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Inside RTÉ’s Digital Archive

Thanks to Google search and YouTube, these days we expect to be able to call up pretty much any image or video with a simple search and a few clicks of a mouse.  However, all the data accessible online doesn’t just appear there by accident. Sometimes it’s hard to believe, but there was a time before the Internet and protecting the collective recordings of the human race is the daily challenge facing the digital archivist.

From baking video tapes in ovens to incorporating linked data and the semantic web, digital archiving has come a long way in RTÉ over the last 20 years or so. We spoke to Bríd Dooley, RTÉ’s head of Archives about the changes over the years, the biggest challenges her department faces today and how new technology could help open up the national broadcaster’s vast collection of archived images, audio, video and documents to a whole new generation.

Preserving our cultural heritage

Bríd Dooley, Head of Archives at RTÉ

Bríd Dooley, Head of Archives at RTÉ

Digital archiving is vital for the preservation of our cultural heritage, yet it’s an area that people understand very little about. People generally understand that analogue material must be translated into digital but many, including this writer, are totally unaware of the scale of the work and the different challenges facing the industry from conserving old material to trying to put some order on the avalanche of digital material being created every day.

These days RTÉ’s archiving process is very high tech but it wasn’t always the case as Dooley recalled one of the first preservation projects in the television archives during  the mid-nineties. “One of the major projects was to reformat the very earliest open reel video tape, the 1 inch and earlier large 2 inch open reels totalling about 25,000 hours of material”, recounts Dooley. “The 1 inch tapes were highly vulnerable due to condition called “sticky shed” which resulted in them having to to be baked in specially created low temperature ovens order to safely play-back  the video reels . Those early television archives projects demonstrated an example of how vulnerable formats can be.” Thankfully this process ended in 2004 and all those tapes have now been migrated  to what was then our standard digital tape based format.  But that now too is legacy and has to be migrated again to up to date digital file based standards to safeguard them for the future.  Other formats such as film and later cassette type video tapes are also vulnerable to age, storage condition and general decay.  Dooley is keen to highlight that digital archiving is not a linear process with a start and an end point, new formats are constantly emerging in the  broadcast and production sphere,  and old content need to be reformatted to be made accessible while  at the same time as ensuring that current content is safety stored correctly and easily searchable.

“It’s difficult to say that there’s one project on the digital road and you’re starting at one end and finishing at the other,” she says. “Work is ongoing and we always needs to be proactive to maintain and keep the archives, with a constant focus on the long term preservation as well as immediate needs and access. Our aim is to secure the archives, maximise access for all users, and minimise risks of loss or decay at all times. Digital archiving is a constantly changing operation because you have to continually move and adapt to the technologies and the ever changing formats as they emerge, particularly in the broadcast industry.  So even as it stands, capture of content happens on very many types of formats and that all has to be transcoded when it comes into the broadcast environment in order to saved, documented archived, stored and retrieved at any time”.

Archiving digital content even more complex

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Physical tapes in the RTÉ archive

Despite the difficulty of baking tapes  form the earliest days of television to access material, Dooley says archiving of the digital broadcast and production world is much more challenging much, much, more complex. “The whole area of digital files capture has created volume as well as complexity in a way that wasn’t really possible with a lot of the discrete media. It is possible to shoot and record more, on many different formats. There are more distribution platforms some of which may have multiple distribution points for the same content, often different versions and editions. Consider the move from SD , (standard definition) to HD and the emergence of 3D and so on. She cites the 2012 London Olympics as an example where there were multiple events & versions being recorded simultaneously, some of which may never have been broadcast but will still have had to be archived. Standards for digital preservation are much more onerous to achieve and we see the emergence of “Trusted digital repositories” of the future as a way in which data preservation can be assured through standards and certification.

It’s very easy to capture content digitally but it’s also extremely easy to delete it or lose it, so you do have to have strict procedures and rules in place to guarantee that you can capture that not just the content but the metadata to make sense of it , and not just from the broadcast output but also from the production process  itself.  Broadcast  archives have to be very  involved in the start of production process at all stages, from  acquiring, capturing, documenting and ensuring business rules  are in place to capture and retain content & information  for archiving purposes.

