Best practice for a profession describes the most efficient, acceptable, and prudent course of action for professional activities. A best practice is often expressed as a set of guidelines and is often aligned with a professional code of ethics and/or a code of conduct.
Best practices are established by governing bodies at every level. In the case of studio archives, industry best practice has been established by the archival field and organizations such as the Image Permanence Institute and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Archives typically incorporate best practices into their in-house policies and procedures as well as their workflows.
Comparing digital to analog is still a useful jumping-off point for helping explain and describe best practices for digital archiving. In analog archiving of moving images, the concept of a “carrier” of content was always integral to both archiving and preservation approaches. The carrier could be 35mm nitrate negative or 2” quad videotape, for example. The “content” on the carrier was the film or television program.
The challenge of analog archiving was to maintain the highest possible resolution and quality of the content while recognizing that the carrier could potentially deteriorate or become unplayable. Photochemical conservation science and the ability to digitally capture content stored on an analog carrier have greatly helped archivists as they continue to improve their approaches.
pres·er·va·tion (noun): the activity or process of keeping something valued alive, intact, or free from damage or decay
When preserving and archiving digital content, the concept of the carrier is completely different. It is no longer tied to the content’s originality or even authenticity. It is merely a storage device.
Digital film capture, for example, is moving quickly from the flash- or disk-based capture drives to other servers or storage media, barely pausing on the original “carrier.” Migration of data to newer formats or infrastructures, whether manual or done by cloud vendors, is a natural part of any digital archive strategy.
This means that the archivist’s attention in digital preservation workflow and best practices must be laser focused on the file or set of files that make up a digital asset or digital archival object. These are what we are preserving.
The other guiding distinction between analog and digital preservation that helps inform workflows and best practices is how preservation differs. Preservation is the act and process of keeping something in existence, so to do preservation properly an archivist must always ask:
What is harmful to what I’m trying to preserve?
Nitrate- and acetate-based film deterioration have threatened the existence of many films; the image suffered from the carrier’s deterioration, such as fading color, melting images, or mold spores. With digital files, the risk is of data loss: A digital image file can lose some or all of its pixels due to mechanical or human error. A digital audio file can have an audible “drop-out” due to mechanical or human error. Workflows and best practices help avoid data loss in every step of the process.
Each film archivist workflow needs to determine which assets they feel are important to preserve. You can archive something without putting it through the rigorous steps of preservation workflows.
Questions to ask yourself that might be helpful include: Is this asset unique? Is it expensive to replace? Is it something that is an asset belonging to my company? Is it the highest quality asset?
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