Pop Up Archive Breathes New (Media) Life into Dusty Archives

    by Anne Wootton
    December 4, 2012

    This post was co-written by Bailey Smith, co-creator of Pop Up Archive.

    When we talk about the changing face of media on the web, archiving isn’t generally the first subject to come up. As we were beginning Pop Up Archive, we grappled with the fact that it’s hard to show the vibrant, innovative side of archiving. Historically, archives have been hands-off; this was necessary to preserve the artifacts. But digital artifacts can easily be shared: All you need is a will and the web.

    We started this project because we believe in the power of voices from the past and in the importance of preserving those voices.


    We’re paying close attention as audio and video material finds new life on the web and the boundaries between media formats increasingly blur. Frameworks like Zeega and libraries like Mozilla’s Popcorn.js are stretching our definitions of interactive documentary and narrative, and producers and stations are incorporating web resources of all formats in beautiful work, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting-sponsored Localore projects currently underway at public media stations across the United States.

    Why not create better partnerships between innovators in content creation and innovators in content preservation and access? For these projects, Pop Up Archive will provide a gateway to invaluable archival material. Like the amazing film collages created from BBC archival material by Adam Curtis in “The Century of Self“ and “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” the sounds and images of the past can be remixed and reused to create commentaries on the present. We want to take broadcast audio and related media from the metaphorical shelf to it’s fullest potential on the web through a straightforward, scalable system of organization and vocabulary.


    In the Beginning There Was Radio

    We’re excited about the ways Pop Up Archive will contribute to this new media playing field. But first we should explain how we got started: digging through archival material (literally, shoe boxes, and figuratively, hard drives) at the offices of San Francisco-based producers The Kitchen Sisters. The Kitchen Sisters have been creating radio stories for more than 30 years, amassing thousands of hours of audio in the process — from the ambient sounds of street fairs in London to unbelievable oral histories from Japanese internment camp survivors.

    One of their first pieces broadcast on NPR in 1984 told the stories of the families of American soldiers during WWI. A few years ago, NPR called the Kitchen Sisters up in search of the original material, looking to repackage the piece. As Nikki Silva remembers, it was a slightly panicky moment: “Where is all that raw material? Where is the original?”

    For The Kitchen Sisters (and, happily, most public media producers), collaboration is paramount: with other producers and with archival institutions around the country. For these media producers and humanities scholars alike, audio recordings have particular value in the transmission of oral history. With increasingly born-digital media, it’s easier than ever for these individuals and institutions to collaborate. But when it comes to organizing digital content, they don’t speak the same language or use the same standards, making data exchange difficult. And for many producers, a continual focus on creating new work leaves little, if any, time to maintain a digital archive.

    So, we set out to fix that problem, starting with Masters thesis work at the Berkeley School of Information and, going forward, with support from the Knight News Challenge: Data.

    Without new technologies and standards, countless hours of oral history and culturally significant audio like The Kitchen Sisters’ will disappear, stored in boxes and on decrepit hard drives in closets across the country. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true. We’re already seeing it happen. And in many ways, digital media is more fragile than the physical reels, cassettes, and DATs of the last century — it’s easier to lose, and it’s easier to delete.

    Pop Up Archive: A Public Trust

    Using web services, Pop Up Archive makes archival audiovisual content searchable, reusable and shareable, without requiring technical expertise or substantial resources from producers. Lots of people recognize the importance of archiving, but they just don’t have time for it — and the existing solutions are either too complex, or leave a lot to be desired. There’s a big gap between the high-level organization happening at top public media organizations and universities, and the larger universe of individual and independent producers and stations. We’re aiming to bridge that gap through simple web forms with batch import capabilities, streamlining the archival process and keeping heavyweight data modeling and metadata schemas in the background.

    We’ve been paying close attention to PBCore, a still-developing standard for describing public media assets, and we’re eager to put it to constructive uses. Our initial phase resulted in an archival system for independent radio producers powered by Omeka, an open-source web-publishing platform. The system includes plug-ins, scheduled for January 2013 release, that provide a plainspoken version of PBCore (to spare producers the pain of metadata schema-speak) and options to store content at the Internet Archive (for long-term preservation) as well as share it on SoundCloud (creating new access points for archival audio).


    Nathan Dalton and Nikki Silva of The Kitchen Sisters at one of the online archival trainings Pop Up Archive has hosted since spring 2012.

    We really love the Omeka community and their commitment to balancing a variety of user needs with ease-of-use. At the same time, we’ve talked to a lot of producers with incredible material who just aren’t willing to set up and administer their own servers, and for whom Omeka’s web-based solution isn’t quite right. Maybe one day that will change, but we can’t risk the wait.

    That’s why phase two of Pop Up Archive is a web application accessible to anyone — making oral history content more discoverable and searchable across diverse communities that include journalists, historians, students, and documentary producers.

    We’re developing a centralized repository for oral history records and related material, working with major public media organizations such as PRX, WNYC and WGBH, as well as smaller stations, independent producers, and university oral history archives. We’re going to standardize their data across these individual collections and organizational holdings, dovetailing with content management systems already in place. When our repository is launched in 2013, anyone will be able to add records, whether an institution or an individual, with as much or as little description as they’re able to provide.

    Changing Habits

    A vital part of our project is education and outreach. We want to develop a community hub where producers and oral history archives can receive advice and support. We are already reaching out to interested communities through online trainings, social media, and listservs.

    Our goal is for Pop Up Archive participants to realize the added efficiency of sharing content using web services, and feel empowered to catalog their content at the time of its creation — without even realizing that they have made an active decision to archive. Content creators know the most about the material that they create, and it’s ideal to organize and preserve that material in a manner that incorporates easily into existing workflows, at the time of creation, rather than at some point down the road.

    To that end, we’re hosting a workshop at SXSW Interactive 2013, where we will provide instruction on effective approaches to digital media organization and preservation. We’ll show participants how to share their archival media, and give pointers on how to follow basic archival practices without headaches or additional training. We’re also participating in a panel at the Integrated Media Association conference right before SXSW, where we’ll be addressing similar issues. We’re eager to work with all of you and we’d love to see you there. For more, visit us at popuparchive.org — drop us a line anytime.

    Before arriving in California, Anne Wootton lived in France, and managed a historic newspaper digitization project at Brown University. Anne came to the UC-Berkeley School of Information with an interest in digital archives and the sociology of technology. She spent summer 2011 working with The Kitchen Sisters and grant agencies to identify preservation and access opportunities for independent radio. She holds a Master’s degree in Information Management and Systems.

    Bailey Smith has worked as an editor, journalist, web master and information architect and has contributed to projects as a user experience researcher and designer for Code for America. She has also engaged intimately with media production as a transmedia consultant and as the producer of the radio documentary, Local Hire, an exploration of the rise and fall of film production in North Carolina. Bailey holds a Master’s from the UC Berkeley School of Information in Information Management and Systems.

    Tagged: archiving audio data metadata oral history Pop Up Archive project intros public media video

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