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IU's digitization process ahead of schedule

  • July 25, 2016

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News. 

  • By Michael Reschke 
  • Laurie Antolovic was worried about finishing Indiana University’s massive digitization initiative on time.

    The Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative that Antolovic directs calls for saving 280,000 of IU’s most significant audio and video recordings by converting them from analog to digital format in time for the university’s bicentennial celebration in 2020.

    Reaching that goal requires finding not only devices to play back things such as legendary composer Hoagy Carmichael’s 1949 concert at the IU Auditorium, which is recorded onto a 16-inch lacquer disc, but also phonographs for field recordings of tribal music from the 1890s. Early estimates showed the process would take 15 years, Antolovic said.

    With more than 100,000 recordings already converted after only a year, it looks like the project will be finished ahead of schedule, thanks in part to Memnon Archiving Services.

    Those early estimates were based on IU’s one-to-one transfer method, but the Brussels-based company — recently purchased by Sony — has been digitizing, restoring and preserving audio-visual content on an industrial scale for more than a decade. IU partnered with Memnon in 2013 and transformed the Innovation Center at 2719 E. 10th St. into a digitization factory.

    Sealed plastic bins full of tapes, CDs and other outdated storage media are delivered to the building’s receiving dock. Memnon employees scan them in using a bar code system and begin preparing the items for playback. Tapes, for example, are baked at about 130 degrees for about 12 hours to remove unwanted moisture that can deteriorate binders in magnetic tape. This problem is referred to as sticky shed syndrome. It can result in screeching or squeaking sounds during playback or even render the recording unusable.

    Once the material has been prepped, it’s moved to its respective studio to be converted. The record digitization studio has four professional turntables mounted on custom-built tables. A shock absorber on the inner table prevents vibrations from coming through the floor and disrupting the transfer, while the outer table isolates each turntable from accidental operator movements.

    The digital recordings are checked for quality, and notes are made when there are problems with the original recording.

    “As important as the quality of the image is the quality of the communication,” said Andrew Dapuzzo, director of U.S. operations for Memnon.

    Once the digitization process is complete, each item is scanned out and returned to its IU storage facility. Using this process, along with adding a second shift of workers, Memnon can covert about 600 recordings generating 2,700 files in a day, or about nine terabytes of data, Dapuzzo said. For reference, about 2,000 hours of CD-quality recordings take up about one terabyte.

    Not everything can be converted at this rate, though, and that’s where IU’s own employees come in. People such as Jonathan Richardson, audio visual specialist with the preservation initiative, tackle the problem items. Last week, Richardson was prepping an open-reel tape of music from pre-Taliban Afghanistan. He was essentially trying to find the weak points in the tapes, break them and then splice the tape back together so there are no issues when it’s played back for digitization.

    “It’s a slow process,” he said, “but it’s got to be done.”

    That’s because the older these recordings get, the more likely they are to become unusable. Not only are the recordings themselves deteriorating, but the playback equipment is becoming more difficult to find. And the replacement parts for those devices, as well as the people who know how to work on them, are becoming just as scarce.

    “All analog media is degrading and becoming obsolete,” said Mike Casey, director of technical operations for the preservation initiative. “We have a narrow window of opportunity to take action.”

    Casey estimates that within 10 to 15 years, all analog recordings will either deteriorate to the point that it’s impossible to play them back or too expensive to make it practical to digitize them. That’s why Casey authored a report that led to IU President Michael McRobbie setting aside $15 million for the preservation effort. As McRobbie put it in his 2013 State of the University address, the great universities of the world have always had three fundamental missions: the creation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge.

    In addition to helping IU fulfill one of its core missions, the preservation initiative has helped bring a new business to Bloomington. Antolovic said IU recently signed a new contract with Memnon allowing the company to continue operating out of the building in the university’s tech park as it solicits new work from other entities.

    Like the tapes and records coming into the Innovation Center for digitization, it seems the fears Antolovic had when the initiative began are now obsolete.

    “There was some apprehension in the beginning, but we’re past that stage now,” she said.