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“Why is this not digitized?” A/V Edition

July 9, 2018

From time to time, we’re asked the question “so when will all of this be online?”  The answer is—you might want to sit down for this—not everything will be digitized.  While we love to connect our patrons with every resource they could ever want to use online, there are several reasons why we’re just not able to do this for everything.  Below I’ll outline some reasons why we might not digitize audiovisual (A/V) items in our collections.


Not everything is digitized. This is the truth.

Prioritizing projects

Digitization takes a lot of resources, both in physical resources and in people hours, so we want to be sure we’re getting the most out of our efforts.  We do our best to find content to digitize that will have the highest degree of utility for our patrons, so this means we put a lot of effort into assessment. Readers of the Top Shelf might remember this post that discusses some of the guiding principles and objectives that allow us to select and prioritize material in our holdings for our digitization program.

We have a giant inventory of A/V from all of our collections, with almost 2,000 media objects recorded so far.  We order and prioritize this inventory in many ways, including the research value of the collection the items belong to or the individual value of the information content on the reel or tape.  But even if we had a magic wand and could create the army of people and resources necessary to digitize and quality check it all (including having access to every esoteric form of media device needed to read all A/V formats we have), there would still be reasons why we would not want to do this for every item.

Copyright and legal risks

First, a major hurdle to digitizing any library or archives holding that was produced in the U.S. of A.: United States Copyright Law (title 17, United States Code).  While libraries and archives do enjoy a special exemption (§ 108 Limitations on exclusive rights: Reproduction by libraries and archives) that allows us to make a duplicate of an item in our holdings for preservation purposes, we are not automatically given the right to make it freely available on the internet.  We’d need to research the copyright status of the item and determine what rights we have to use it, which, again, takes time.  Further, making a case for fair use of something that is not clearly out of copyright involves some degree of risk—such as risk in being sued by the copyright holders and risk in reputational damage if we didn’t perform due diligence.

When A/V is more than a digitized video

Some A/V in our collections may have value in the physical carrier or container, but the information content on the media is not rare.  The labels and titles can tell a story about the collection creator that we find valuable.  In the Norma Cantú Papers (UA 99.0022, a former UTSA Department of English professor emerita whose collection is being processed currently) we have many A/V recordings that are rare and unique, including interviews and readings, that we recognize as having a high priority for digitization.  But there’s also a small collection of VHS tapes that Dr. Cantú kept to show to students in her Borderlands Studies classes here at UTSA in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  She was able to show these to her students for educational purposes under fair use.  Several of the titles were produced by public television stations or other motion picture companies and can be easily found and purchased for viewing or checked out from your local library, which makes these a low priority for us to digitize.


Sample box of A/V from the Norma Cantú Papers (UA 99.0022).


In another University Archives collection, the Miroslav Synek Papers (UA 99.0029, a former UTSA professor of physics, chemistry & math), we recently came across a film reel titled “Powers of Ten,” with a copyright notice that it’s meant for educational use only.  The film is Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero, a 1977 film that you can enjoy on YouTube right now.  This film is not in immediate danger of disappearing (indeed, it was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress) but it could serve as evidence of Dr. Synek’s pedagogy and offers a glimpse into teaching materials used in the 1980s at UTSA.  It might evoke an image of a reel projector being wheeled into class, lights being turned off, and student faces being illuminated by the waves of moving images of Earth, the conjectured Universe, and our own atoms being zoomed in and out by powers of 10 as the film reel clicks away.


Powers of Ten film reel from the Mioslav Synek Papers (UA 99.0029). You can watch this on YouTube.

When A/V dies : (

Finally, and sadly, not all A/V can be digitized (even with a magic resource wand) because all A/V will degrade over time.  This is especially true for A/V that is stored in hot, humid locations, like your garage or attic where you might have home movies that you might one day want to watch again.


A distorted 35mm negative.

This is a pretty big problem for everyone: for example, in the motion picture industry, it’s been estimated that around 90% of American silent films and 50% of American sound films made before 1950 are lost films, meaning there’s no known copy available to view anywhere.  While we do our best to house our materials in the proper storage environment to ensure long-term shelf life, we can’t reverse previous damage.  If patrons find a title in our collection that they would like digitized there’s no guarantee that the film can be viewed.  But rest assured, this is definitely part of our assessment, where we consider the film format and the risk of decay when prioritizing digitization projects.

We can’t digitize everything, but we’re doing our best to get content digitized for preservation and shared in our digital collections portal.  Check out what we’ve got online so far by looking at UTSA Libraries Digital Collections.

Want to know more about film care and other projects working to preserve A/V?  Here are a few resources you can explore:

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 4, 2018 5:59 pm

    Reblogged this on stillness of heart.

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