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Archives: Turning Collective Wisdom into Strength

The following excerpt is based on the book Tomorrow’s Jobs Today, available at fine booksellers from John Hunt Publishers.

“If there’s one thing I admire the most among the younger members of our field, it is their dedication to recognizing the path that is the worthiest… to their colleagues, to the collections, to the world they work and live in.

Andrea Kalas of Paramount Pictures

More from the interview

If there’s one thing I admire the most among the younger members of our field, it is their dedication to recognizing the path that is the worthiest… to their colleagues, to the collections, to the world they work and live in.” ~Andrea Kalas

Andrea Kalas is a former President of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Before her current role as SVP of Archives at Paramount Pictures, she led the preservation program at the British Film Institute. She received her bachelor’s in film from Temple University and finished her master’s in film at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Q: Andrea, we now exist in a world of accessible digital archives, but this new paradigm has ushered in an entirely new set of preservation challenges. You’ve spoken and taught at length about one of them, bit loss, and how it affects the race to preserve not just America’s rich film history, but the cinematic treasures around the world. How does a global team like yours prioritize its goals as it races against the clock?

A: Digital preservation has the basic goal of avoiding bit loss, technically. However, the work that requires technologists and archivists to collaborate effectively involves the treatment of files as valuable records, art, or artifacts. This goes against so much of how basic information technology systems work. For example, the word “archive” has been used as a term to mean data written off-line and put on removable media on a shelf, never to be touched again. This is a sure path to bit loss. For an archivist, this definition is counterproductive. It as much about communication and clear technical requirements from archivists as it is building technical solutions.

What we’ve developed is an infrastructure that makes sure there are multiple copies of our feature films, and that each file that makes up that film is checked annually. We’ve also worked hard at making sure that we’ve architected things so that as hardware and software change, which they inevitably do, the files and metadata that make up that film can survive. This keeps us on track with what we have to preserve. That and the incredibly brilliant archivists who work with me and bring innovation to the process as it evolves.

Q: Beyond the importance of posterity in the arts, what are the benefits of preservation for large intellectual property firms like those in the entertainment business?

A: Entertainment companies base their business plans on the ability to distribute films and television programs over the long-term and benefit from the preservation of their intellectual property both financially and culturally. The cultural aspect is often called in business terms, “branding,” or the public recognition of the value of that company. A film studio that demonstrates it cares as much about a film that has excellent public and cultural appreciation as it has financial benefit enhances its brand. These two reasons are why those who own intellectual property have a duty of care. We have some titles we distribute for a short period and others for which we have long-term rights. It is the latter we preserve.

Q: Much of the credit for modern advances in artificial intelligence goes to academics like Fei-Fei Li at Stanford, who built large image data sets. Now we’re seeing software vendors developing tools for visual asset management that integrate machine learning to auto-classify large volumes of assets. Are solutions like this on the horizon for organizations like yours?

A: I’m excited about the tools that are available to archivists based on the incredible advances in this field. One of the quotes I use from Fei Li is “human values define machine values.” To me that not only reminds me of her guidance on how to include all types of humans in interpretation, it also points to the phenomenal work of so many in the field of library science who have spent over a century on concepts like classification and subject headings which address the same challenge: how to bring structure to a collection of knowledge.

Perhaps it is happening somewhere, but I have yet to see an AI demonstration from the companies who are selling this service say, “and we’ve incorporated the Library of Congress standards on motion picture genres.” We can and should continue to argue about the way a definition is assigned to any one object, but why haven’t the machines learned from the humans who have already done a lot of research around these kinds of definitions? I’d love to see that.

 Q: As we welcome a new generation of librarians, archivists, and data professionals, what are you observing in terms of their attitudes towards these roles given their upbringing in a wholly digital world? What positive qualities are we seeing in these individuals that separate them from the pack?

A: Maybe the cliché millennial is not attracted to archiving, but those who I have worked with in that age group have only taught me how to be open to new ideas; how to collaborate; how to use algorithms to solve mundane problems so we can all concentrate on the more significant issues. I feel lucky to be challenged by intelligent people, no matter their age or demographic designation. If there’s one thing I admire the most among the younger members of our field, it is their dedication to recognizing the path that is the worthiest, to their colleagues, to the collections, to the world they work and live in.

Q: One of our goals here is to identify common themes that run across all cultures and shared disciplines. Is there one concept or rule you feel is ubiquitous across the records, data, and archives landscape?

A: I think for the past 25 years, or so our heads have been down as we’ve been trying to bridge an analog-to-digital transition. That’s given us an incredible perspective on legacy approaches, legacy systems, and legacy decisions against how new technologies and techniques can completely change our work. It’s time to lift our heads and look around and talk to each other. I’m so glad you are doing this through this series of interviews. Although we need to be experts in our corner of the field – legal, entertainment, historical records, corporate governance, we need each other now more than ever to discover where our collective wisdom can turn into a strength.

Q: What guidance would you give a person just beginning their career in library science, archiving, and data governance or thinking about a career transition?

A: I have a very tired joke about what it takes to work in the Paramount Archives. Study Sunset Boulevard as hard as you study Unix. The point is to start with the collection and the work you have in front of you. Find what it is about it that is fascinating. Is it silent films from India? Is it how systems can work together better because you see connections others don’t? My too-often repeated piece of advice is to make sure this is the field you want to work in because of the people working in it. I’ve been able to meet some fair-minded, innovative people who think a little like me. Many are long-time friends. I’m grateful for that.

To read more about incredible careers like Andrea’s and change your life in the information age, buy the book today!