Preserving Palestinian Audiovisual Heritage: A Guide for Non-Specialists
February 9, 2021

Whether as singers, performers, impresarios, or listeners, Palestinians have been an essential  part of commercially recorded sound in the Middle East. Record company catalogues from the 1920s give ample evidence of this. Indeed, by the 1930s, Palestine’s centrality in the arena of recorded sound was made all the more potent with the establishment of the Palestine Broadcasting Service (Huna al-Quds) in 1936, and the Near East Broadcasting service in 1941. As with cinema, Palestine emerged as a regional hub of commercial cultural production. The recent work by Bashar Shammout on Palestinian audio/visual Heritage, published by the Institute of Palestine Studies, offers an excellent introduction to the richness of this recorded past.

The Nakba and the looting and destruction of what Palestinian refugees left behind was detrimental to the preservation of private audio collections. With Palestinians being scattered across the world, and with the passage of time, many heirs do not recognize the value of what their ancestors left behind. There are also universal risks that have threatened audiovisual heritage. These risks include, but are not limited to, the following:

Human error

Items may be lost, or preserved in conditions that contribute to their deterioration, thus making them unusable.

Material degradation

Using alcohol to clean material can wipe away information on shellac records; high humidity and temperature destroy many film and magnetic tape formats, as well as instantaneous discs coated in gelatin or nitrocellulose; compact discs and DVDs rely on dyes to carry information, and these dyes fade over time; hard drives and other digital formats may lose data to errors and glitches over time, and these errors may go unnoticed until the data becomes irretrievable.

Technological obsolescence

Consider the dozens of audiovisual formats that have been developed and used over the past 120 years. Playback machines are in short supply globally – these machines have not been manufactured in years.  One example is magnetic tape formats used to broadcast recordings in the 20th century. UNESCO estimates that these will be almost completely obsolete in the next 15 to 20 years.

The main thrust of any program aiming to address these risks revolves around the notion of preservation through digitization: to move recorded material from their native formats to a digital sphere.

The International Association for Audio & Audiovisual Archives (IASA) has produced a  set of standards and best practices that can guide a technical specialist on how to best set up an apparatus for this digital transfer, and which target file formats to use. So long as the original playback equipment is available, the process becomes straightforward. What happens before and after the actual digital transfer, however, is far more complex.

Here are just some of the obstacles:

Planning and “Scoping”

 Relevant audiovisual materials are spread out over multiple collections, some privately held, some institutional, some restricted. Each collection has different degrees of information about what they contain. In many cases, there is no information at all. Unfortunately, this information is crucial: it determines what equipment is needed, how much restoration work may be required, how many hours an audiovisual engineer will be expected to work, which items to prioritize, which items may have already been digitized elsewhere, and so on. It is difficult to bring institutions to work together, especially if they see other partners as rivals or as problematic.

What to do with the digital materials?

First there is the question of cataloguing. Most collectors do not know what their collection entails. Records need to be played, researched and sorted. Cataloguing is a political act: how we classify and sort these materials, how we identify those who produced the materials, and what system is used to present them to viewers or listeners are not minor considerations. An immense number of hours of labor are required to create the databases that can underpin such accessibility. Related to this is the issue of language, spelling, translation, and the actual software programming to meet even the minimal requirements of making this material accessible to researchers, artists, the general public and future generations.

Intellectual property and copyrights

On one hand, artists are legally and ethically entitled to own the rights to their work, and to be able to have a say in whether they want to be paid for their work or to waive such rights. On the other hand, the legal duration of such rights can extend beyond the period in which a recording is actually playable - a recording may well deteriorate long before the copyright and intellectual property related to it expires. A digitization project intends to address this issue: time and effort will need to be put into locating the rights holders (or their heirs ), and finding legal solutions. 

Long term preservation and accessibility

Digital preservation has been a major part of the work of collections institutions for the past few decades, mostly focused on manuscripts. Numerous digitization projects have sprung up, some of them raising millions of dollars to digitize texts that are hundreds of years old. Many websites that were developed, however, are no longer online, and the fate of the digital copies of the manuscripts that were once uploaded are now unknown. You can imagine an audiovisual equivalent if you think of something like YouTube or Spotify shutting down its servers for whatever reason. The best guarantee against such a scenario is for any digitization project to operate in an inclusive manner that focuses on redundancy. Rather than aiming to have one centralized repository, all participating institutions should be encouraged to keep and digitally maintain copies of both the digital materials and the metadata associated with them so as to offer some protection against the loss of these materials.

Archives are institutions of power. How digital material is preserved and presented is meaningful, and how such meaning is extracted is an act of power that must be considered when embarking on projects for the preservation of Palestinian audiovisual heritage.

About The Author: 

Hazem Jamjoum is a former curator of audiovisual materials at the British Library, and a doctoral researcher focusing on the commodification of music in the modern Middle East in the early 20th Century.

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