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Meeting Report:
Canada’s Audio-Visual Legacy is Fading Away

Canadians possess an exceptionally valuable cultural heritage, and without it there cannot be a complete under- standing of who we are, where we have come from, and the unique and common experiences which created our individual and shared identities. Film, video and sound recordings are vital components of our collective memory. They are the animate testimonials of our achievements over the past 100 years, documenting for all generations to come the hopes, the successes and the differences that have informed the views we hold of ourselves, of the world and of our visions for the future.

Not Only in Canada. This dilapidated elevator shaft is what remains of the building in Richmond, IN, that once housed The Starr Piano Company.

This vast source of information, inspiration and creativity...is threatened. Through technological obsolescence, negligence and physical degradation of audio-visual materials, we are losing large parts of our recorded past. Jean Pierre Wallot, National Archivist of Canada, June 1995.

Vital elements of Canada’s audio-visual legacy are disappearing, deteriorating and becoming increasingly inaccessible — and the rate of these alarming losses is accelerating. Audio-visual materials — film, video and sound recordings — are inherently fragile, subject to rapid physical degradation and technological obsolescence. Urgent intervention is required.

In 1994, the Minister of Canadian Heritage supported the creation of the Task Force on the Preservation and Enhanced Use of Canada’s Audio-Visual Heritage, with a one-year mandate to identify and study the issues and develop an action plan. In June 1995, after an exhaustive cross-country consultation process involving dozens of special and public interest groups, the Task Force published its report, Fading Away: Strategic Options to Ensure the Protection of and Access to Our Audio-Visual Heritage. And in January of this year, plans were made public to form a "consortium" of key players charged with the responsibility of implementing the recommendations contained in the report and undertaking specific initiatives.

The work of the Task Force and the proposed action plan was the focus of a presentation at CAPS February meeting. The Society’s two visiting speakers prefaced their talk with a video titled Fading Away. It reminded those present of a number of sobering facts. For example, of the twenty feature films produced in Canada between 1913 and 1929 only one has survived. Thousands of hours of television programming on video tape have been erased. Only a handful of Canada’s earliest recordings for radio broadcasts — recorded on glass acetate discs during the 1920s and 1930s — remain. And of the many thousands of early cylinder and disc records made during the first quarter of this century the only surviving copies are housed in a few sound archives or in the hands of private collectors.

The well-weathered logo is of the Starr Piano Company's famous Gennett studios, pioneers in recorded jazz.

Jeannette Kopak, Head of Program Information for the English Network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and Pat Kellogg, Manager of the CBC Radio Archives, and the Corporation’s record and music libraries, walked the sixty members present through the Task Force's report, offered an overview of the issues, and discussed "next steps". Jeannette talked from the perspective of a member of one of the Task Force's study groups; Pat from the point of view of someone actively involved in a number of ongoing sound preservation projects.

The issues to be resolved include: the selection process and criteria to be used in deciding what film, video and sound recordings to retain and preserve (and what technology to use in the latter); the facilities and technical expertise required for the physical preservation of this material (including how to access now obsolete playback and copying equipment); the storage of material in environmentally safe and accessible facilities; a description of holdings and how interested parties can access this information; the recognition and protection of both intellectual property rights and commercial interests; and, the required human and financial resources.

The responsibility for a successful action plan must be shared, stressed Jeannette. Often the mandates of interested parties can be at conflict. By way of an example, she explained: "The CBC — the country’s largest creator of audio-visual content — abdicated its responsibility for preservation, allowing the National Archives to step in and do the job for us. This has caused a number of problems for both organizations. The CBC sees its archives as its corporate assets, to be exploited if possible, and the National Archives sees... CBC's archives as a National, cultural treasure to be preserved. The National Film Board and Ontario Cinematheque have similar problems."

A national strategy to save Canada’s audio-visual legacy will focus on the preservation of: audio visual recordings (including unedited material) produced before 1940; Canadian films and sound recordings produced before 1950; television and radio programs produced in Canada before 1960; Canadian sound recordings produced and published before 1970; Canadian video recordings in non-standard formats produced independently before 1980 and music videos from the same period.

Jeannette outlined some of the priorities: the need to free up funds to finance the action plan; the establishment of common, regional storage facilities; the creation of a centre of expertise for obsolete and deteriorated formats; the integration of preservation and conservation management into the production of new audio-visual recordings; the research and development of archival standards, and training and exchange pro- grams to advance them.

Work to establish the proposed "consortium" has begun. (For information you can contact: Marielle Cartier, Chief of Audio-Visual and Reference Collections, National Film Board, Montreal, PQ., at [514] 737-5994.) "The intent," commented Jeannette, "is to throw the responsibility for the consortium into the hands of the private sector. Although the National Archives can act as a facilitator and can help with setting it up, the responsibility for the success of the venture lies with those organizations who have a stake in Canada’s audio-visual heritage."