Cultural leaders urge action to save 850,000 hours of Australia’s audio and video history

October 18, 2017

Materials held on magnetic tape include TV news and current affairs, radio programs and unreleased and live music.

Cultural leaders urge action to save 850,000 hours of Australia’s audio and video history

Materials held on magnetic tape include TV news and current affairs, radio programs and unreleased and live music.

Australia risks losing almost a million hours of irreplaceable audio and video history held on magnetic tape if these are not digitised by the year 2025, the heads of leading cultural institutions have warned.

Speaking ahead of the Digital Directions conference at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) in Canberra on 19 October 2017, the directors of the NFSA, the National Archives of Australia (NAA) and the National Library of Australia (NLA) said a combination of technological obsolescence and deterioration of the fragile tapes has created a pressing challenge to digitise this culturally and historically significant material before it is lost forever.

NFSA CEO Jan Müller said: ‘In our fast-moving and increasingly digital world, the concerted effort to preserve and share our information and knowledge is more important than ever. Access and use should be a collective focus; designing an outstanding user experience is key. There is a lot of work for us ahead of Deadline 2025, yet it can be achieved. Collaboration between our institutions is crucial, but so is having the support of the Australian public. This is a story that must be told before it’s too late.’

NLA Director General Marie-Louise Ayres added: ‘Why must we do digital at scale? Because the young and old of tiny and remote Yakanarra, community workers in regional Australia, schoolkids and their grandparents, creators, inventors, scholars and small business people thrive on Australian stories, a precious part of Australia’s national estate. Connecting communities with collections in the digital age is hard. And it’s expensive. And it takes huge leaps of faith. And it works. And this must be done.’

NAA Director General David Fricker explained: ‘Iconic radio and television broadcasts, indigenous customs and language, ASIO surveillance, and secret military operations – the National Archives’ collection of magnetic media represents the unique and irreplaceable memory of our nation and the evidence of the actions and decisions of Australia’s Government. Knowing that this precious collection is at risk, with Deadline 2025 looming large, it is difficult to overstate the urgency to act now to preserve and keep accessible these records that belong to future generations of Australians.’

In 2015 the NFSA published Deadline 2025, to highlight the urgency and importance of large-scale digitisation of materials on magnetic tape, and joined forces with other national cultural institutions which also preserve significant collections, to work on a National Framework for Digitisation.

Together, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), Australian War Memorial (AWM), NFSA, NAA and NLA hold close to 850,000 hours of material. These institutions are collaborating to pool their skills and resources, to significantly upscale their current digitisation efforts and to identify the most efficient solution to meet Deadline 2025, using a mixture of in-house and industry-based digitisation.

In 2016 the NAA kick-started a mass digitisation project, $3 million of existing funding to digitise 24,600 hours of at-risk audiovisual records captured on magnetic media- 10% of their audio and video collection. However, this financial investment was only a first step in the preservation and accessibility of cultural heritage records. Without further investment there is still a significant amount of material at risk of loss.

The cultural institutions have the skills but not the capacity required to meet the demand. The NFSA alone holds over 180,000 hours of material on magnetic tape. Of this, nearly 30,000 have already been digitised. The scale and speed of Australia’s digitisation efforts must be increased if we are going to save the material at risk. Working within existing resources, Australia’s cultural institutions simply can’t complete the digitisation process within the timeframe to meet Deadline 2025.

Digitisation will not only save Australia’s audio and video history for future generations; it opens up a wealth of possibilities for these materials – from online viewing to creative use in new works.

The public is invited to help the NFSA save collections at risk. Every donation makes a difference, and can be done online: