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An Archivist’s Take on Partymanners

I read yesterday’s post at The Rail regarding ‘Partymanners,’ the undisputed horse racing king of YouTube, with great interest – it’s a relatively rare occurrence when my professional and hobby worlds collide. Many of my regular readers are vaguely aware that I’m an archivist. Most probably think that has something or other to do with old papers (which it does), but a major element of my work (and, indeed, that of almost every archivist working in the field today) is worrying about digital preservation and access. I spend far more time in front of a computer (albeit one in a windowless basement room, thus maintaining the stereotype) than I do with dusty/musty papers and Paracelsus.

The brilliant thing Partymanners has done is to make racing replays widely (and much more quickly than official sources) available – if I’m on the road, I can always watch a race I missed on my iPhone via YouTube, but can almost never get other replay sites (including links embedded in, say, Thoroughbred Times articles) to work. (I should probably add that this appeals to my inner user interface geek as well).

So, score one for access – however, problems of longer-term access and preservation are still lingering. What’s happening to old racing films held by, say, NYRA or Magna? Are they being left to turn into vinegar? (For those not familiar with film preservation, this is a real problem). Is there any sort of plan for long-term preservation of these films and videos? The clips Partymanners uploads tend to be from VHS transfers – so already a second-generation product at best. In theory one should be able to rely on television companies to maintain their media archives in the long term, but just try asking the BBC for all those missing early ‘Doctor Who’ episodes.

And preservation isn’t as simple as transferring those decaying films to a digital format and burning them onto a DVD – not only would some require conservation before transfer, but the DVD format does not, in reality, provide the magic century-long lifespan some had hoped for. It’s good to have a DVD backup, but nothing really replaces proper treatment of the original (regardless of format) and any good digitization plan requires some thought of future migration to different formats. Are you still using your 3.5″ floppy disks for anything? (Even if you still had them and a machine capable of reading them, much of the data has likely disappeared by now anyway – they actually degraded pretty quickly in most instances).

With no central authority in racing and with racing films and videos made by so many different agencies, it may seem like bringing them into a single repository for preservation and future access is impossible. I would beg to differ – if anything, it would greatly simplify things. Surveying, cataloging and creating long-term preservation plans is what we do – putting everything together in one (appropriately climate-controlled) place would make that easy. Bringing the collections together could also make it easier to apply for preservation grants – again, that’s what we do.

For those worried about copyright, well, that’s yet another Thing Archivists Do. We certainly don’t own the copyright to every image, journal, diary or film in the collections I work with at My Real Job – but that doesn’t mean we can’t provide access to them. It’s up to the researcher (or filmmaker, or genealogist, etc.) to determine who does own the copyright (if we don’t already know) and to take appropriate measures to ensure they aren’t violating it – especially if there’s a commercial aspect to the project. Most archives have standard legal agreements for this sort of work – I spend at least a portion of every day going over this sort of paperwork.

A popular movement in current archival practice is to put out reasonable-quality images and video on sites like YouTube, flickr or the Internet Archive for free – with clear directions on how those seeking high-quality versions for commercial use can do so (everyone from the Independence Seaport Museum to the Library of Congress is getting in on the action). Partymanners is filling that first void, since no official racing body seems willing or able to move into this field, but the second (revenue-generating) piece is missing.

I would love to see the NTRA or the Jockey Club actually take an interest in bringing America’s racing footage together into one single repository – and for them to have an ongoing project of getting historic films up onto YouTube (or whatever replaces YouTube in the future) while ensuring their long-term preservation. There are plenty of good out-of-work archivists out there who could easily take on this job (seriously, someone please hire them – I can give you names!) – and they could continue to work with fan ambassadors like Partymanners to keep horses like Sunday Silence and John Henry from fading from public memory.

A quick note for my archivist/digital humanities friends reading – anyone want to kick around ideas for making this happen at THATCamp this year? It could be done…

13 comments to An Archivist’s Take on Partymanners

  • irish_1

    Great article, but I shutter at the thought of the Jockey Club controlling all of something else. Don't they have enough monopolies on information that they choose not to make accessible?

  • dana

    you should put a business plan in front of Minor Halsey

  • Superfecta

    I don't think they'd be controlling them as much as providing cash and space – information wants to be free, after all – but it's certainly a point to consider.

    Dana, I bet Minor could just find room at his place in Williamsburg – plenty of local resources to call upon there, too.

  • Colins Ghost

    Great post! Businesses do not think in terms of history. They are, by far, the toughest entities to do the right thing by their historical records. NYRA, MAGNA, etc. who hold historical films and videos likely believe that they have a business reason to retain material but have no idea how to properly take care of it. Add to this, the limited number of research institutions who have the collecting focus or resources to take on significant collections of film and video. While the Keeneland library would be the ideal home for racing films and video, one wonders if they have the capacity to take on – what I am sure – would be a monumental (and expensive) project At the very least, let's hope that NYRA and other racing entities take some preservation actions before its too late.

  • dana

    If Minor wants to save racing, creating something along the lines of "The Society for the Historical Preservation of Horse Racing" might not be a bad start… and I can think of two excellent archivists and a couple of history buffs who would be the perfect team to help make that happen!

  • Steven

    Good post, important issue. A logical candidate to spearhead a preservation effort might be the Keeneland Library. We donated DRF's historical archive of newspapers to them when they opened their new facility a few years back.

  • Anonymous

    Secretariat's racing footage is so grainy I can barely see him.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, digital file-based preservation is the best way to archive/save this content forever, provided the original isn't too degraded already.
    The technology available for archive/playout servers is pretty astonishing and low cost relative to the early days. And don't forget: if you upload content to social networking sites, you relinquish ownership of that version of it. Privately branded sites with VOD/streaming capability would be the way to go.
    How you make the business case (ringtone model, pay per download/race) is up to the "owners" or librarians. Maybe grants or underwriting from the JKC or other racing alphabets.

  • Anonymous

    Wonder what happened to all the Bay Meadows video or any other of the defunct tracks.

  • Anonymous

    The Keeneland Foundation started rounding up old film and video images almost two years ago to provide one central repository and save a lot of footage that would otherwise be lost.
    The project is ongoing.

  • Cangamble

    I'd love to see Woodbine have a data base for old races from the 50's,60's,70's, etc. And especially Greenwood (RIP).

  • beaneater

    A good article, and timely in that I had recently been perusing for videos of old races, and not having fun with what I found. All the comments made here are good as well. The thing that struck me about not finding much video was how horse racing, as an industry, is always trying to reinvigorate the sport, and find a new audience. When we can find a select few grainy Youtube videos of only the greatest horses, is it any wonder people aren't drawn to the Sport? For goodness sakes, ESPN broadcasts of people playing poker is more open to the public than horse racing!

  • Dan M.

    As a document-imaging/database paratechnical and racing fan since age 12, I would love to be part of this. It should be ambitious. A database with every past performance line since 1900 is within the realm of possibility.

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