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An investigation into the world of digitising and archiving

PSNEurope's Marc Maes looks into the workings of VIAA, the Flemish Institute for Archiving, as well as the French-speaking RTBF and the leading Memnon Archiving services

PSNEurope’s Marc Maes takes a deep dive into the world of audiovisual digitising and archiving by investigating the workings of VIAA, the Flemish Institute for Archiving, on its expansive, 12 million euro digitisation project, as well as the French-speaking RTBF and the leading Memnon Archiving services…

More than a decade ago, broadcasters became aware of the importance of safeguarding their audiovisual content for future reference. In Belgium, both Dutch-language public broadcaster’s VRT and French-speaking RTBF have since then gone quite a long way. One of their partners in the project, Brussels-based Memnon Archiving Services, has organically grown to become a world leader in massive digitisation and archiving.

In December 2012, the Flemish government launched VIAA, the Vlaams Instituut voor Archivering (Flemish Institute for Archiving). The institute’s initial mission was to determine, backed by a budget of 12 million Euros, a digitisation project for the audiovisual heritage in Flanders, with broadcasters and cultural heritage institutions such as musea, archives, and libraries. In addition, VIAA had to establish sustainable storage for the digitised content and the future digital increase of the public broadcaster’s archives. A third objective was the launch of a digital platform, opening up the archived content to the public, scientific research and education.


At press time, VIAA, who had been working with annual extensions for their mission since 2014, is preparing a long-term agreement with the Flemish government to be signed early this year. “This is a formal appreciation of what we do,” comments Brecht Declercq, manager of digitisation and acquisition for VIAA. “Five years after the first tape, we are looking at 400,000 audiovisual carriers we digitised, out of a total of some 650,000 in the project, accounting for about 570,000 hours of content. 50 percent of them are audio carriers like ¼” tapes, DAT tapes, audio cassettes, and discs. Much of this material is at risk of being lost because the carriers have become old or fragile, the specific playback equipment is no longer available or it has gone obsolete.”

VIAA started working on the Dutch VRT audiovisual content, accounting for 65 percent of the total heritage inventory and material supplied by commercial and regional stations. “The most jeopardised material came first – today we’re working on a remaining batch of ¼” reels and on the VRT’s collection of 6,000 self-recorded lacquer disks, plus another 11,000 commercial shellac discs, mainly containing Belgian music,” adds Declercq. “Next are the vinyl discs, CDs and DVDs – the digital discs are transferred to audio files for archiving and storage. Simultaneously, VIAA is digitising video formats like VHS and Betacam with DVCAM and DVCPRO, scheduled for this year.”

The strength of VIAA lies in the fact that the organisation gathers the massive heritage content from a wide range of institutions and brings large quantities to the market. VIAA issues a public tender for every digitisation assignment, resulting in affordable rates. “This modus operandi has become a source of inspiration,” continues Declercq. “As secretary general of FIAT/IFTA, I see many countries considering the Flemish cooperative concept. In five to eight years from now, massive digitisation will become a huge problem, with the deterioration of analogue carriers and the high cost of playback equipment.”


As for the disclosure of the digitised heritage material, VIAA opted for educational use. “The Belgian law includes specific author’s rights derogations for educational purposes. As for opening up the content to the public, we still have a long way to go in terms of author’s rights clearance,” admits Declercq. “But with our new website – or www. – we want to reach out to the public. It is an initiative where we share our knowledge, asking the population about their personal audiovisual archives; the website informs them on the various types of audiovisual carriers and how to safeguard their content for future generations. It also includes links to specialised audiovisual digitisation companies.”

In the French-speaking South of Belgium, the Walloon Government, public broadcaster RTBF and the Wallonie-Bruxelles federation set up Sonuma (Société de numérisation et de commercialisation des Archives audiovisuelles – Institute for digitisation and commercialisation of audiovisual archives) in 2009: a public limited company to digitise and commercialise the RTBF’s and local television’s audiovisual content.

“This was quite a challenge, and archiving was never a priority at the RTBF,” explains Stéphane Bayot, head of Archives and Assets management at the RTBF and (interim) director of Sonuma. “Whereas, TV content was quite well preserved, radio and audio files were badly archived – a lot of ¼” tapes were erased and re-used without copying the original content.”

