Interview with Ann Butler
Cory Arcangel

Ann Butler is the Senior Archivist at the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University. Prior to joining the Fales Library in 2002 she was the Archivist at the Guggenheim Museum. Active in media preservation organizations and initiatives for the past ten years, she also serves on the Board of Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP). This interview with Rebecca Cleman, EAI Distribution Coordinator, was conducted over email during spring 2006.

Rebecca Cleman: First I'd like to introduce your extensive archiving background. You previously were Archivist at the Guggenheim Museum, and now are Senior Archivist at New York University's Fales Library and Special Collections. Is there other relevant experience you would like to include?

Ann Butler: I view my current position at the Fales Library as a culmination of 15 years of working with cultural materials in a variety of collection types and environments. My relationship to the video art and independent media community goes back to the 1980s. I'm a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I made extensive use of the Video Data Bank's collection and the Film Center's daily screenings of American avant-garde film and international cinema. Studying these works formed a substantial core of my undergraduate and graduate educational experience. My professional experience as an archivist comes out of a principal interest in physical materials and observing how they behave over time.

Of equal interest are the challenges of archiving contemporary materials, for instance uncovering the structural logic of an archive or collection of personal papers and documenting those relationships, working with the inherent complexities of preserving contemporary arts materials regardless of format, and working with donors. These are all significant parts of what I do. Being part of an academic research environment, working with researchers, students, and faculty on publications, research projects, class curricula and teaching are also increasingly significant elements of what I do and am interested in.

RC: Overall, I would like to draw out the aspects of your experience that are specific to media archiving and preservation, and it would be interesting to hear how this contrasts with other archiving concerns.

AB: I'd like to make a distinction here between the words "preservation" and "archiving," as preservation is one of several key components of archiving. Increasingly, the words "archive" and "archiving" are used to refer to several things, for instance a repository or place where one accesses material and does research, the process of making materials more stable and permanent, and methods of long-term storage. For professional archivists, the term implies the process of acquiring, organizing, describing, preserving and providing access to cultural materials.

At the Fales Library, when we acquire collections of personal papers and archives, often the media materials are interfiled with materials in other formats because the materials relate to one another either through their creation or use. Part of our responsibility is to document those relationships through description and cataloging. Physically the materials are handled and treated differently, and the media and subsequent preservation elements physically stored in different locations, but the materials are described together, as a whole, so as to document their contextual relationships. Although the preservation of media materials is a far more complex, expensive, and labor-intensive process than the preservation of paper-based materials, the archiving of media and all other material types is an integrated process where one relies upon and preserves the relationships between materials through documentation regardless of physical format, so as to have a better understanding of the work and how it was produced.

RC: What was your first experience working with media? What were the major concerns/issues then, contrasted with current media practices?

AB: My first experience working with media was in a production environment as a film and video student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Later experiences included working in media collections in academic research libraries which involved much more of the distribution and acquisition end of independent, educational, and mainstream media. Now that I am responsible for the collection management of archives and collections of personal papers containing extensive media holdings, I'm faced with media preservation issues of age, fragility and technological obsolescence on a daily basis. Most of the video materials acquired by the Fales Library were produced during the past 40 years and so represent the history of analog video technology. Most of the materials were produced using equipment and tape formats that are now obsolete. Bridging the divide between the analog and digital realms is increasingly a large part of our responsibility.

RC: What is your involvement with the Moving Image Collections Technical Committee? When/how did this start?

AB: I was part of the initial group, called the Moving Image Gateway Taskforce or the National Cataloging Project Subcommittee. This group worked under the auspices of the Association of Moving Image Archivists and in conjunction with the Library of Congress. We worked with Grace Agnew to design and develop what is now called MIC, or Moving Image Collections, a web portal to the world's moving image collections.

RC: Could you isolate those parts of the Fales Collection that include media? I would guess the Downtown Collection has a number of artists' videos?

AB: The Fales Library was established as a literary collection but within the past 12 years has developed into more of a humanities research center with an extremely active collection development program, which now also includes contemporary visual and performing arts, experimental film, and video art. The Downtown Show, a collaborative exhibition between NYU's Grey Art Gallery and the Fales Library, highlights the collection development strategy behind the Fales Downtown Collection and the original literary portions of the Fales Library. We currently have over 5,000 videotapes in all formats, 6,000 audio recordings in all formats, and over 2,000 film elements. The media portions of collections represent completed works, production elements for completed works, elements used in theatrical performances, and source materials. A significant portion of the material consists of unpublished film and video performance documentation.

