The painstaking, thrilling work of legacy preservation

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Iron Mountain Media & Archive Services’ VP of Technology Denis Leconte reflects on the thrills and chills involved with preserving a major artist’s legacy.

Denis Leconte
Denis Leconte
Vice President, Global Head of Technology | Iron Mountain Media & Archive Services
28 July 20217 mins
The painstaking thrilling work of legacy preservation
I’ve been reflecting on what an honour it is to participate in the preservation of so many important, historical archival collections, in which the legacy we preserve means so much to so many people.  These projects bring out the best in our Iron Mountain Media and Archive Services team as they require the fullest, most expert application of all of our capabilities.   

Our team works on musical, film and sports archives; broadcast collections; oral histories from museums; private individuals’ personal collections’ and even corporate archives. While most of the work we do is confidential, at times there are stories that we can share or are even profiled in the news. Perhaps you saw that Iron Mountain Media and Archive Services studio engineers and archivists had the honour of working on behalf of the Prince Estate to ensure the preservation of Prince’s vast, unreleased recording collection, as told in the CBS Sixty Minutes piece awhile back. Preserving an artistic legacy like Prince’s or any other icon that spans multiple decades is both an honour and a work of passion - sometimes challenging to navigate, but always thrilling and immensely rewarding. 

When we first start work on a vast collection that spans many years and multiple kinds of assets, the first challenge is the preservation - and when needed, the remediation - of the physical media. The formats used over a lifetime of recording will generally span not only a wide range of technologies, but also will present a range of conditions from stable and playable, to significantly deteriorated. In some cases, the assets may also be at risk of never being played again unless we apply some careful restoration work.  

Most audio-visual media masters are either film or magnetic tape, and while these are generally fairly durable (film more so than tape), both can suffer the ravages of time and environmental conditions. Temperature, humidity, and in some cases the slow-moving chemistry of the compounds containing the recordings themselves, all contribute to degradation that can damage media to the point where it can no longer be read. 

At Iron Mountain Media and Archive Services, our archivists conduct condition assessments and then prioritize the restoration efforts according to what is most urgent. Our remediation methods range from simple cleaning and “media rehab” to the extreme, last-resort measures involving patent-pending processes that will allow for at least one more read of the media, which in some cases, means the last read.  

The second challenge is conversion. Conversion almost always involves the digital capture of the media: imaging, scanning, audio or video playback and digital capture, and of course, in the case of born-digital media, data restoration. We take great care in building the tool chain that captures and digitizes the original signal as perfectly as possible, aiming to capture the full content and bandwidth that was stored in the original media.

Conversion comes with its own set of hurdles. The media itself was generally designed with some intent at durability, but most of the equipment used to write and read that media was not necessarily built for a decades-long lifespan. However, in order to read and initiate conversion of that legacy media, we need those original machines, and we need them to be in perfect working order. A large part of what we do at Media and Archive Services consists of finding these vintage machines, and then restoring and maintaining them in top notch condition (which is especially important in those last-chance conditions described above). We also build the downstream toolchain that brings the signal and recordings to a 21st century digital life. Much of this equipment is completely obsolete and has ended either in private hands, or in the back of production facilities or auction houses, which leads to some interesting “Indiana Jones meets Storage Wars” adventures. This means that Media and Archive Services archivists and engineers spend more time than you might imagine clicking through eBay, treasure hunting for the perfect antique gear. 

Once the work is in digital form, it is not the end of our preservation mission. In fact, it’s at a critical stage. An isolated piece of digital content has little value to future use and playback if it has not been enriched with thoughtful metadata. Metadata provides not only basic information about a piece of content, but it also informs its usability in different contexts, as well as allowing it to be easily found via search or browsing (a self-evident but essential function!). Thus, the “media lifecycle” portion of the content curation for such a legacy begins: maintaining it in multiple, geographically separated copies, watching out for digital format obsolescence, and maintaining and continually enriching a set of metadata that determines the way the work going to be found, sent back out in the world, and enjoyed.

It’s definitely never “just a day at the office” at Iron Mountain Media and Archive Services.  

I agree with what Prince said, “The grind is real. There are no shortcuts. But what’s the alternative? Don’t quit one meter before you strike gold. Keep moving forward and creating the life of your dreams.”

We at Iron Mountain Media and Archive Services love what we do.

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