit of supporting staff and other individuals working for smaller or under-resourced cultural heritage institutions. I will be taking on a consultant role for this grant, and will be taking what I learned through the course of PTP to this project.