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Howard Besser - Learning Resources

Howard Besser
Professor of Cinema Studies and Director of New York University’s Moving Image Archiving & Preservation Program (MIAP), Senior Scientist for Digital Library Initiatives for NYU’s Library
Interviewed 3/5/2010

Howard Besser discusses working on multiple digitization projects including the first scan and direct digitization of an oil painting by the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley; the first interactive image query system that produced high-quality art images on a computer screen called Image Query; and the complexities of working on a huge multi-institutional project like Museum Educational Site Licensing Project, which involved seven universities, six museums and the Library of Congress.

“Have some vision of the future when you’re doing your little project that would allow your little project to be part of a world of information.”

An eclectic work background
Your career path can be eclectic. It does not have to be linear.

Funding your projects
If you need funding for operations, you could apply for a grant for a very creative project on a hot topic that will also fund operations. Align your ideas with larger campus-wide initiatives. This can help generate support, including staff and funding, for your own ideas.

“It’s not enough to just have a user get an image. They need to be able to do something with it.”
It’s not just about the data. It is about attaching meaning to the data. Users attribute meaning to the data based on their own needs. It is important to remember that we cannot anticipate what users will want to do with the data. Users create value when they use, reuse and repurpose the data to create new things.

Questions to ask when working with materials for a digital collection:
- What types of attributes might the user want to query?
- What type of functions does a user want?
- Will they want to zoom in on it?
- Will they want to be able to save it on their own computer?
- Will they want to link it to a map?
- Will they want to be able to add their own metadata to it?

Prototype projects
Prototype projects are opportunities to figure out the things that you really want, what things can you do without, in what areas you might you need to go in a different direction than you originally envisioned. Have an open and flexible attitude and view. Be open to the possibilities of new ways of thinking and questioning.

Create multi-institutional collaborations and lifelong professional relationships
Think larger and create multi-institutional collaborations. Howard Besser worked on a project that included fourteen institutions: six museums, seven universities and the Library of Congress. Anticipate building lifelong professional relationships with people from working on multi-year multi-institution collaborations. When working on large projects, you will learn “how to try to do a new project, how to work with other people, how to collaborate, how—how to actually get things done.” You will gain experience that can lead to higher-level management positions and full-time project management positions.

“You had to do things to encourage use”
The “if you build it, they will come” notion does not apply to digital collections. You will need to encourage users in order to have users. User adoption is key and this requires promoting and marketing and working directly with users. For example, find ways to encourage faculty to teach with the tools you are producing.

Anticipate problems
Problems that you did not anticipate or envision will come up. You need to have a stable and steady source of income to pay for unanticipated costs of items taking longer than expected or not working as expected.

Project participants need to be valued
Project participants need to know that they have a voice, that they are being listened to and that their contributions and input to the project are being valued. If not, it could result in “a groundswell of opposition to the project management.” Listen to the participants and “make sure there’s a participant voice” by being sensitive to “when things are brewing and there’s murmurs and disgruntlement.” Ensure that those who are devoting significant amounts of time to the project (on top of their own full-time jobs) are appreciated because “if they are not feeling good about the project—then the project is not going to succeed.”

Advice to new people from Howard Besser:
1) For most important things, you should not do them alone. Things are best done in groups.
2) You need both a short-range plan and a long-range vision. For example, know how you might need to scale and change the process of how to work with a collection of 500 objects when that collection grows to 10,000 or 100,000 objects.
3) Your short-range plan has to fit into your long-range vision. For example, how your collection of 500 objects fits with other larger collections. Think through what may be useful data for future unanticipated uses.
4) Have a larger vision for your project: “Have some vision of the future when you’re doing your little project that would allow your little project to be part of a world of information.”

Main issue: Digital preservation
One of the main challenges is digital preservation since the digital files come in so many different formats. How will we be able to open them all up later?

Main issue: Copyright
Copyright is a huge challenge. Copyright for orphan works is one of the biggest challenges since they do not know who owns the rights to so much of the content in repositories. Be cognizant of the TEACH Act, which addresses copyright laws for distance learning and the distribution of media via online classes, since it does not full address moving image materials. See The Copyright Clearance Center’s Copyright Basics: The Teach Act (

Upstream and downstream cataloging
It is necessary to catalog metadata in order to retrieve the material, contextualize and preserve the material. Libraries rely on users in order to gather the metadata downstream. Both content creators upstream and users downstream have to be involved in cataloging metadata. “What we need to be doing is to be pushing the cataloging upstream and downstream. Upstream to the content creators and getting more of the cataloging that we need, more of the information that we need from the creators and downstream to our users and having them contribute the metadata that we need to—to find things.”

A study of workflows of a born-digital public television show indicated that, “there is a huge amount of metadata that we need for retrieval and for preservation that is known at early stages of the production and is thrown away.” Producers need a standard format tool for gathering and documenting the metadata from creating the television show.

Besser co-wrote the following paper on gathering metadata upstream from content producers:

Besser, H. and Van Malssen, K. (2007). Pushing Metadata Capture Upstream into the Content Production Process: Preliminary Studies of Public Television
Retrieved from

From abstract: “This paper examines the issue of metadata lifecycle management, highlighting the need for conscious metadata creation to become part of the digital media production workflow in order to facilitate effective digital curation.”

Do-it-yourself media
Materials in museums and libraries have historically been the “quality material” that “is not representative of the average person.” There is a need to look much more at ephemeral material that’s “produced by ordinary, everyday people as part of ordinary, everyday activities.” Although historically considered marginal, it is very rich and valuable in contributing to understand history and society. YouTube movies are examples of ephemeral material that reflect and describe what people are thinking about and discussing topically today. The NYU Orphan Film Symposium showcases “all manner of films outside the commercial mainstream: amateur, educational, ethnographic, industrial, government, experimental, censored, independent, sponsored, obsolescent, small-gauge, silent, student, medical, unreleased, and underground films, as well as kinescopes, home movies, test reels, newsreels, outtakes, fringe TV, and other ephemeral moving images” (

Outdated copyright laws
The pre-internet copyright laws are ill-equipped to handle today’s modern artistic creations, which are “pastiches of previously created things;” new creations are “riffed” where “you take something that someone else made and you re-edit it and put other things around it,” thereby making it your own new creation. As “custodians of culture and our cultural heritage,” we must be concerned about not only with collecting and preserving these materials but also allowing people to be able to re-use and re-purpose the materials.

“Third spaces”
“Libraries are not primarily about that physicality. They’re about a place. They’re about a civic engagement and fostering civic engagement.” Libraries and museums are described in IMLS report on future of museums and libraries as “third spaces” that “foster civic engagement.” Being “third spaces” gives libraries the opportunity to remain relevant to communities and to become introduced to new audiences. These audiences may not be interested in the library’s physical objects or physical spaces.

In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg defines the significance of the third place in a healthy society. Neither work nor home, the third place is a neutral community space, where people come together voluntarily and informally in ways that level social inequities and promote community engagement and social connection. As public gathering places organized around public service and the transfer of information and ideas across individuals, museums and libraries are a unique form of the third place because of their distinct resources as easily accessible, low-cost barrier places rich in content and experience. (Pastore, p. 9)

Pastore, E. (2009). The future of museums and libraries: A discussion guide (IMLS-2009-RES-02). Washington, D.C. Institute of Museum and Library Services. Retrieved from

Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, 3rd ed. (Jackson, TN: Da Capo Press, 1999).