Today  as broadcast material is recorded the archives team is  also responsible for ensuring that the content is captured, catalogued,  properly stored and secure. “While our production process and increasingly all aspects of our transmission have and are becoming  tapeless across all areas of broadcasting, video material in particular as of today is  still be  recorded onto discreet carriers such as tapes or disks for secure storage and access purposes. This is because we have yet to be in a position to make the investment into a fully end to end networked digital archiving process at RTÉ. Obviously it’s on our road map but the costs are high and we have to invest in it incrementally as business needs and resources allow.


This is where Dooley points out the biggest challenge facing all archivists today – funding. The sheer size and scale of an archive of RTÉ’s historic complexity, which contains hundreds of thousands of hours of moving image & sound as well as photographs and documents,  presents major challenges in terms of costs to both digitise the legacy and capture and keep that which is created digitally. RTÉ’s counterparts worldwide face the same issue.   “Legacy carriers such as video, film, acedtate, ¼” reels  tapes and formats  are  all subject to decay & loss so that even the cost of securing the proper storage environment to stand still is quite high. You’ve got to arrest the decay before you can digitise and there are standards on how you store audiovisual and audio material which also require considerable investment and constant monitoring and reviewing.”

“Perception and understanding of what is digital is a big challenge. Just because something is published on a website doesn’t mean it’s preserved and it doesn’t also mean that it’s going to endure”

The RTÉ Archives as part of  RTÉ digital  is working to change that public perception. The archives website makes some archived material available to the general public and as well as providing an invaluable service the site hopes to raise people’s awareness of the importance of archiving Ireland’s digital cultural heritage

Collaboration with Insight Centre

A new collaboration between Insight@ NUI Galway (formerly DERI), DRI and RTÉ Digital aims to  develop  new and innovative methods of discovery of RTE Archives. The size of the archives is such that cataloguing and making all this data searchable is a huge challenge. Insight@ NUI Galway’s expertise in Linked Data and the Semantic Web is being sought to help make this task more manageable. It is hoped that this modern technology will eventually allow RTÉ to offer extensive and richer discovery of its archives to the public,  as well as linking it to the wider body of digital heritage archive.  “The expertise that DERI and the DRI bring to the table is something that we can’t do on our own”, says Dooley.  “The collaboration itself is about a journey of learning as well and about figuring out where it is we as archives need to be in terms of that digital landscape of the future. Not just in terms of content and what it is but actually how you get at it and how you make it discoverable.”

(L-R) Brid Dooley, Stefan Decker, Director of DERI, Sandra Collins, Director of the Digital Repository of Ireland and Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice at the launch of the new project

(L-R) Brid Dooley, Stefan Decker, Director of DERI, Sandra Collins, Director of the Digital Repository of Ireland and Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice at the launch of the new project

“Projects like ‘The Digital Public Space’ in the UK and a number of others around Europe show that this is the direction archives are moving in. What we want to do is see how we can better link the data from our existing catalogues and find a way of publishing those that then enables them to be discovered so that we can more easily curate from across the collections, in effect semi-automating the curation processes. And that in turn the tools that Insight@ NUI Galway and DRI bring to this table will enable it to coalesce together and become something new and exciting.

Although the project is still in its early stages Dooley hopes it will help open up the riches of the RTÉ archive in new ways to a whole new generation of people and says that the public’s appetite for archives is only increasing. “I think that one of the really great things that’s happened in the mushrooming of the digital age in Ireland is  the growing awareness  & engagement with  history, whether political, popular or cultural, through the digital medium.   We have found a growing appetite for the stories we tell from the archives published on our website as well as engagement with partners in other areas of cultural heritage such as recent RTE JFK Homecoming exhibition and nationwide events.  We are constantly developing and looking at new ways to engage with our audiences through social media networks and online tools. This has seen a huge increase in the interaction between archives and the public on a daily basis.

Overall it seems RTÉ’s digital archive future is in good hands, Dooley has a clear passion about her work and despite funding issues she and her staff are determined to work towards the development of  trusted digital archiving repositories for the nation and ensuring that our digital cultural heritage legacy will exist 100 years from now and longer.

Brid Dooley is a media archive professional with over 25 years of experience in the audiovisual sector in Ireland and the UK . She joined RTÉ  in 2000 as Archive Project Leader for the Television Archives and became Head of Archives and Library Services for Television in 2003. She was appointed as head of the newly integrated RTÉ Archives Department, part of  RTÉ Digital,  in 2012. She is also a  serving member of the Executive Council of the International  Federation of Television Archives FIAT/IFTA and former  General Secretary from 2008-2012 .

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