Turning Collective Wisdom Into Strength – An Interview with Andrea Kalas of the Association of Moving Image Archivists
Andrea Kalas is a recent President of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Prior to her current role at Paramount Pictures as SVP of Archives, she led the preservation program at the British Film Institute. I had the opportunity to sit down with her in June to discuss bit loss, digital asset management, artificial intelligence and the benefits that millennials are bringing to the profession.
Andrea, you’ve spoken and taught at length about the challenges of bit loss and how it affects the race to preserve not just America’s rich film history, but that of other countries and cultures.
How does a global team like yours even begin to prioritize its preservation goals as you race against the clock?
Digital preservation has the basic goal of avoiding bit loss, technically. However, the work that really requires technologists and archivists to effectively collaborate 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 completely counter-productive. 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 to, 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.
Aside from the importance of preserving history and the arts, what are the other benefits of preservation for large intellectual property firms like those in the Entertainment industry?
Entertainment companies who base their business plans on the ability to distribute films and television programs over the long term 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 who demonstrates it cares as much about a film that has great 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. Like many distributors, we have some titles we distribute for a short period of time, and other for which we have long-term rights. It is the latter we preserve.
Some argue that AI was kickstarted by image repository work thanks to the efforts of academics like Fei-Fei Li at Stanford. Companies like Zorroa, for example, are now developing tools for visual asset management that integrate machine learning algorithms so users can auto-classify assets. This must be promising considering the volume of materials we must now manage.
Are projects like this on the horizon for other studios or is it still cost prohibitive?
I’m really excited about the advances in tools that are available to archivists based on the amazing advances in this field . One of the quotes I use from Fei Fei Li is “human values define machine values.” To me that not only reminds me of her invaluable guidance on how to include all types of humans in interpretation, it also points to the great work of so many in the field of library science who have spent over 100 years on concepts like classification and subject headings which address the same exact 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 many 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 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.
As we welcome a new generation of librarians, archivists and now data governance professionals, what are you observing in the attitudes and approaches of millennials towards these disciplines considering they have grown up in a completely digital world?
So much negative publicity has been assigned to this group but what positive benefits are we seeing in these individuals that actually separate them from the pack?
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 most worthy – to their colleagues, to the collections, to the world they work and live in.
One of the goals in this series is to identify common themes that run across all cultures and shared disciplines.
Is there one concept or rule in particular that you feel is ubiquitous across the records, data and archives landscape?
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 approaches can completely change our work. It’s time to lift our heads up 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 strength.
What guidance would you give a young person just beginning their career in information management, archiving and data governance?
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 – start with the collection, 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 other too-often repeated piece of advice is – make sure this is the field you want to work in because of the other people working in it. I’ve been able to meet some absolutely brilliant, fair-minded, innovative people who think a little like me. Many are long-time friends. I’m grateful for that.