After some 115,500 hours of RTBF audiovisual material was digitised by external companies, Sonuma started the identification process. “Today, most of the audio content has been digitised and archived, altogether some 85,000 hours. A tender bid was won by Memnon Archiving for DAT and compact audio cassettes, and by the Dutch company, Picturae, for the ¼” tapes. We kept the 78T shellac discs for last because that’s a complicated and time absorbing process and we will learn from the expertise acquired by other institutions, especially our VRT colleagues and VIAA,” says Bayot.

The digitised material is stored in three copies: one in a library system, one in a different storage place and one in a Faraday cage. “We keep the original carriers in a box-in-a-box type, insulated and climatised rented warehouse, which often brings up the question, ‘how long will these carriers be stored?’ “The storage is quite expensive – should we continue to invest in a warehouse full of obsolete carriers or decide to invest in more digitisation?”, thinks Bayot.


To facilitate access to the digitised archives, Sonuma set up an asset management system. “We harvested meta-data like journalists’ liner notes and press information from different sources. A team of librarians is checking the spelling of keywords and names, and validating the data for our prototype search engine, which at present contains some 257,000 audio sequences. We decided not to wait until the full inventory was documented to open up the archive. Artificial intelligence and automatic processes (OCR, speech-to-text, etc.) will help us to identify the content of the files and establish a first index level,” continues Bayot. “But I hope we can collaborate with a university team to finetune the documentation of our files.”

Last October, Sonuma announced the transition from a public limited company to a non-profit organisation linked to the RTBF and Ministry of Education. “Our initial mission was to digitise and safeguard our audiovisual heritage – we digitally archived the RTBF’s material and over 40,000 hours of regional TV. It’s our responsibility to disclose this content. Instead of attracting the audience to our website, we decided to go to the public. The RTBF’s Auvio-application is the perfect sounding board, with some 400,000 visions per day. In addition, we set up expositions, education, and partnerships with cultural institutions,” concludes Bayot. “Alongside the use of Sonuma material in the RTBF’s broadcasts, the content is commercially available for professional use via the InaMédiapro platform and for audiovisual productions.”


Brussels-based Memnon Archiving Services was founded in 1989 by Michel Merten and has grown to become a leading service provider in the field of digitisation, management, and commercialisation of audiovisual heritage. The company’s initial activities were digitisation of audio content, followed by video material and, in 2015, film scanning. Today, Memnon is considered as a world leader of large scale projects in sound (WAV 24-bit – 48 or 96 kHz), video and film for radio, the TV and movie industry, national libraries and sports archives.

“We won quite a few of the public tenders to digitise archive material of both the RTBF (through Sonuma) and the VRT (through VIAA, a large customer with us) in audio and video. The Flemish government has made a wise investment with VIAA – they know exactly what needs to be done and act as a hub for smaller archive collections to assemble and assign large quantities to digitisation companies,” says Michel Merten, chief business development officer of Memnon Archiving. “As from 2014, we won large contracts in the Middle East, and the US, where we took on the digitisation of the complete audiovisual archive of the Indiana University, accounting for over 250,000 hours of content.”


The Indiana University project also marked the first time Memnon set up laboratories and equipment on-site and recruited local manpower. “In the past, our trucks picked up the archives, brought them to Brussels where we digitised the content and returned it by truck. Today, we travel to our customers as long as the assignment requires,” explains Merten, adding that, at press time, Memnon is running five operations simultaneously, from 150,000 hours of material in Johannesburg for the South African Broadcast Corporation to a team inside the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid.

“We have grown in what we do and we have expanded geographically, bearing in mind our adage to deliver the best quality by optimising and controlling the process,” underlines Merten. “Today, we look at over 3.5 million hours of digitisation – this would never have been possible without rigorous quality control. In the early days, it required 90 minutes to digitise one hour of content. Our success lies in the optimisation of what we do: multiple parallel players, a self-developed quality control system and full tracking control of the material’s handling and storage.”

In 2015, Memnon was acquired by Sony Professional (Europe) Ltd, enhancing the further development of the company; alongside the geographical expansion and new marketing came the implementation of different systems for adding metadata, indexation tools, and quality control. “We now also help our customers to valorise their content. Not only in terms of money but to make it accessible in an intelligent way,” says Merten. Two years ago, Memnon moved to its current offices: an 1800 m² building serving as flagship for the company’s know-how in massive digitisation, and the headquarters for Memnon’s worldwide operations. A specific Memnon Archiving Services Inc. Innovation Center is serving the US market.

“A lot of people in top-level positions with broadcasters and libraries have realised that time is rapidly running out to safeguard content with the obsolescence of technology, the degradation of carriers and lack of maintenance engineers – that’s where we come in,” concludes Merten.