Preserving Collections and Preventing Losses at Libraries and Museums

By: Sarah Roberts
Books inside the Morgan Library and Museum in New York

Libraries and museums are stewards of history and culture. Protecting material assets is a huge responsibility and a mission that professionals in the cultural sector take very seriously. Today, cultural institutions have new tools available to help them preserve their collections. 

As technological possibilities expand, the expectations for archive maintenance are also changing. Along with the need to better preserve assets are other responsibilities, including making collections available and accessible to the public. In fact, digitization is altering the definition of “community” to include individuals across the globe. 

Verbit works with leading institutions such as the Smithsonian Institute to incorporate accessibility into their preservation efforts. To also update and digitize the assets you’re protecting and maintaining for the public, here are some considerations.

Video preservation and vinegar syndrome

Time takes a toll on paper assets. However, experts using proper preservation techniques have managed to maintain books for centuries. Now that archives include photographic, audio and video recordings, the ability to protect collections is changing. 

Cellulose acetate-based film breaks down over time because of a chemical reaction that creates acetic acid. When this happens, the film emits a vinegary odor. This aspect of the deterioration process prompted the name “vinegar syndrome.” Although it’s possible to slow the deterioration to some degree, the reality is that film has a far shorter shelf life than books. 

Estimates indicate that even in ideal conditions, films may begin to deteriorate by the time they’re 70. As a result, films from the 1950s are currently gravely at risk of shrinking, becoming brittle and damaged beyond repair. 

Digitizing these assets before it’s too late is the best way to prevent them from being lost forever. 

Visitors viewing paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago

Tragic sudden losses of cultural resources

Vinegar syndrome isn’t the only hazard to film and analog recordings. For instance, these resources are highly flammable. Many library and museum collections have succumbed to fire over the years. Wars, floods and other events have cost humankind tragic losses of cultural and historical treasures. 

In fact, in May 2022, Politico reported that the war in Ukraine had already caused the destruction of numerous cultural institutions. History is full of other examples, the most famous being the loss of the Library of Alexandria. Even the Library of Congress in the US was burned down by British forces in the War of 1812. Thomas Jefferson restocked the Library with his own personal collection of about 6,000 books.

Although preserving collections in their original form might be ideal, as stewards of history and culture, libraries and museums should have a backup plan. Fortunately, digital preservation has additional benefits that make the effort well worthwhile.

Three key benefits of digitization

Digitizing collections has become standard practice for many museums and libraries. Here are a few reasons why every cultural institution should start a digitization campaign.

Preserve assets

Museum assets face risks and using assets in their original form leads to more wear. When it comes to films, viewing the digital version will offer a similar or enhanced experience while simultaneously avoiding potential use-related damage to the original copy.

Expand access

Museums and libraries often maintain rare collections that they protect by limiting public access. Digital versions of rare books, manuscripts, recordings and other items can allow everyone to experience the collection. Furthermore, people who aren’t near the museum or library can benefit from easy-to-share digital formats.

Facilitate research

Performing research may involve long hours in a library or museum hunting down relevant resources. Digital collections offer searchability that promotes faster research. As a result, academics can work more efficiently. Teams of researchers can also share those assets over great distances, thereby promoting more collaboration.

When digitizing collections, professionals should remember the other responsibilities they face, including to members of the public with disabilities. Fortunately, making digital assets more accessible has never been easier. 

Interior of the New York Public Library

The intersection of digitization and accessibility

Museums and libraries owe their patrons a certain degree of accessibility. Laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also demand accessibility and create consequences for institutions that exclude people with disabilities. Older video and audio collections likely lack these features. In fact, the first television show to appear with captions was The French Chef with Julia Child in 1972. It would take decades before the practice was standard, even for mainstream television.

In some cases, institutions may need to digitize massive archives and update those assets with accessibility features like closed captions. Verbit’s scalability made it possible to quickly and efficiently provide this solution for the largest collection in the world at the Library of Congress. 

However, captions are just one of several accessibility features that the cultural sector should be offering on its digital collections. 

Accessibility solutions for video and audio content

In the case of modern “born digital” videos, producers often add captions from the start. Even YouTubers now provide this helpful accommodation on many of their online videos. The cultural sector needs to do the same and consider additional solutions that make its archives and collections more inclusive. The right accommodation will depend on the type of asset.

Video Content

Video content may include feature films, documentaries, interviews and ethnographic recordings.

Captions: Films with audio content should include captioning to support people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. Individuals with varying learning styles also benefit from this resource, which improves retention and comprehension for most viewers. 

Transcription: Transcripts are word-for-word text copies of an audio recording. Searchable transcripts support people who are Deaf and hard of hearing, but they also provide a valuable tool for researchers. Researchers can locate their search terms in the text and the matching point of a video recording by using an interactive transcript. 

Audio description: This is a solution that helps people who are Blind understand the visual aspects of a video. A speaker describes what is happening on the screen so that a listener won’t miss out on important information. 

Inside of a library with rows of books and statues

Audio Content

Audio content may include oral histories, news broadcasts, radio shows and interviews. 

Transcription: The most useful solution for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing when it comes to audio-only recordings might be a transcript. A verbatim record of the speech in written form allows these patrons to access the information. Verbit’s interactive transcripts also provide speaker identification to help the reader follow dialogues. 

Searchable transcripts are useful to researchers as well. These tools provide a better way to locate relevant recordings quickly.

Captions: Some audio recordings may appear on the screen along with static images. Captions are another way to make such assets more accessible. This tool can also benefit anyone who might play the recording when they can’t use the sound on their device.

Offering transcripts and audio descriptions is becoming a widespread practice in the cultural sector. It’s likely that the next big push for inclusivity will involve audio description. Verbit provides standard audio description, as well as a more in-depth, extended option that’s ideal for complicated academic subjects. 

Verbit is an essential partner as libraries and museums work to increase their inclusivity practices and better serve their communities. Contact us to find out how our closed captioning, transcription and audio description solutions can help your institution better preserve and protect its important assets.