To give you a better sense of the diverse range of material we collect, here are some examples of works in the collection: 1/2" open reel video documentation shot by Jaime Davidovich of Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estates Project; final prints and all production elements for the experimental film Beehive, a collaboration between Frank Moore and Jim Self; edit masters for Jaime Davidovich's Live Show and programs produced for the Artists' Television Network; several short films by David Wojnarowicz and all of his Super 8mm source films which he used to create the works; performance documentation of many of Richard Foreman's Ontological Hysteric Theater productions; and film, video and audio elements created and used by the avant-garde theater company Mabou Mines as part of their productions.

RC: What format are these kept on, and how are they stored?

AB: We retain and store all the original elements. For video materials created using analog formats, we reformat to Beta SP with VHS use copies for researcher access. Video materials created using digital formats are reformatted to DigiBeta with DVD copies for researcher access. For selected video materials we create DigiBeta duplication submasters. Film materials are reformatted to 16mm with VHS and DVD use copies made for research access.

RC: What is the library's protocol for receiving media work?

AB: We have collection development policies for the Downtown Collection, General special collections and the Food and Cookery Collections. Each of these three collection areas contains media, although the Downtown Collection contains the bulk of our media holdings. The collection development policies guide decisions about acquisitions. Collections are both donated and purchased. For media-based artistic works, we try to acquire the original and/or best source material as part of the collection, so that we have the necessary elements to preserve and reformat the work.

RC: How do you grant access to the works, and how are they used within the university? Are copies loaned to students? Along those lines, do you have any thoughts about making work viewable through an internal server?

AB: The Fales Library is open to all qualified scholars and researchers. Researchers must be working on some type of original research usually for publication, exhibition, etc. One does not need to be affiliated with NYU to use the Fales Library. We are a non-circulating collection. Access to our holdings is entirely through onsite visits. Providing access to media holdings through an internal server is not a priority for us right now. Preserving the works for researcher access is.

RC: How are the works cataloged? Do you have a searchable database of your media works?

AB: Works that are acquired as part of archives and collections of personal papers are cataloged or described in archival inventories or finding aids. These searchable guides are xml-encoded using EAD, the archival standard for web encoding, and are available online at Media materials are described in context, as they were created and used by the person or organization that created the material. We also maintain an internal media management database as a collection management tool for our media holdings. We catalog archives and collections of personal papers at the collection level using the library cataloging standard, MARC. Occasionally, we catalog individual media works at the item level using MARC so as to be able to contribute these records to larger national and international online catalogs such as MIC, RLIN, and OCLC to promote research access to these unique materials.

RC: Are there plans or discussion of future storage methods? For instance, we've been receiving a number of inquiries lately from artists who wonder about keeping their work on hard drives.

AB: We have some audio materials we recently preserved stored on internal servers, not hard drives, in addition to having separate .wav files and analog masters for the elements. Eventually, we're going to have to face the option of digital conversion to hard drives or internal servers as migration and reformatting every 10-15 years will no longer be considered financially feasible. Our current priority remains the immediate reformatting of media materials considered the most at risk due to age, fragility, uniqueness, and technological obsolescence.

RC: We're aware that within a very short time a widespread transition to DVD is making VHS all but obsolete. Where do you stand? Are you systematically transferring titles you have on VHS to DVD, or are you keeping the VHS copies available? Do you see yourself using DVD and following that format, and if so do you have concerns about other emerging versions, such as Blu-ray?

AB: We still support VHS and use the format for researcher use copies for works created using analog formats. We're looking at phasing out this practice in the next few years and converting all our access copies to DVD as the VHS format will no longer be supported and the decks no longer produced.

RC: What experiences have you had with the exhibition of media, at both the Fales and the Guggenheim? Could you isolate periods of notable change and transition?

AB: At the Guggenheim I played more of a role assisting researchers with access to collection materials for exhibitions research than working on the actual exhibition of materials from the archive. At Fales, we periodically loan media holdings for exhibition purposes.