Project to Survey the Audio and Moving Image Collections of Columbia University

In 2005, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation generously provided support to the Columbia University Libraries (CUL) to develop and test a surveyinstrument to inventory and assess the physical condition andintellectual control of audio and moving image materials.

I. The Survey Instrument

A Microsoft Access relational database, the instrument is designed to work similarly to the Special Collections survey tool. It allows for, but does not require, collection of a great deal of detail about each item. Most fields provide drop-down menus to minimize keying and to assure consistent use of vocabulary. Technical terminology is based on that used by the Audio Engineering Society, Association of Moving Image Archivists, and other relevant organizations.

The instrument provides a mechanism for (1) recording quantities and types of audio and moving image materials in each collection, (2) documenting the physical condition of the media and their housings, (3) collecting information about existing levels of intellectual control and intellectual property rights, and (4) evaluating the potential research value of each collection. A five-point scale is employed to rank items from high to low in each area.

Basic survey-wide reports and collection-specific reports can already be generated. Additional detailed reports will be designed to rank collections by research importance, degree of physical damage, and lack of intellectual control, thereby allowing institutions to set priorities and establish long-term plans for preservation of their audio and moving image materials. The tool will also generate a report that will include a preservation priority ranking based on these factors.

II. The Survey

The survey instrument is undergoing thorough testing in a survey of all the rare and unique audio and moving image materials held by CUL. The survey is visual only, i.e., no playback of any item is being attempted. The libraries included in this survey are: the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, the Burke Library of Union Theological Seminary, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML, which includes the Oral History Research Office), the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, and the Gabe M. Wiener Music and Arts Library.

The methodology for the survey can be summarized as follows:

  • 1. Identifying items for the survey
  • 2. Creating access, retrieval, and return protocols
  • 3. Surveying items while using said protocols
  • 4. Inventorying University collections external to CUL

1. Identifying items for the survey

  • The targeted materials are found in three groups: the Music Library includes a section of rare commercial recordings and several collections of unique recordings made by campus organizations; the Oral History Research Office archive contains interviews recorded since the 1940s; and the other libraries hold A/V materials scattered throughout their archival and manuscript collections.

2. Creating access, retrieval, and return protocols

  • In collaboration with public service staff at the participating libraries, we have developed special protocols for retrieving and returning items from two off-campus facilities to assure that materials are tracked throughout the process and that the staff are notified when a given item enters the survey. The delivery and notification protocols are working well. We have also secured access protocols to the on-campus collections.

3. Surveying items

  • Physical examination of materials began in March 2006 and a schedule has been developed to assure that all collections will be surveyed within the project timeline. The survey instrument is refined weekly based on experience gained through use, and it is proving to be flexible and ergonomic, while efficiently collecting far more detail about audio and moving image materials in CUL collections than has ever been available. Our estimate is that CUL holds approximately 40,000 items to be surveyed.

4. Inventorying University collections external to CUL

  • We are also gathering information about 71 other Columbia University units, outside of the Libraries, that are likely to hold audio and moving image materials. From this information, we will assemble a list of collections that are potentially of high research value. The list will be used to help guide the University in planning for access to and preservation of these materials.


The School of the Arts, the School of Journalism, and the Medical Center are among the larger units being inventoried.