Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Interview with the Manager of the Media Libraries: Ilse Assmann

Ilse Assmann
Manager: SABC Media Libraries
The Media Libraries is a SABC information hub. It was formed in 1996 by bringing together the relevant units to provide content and information to Radio and TV, both audio and print. The Media Libraries currently comprises the SABC Radio Archives, the SABC Music Library, the SABC Record Library, the SABC Information Library, and the SABC Sound Restoration Unit. Ilse Assmann has been the Manager since 2006.

Ilse, with the assistance of Media Library colleagues, led and guided the implementation of the Information Management Project, which included the roll-out of the approved File Plan under the custodianship of the Company Secretariat. She is currently leading the proposed merger of all SABC archives and libraries to form an integrated Information Management & Archives unit as part of the SABC Turnaround Strategy.

Please give us a short overview of your life and career. (Where you grew up, where and what you studied and your work experience before you became the Manager of the SABC Media Libraries)

I was born in Pretoria but never lived there. We were always on the move because of the nature of my father’s work and we lived in Rustenburg when I wrote matric. I then went to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth to study music and did extremely well in socialising, but not so well in my music studies. However, I completed a music qualification, and went on to teach music in Franshhoek, Western Cape. After a year I decided to move closer to home and accepted a teaching post in Middelburg, Mpumalanga. The SABC approached me in 1985 for a position in the Radio Archives. At the time I had to look up the word "archive" in the dictionary to see what it was I was letting myself in for. For some reason I was given the job and fell head over heels in love with it. 
I went on to obtain a BA and BA Hons degree at the University of Johannesburg. The SABC gave me the opportunity to do a management course at UNISA in the mid 1990’s and soon after UNISA enabled audiovisual archivists to enrol for their Advanced Archive Course, which a few of us did. Currently I am busy with an M.Com in Knowledge and Information Management at the University of Johannesburg.

My work at the SABC has been varied over the years in spite of the perception that archivists work in isolation. I became very involved with archive organisations and activities, and tried to ensure that the SABC Media Libraries and audiovisual archives in general receive the recognition they deserve. I think there has been an improvement since our "early" days in the 1980’s, and that the role of audiovisual archives is gaining more recognition. Audiovisual Archives play a crucial role in the preservation of the world’s collective memory.

Please tell us about a normal day in your office.

A usual day is packed with meetings, responding to emails, writing reports, attending to admin and too many cups of coffee.
I meet regularly with my team to discuss work and plan how to improve our services and ensure our collections are properly preserved and used. It is common for businesses to spend money on staff, storage and equipment, without being sufficiently aware of their archives and how they can be best utilised. We have over the last few years embarked on a few initiatives to "market" ourselves better in the SABC. Your social media initiative is a good example of this and is very exciting.

As you mentioned in the introduction, the Media Libraries is the umbrella over the Information Library, which includes a books, magazine and newspaper cuttings collection. The newspaper cuttings collection dates back to 1927 and is a great source for researchers; the Record Library, which really is a music library with its huge collections of vinyl (LPs) and CD recordings; the Radio Archives with its long history of audio going back to the first broadcast by General Jan Smuts in 1927, but also including copies of the first South African recordings in 1906; A Sound Restoration Unit, which does the re-mastering and restoration of the SABC Transcription collection; and the Music Library, which includes not only beautiful instruments such as valuable piano’s and harps, but also safeguards music scores, some still in the handwriting of the composer. In addition to these collections, we also oversee the functions of the Regional Media Libraries. There are currently 9 regional or provincial Media Libraries, catering primarily for the needs of the Radio Stations in those regions.

Digitisation is a very exciting future prospect and we are eager to get on board. We have made a start by putting the Information Library catalogues on the SABC Intranet – eventually we would like all our catalogues to be available on the Intranet first and later the Internet. We also started to experiment with workflows to see what the result and effect of changed workflows will have and so far it looks very promising. Our biggest challenge, apart from changing workflows, will be to digitise our legacy collections, but I am sure that once we have tasted the first successes of internal digital access countrywide, as well as the online receipt and cataloguing of our collections, everybody will be on board and excited.

Please tell us about the implementation of the Information Management Project.

The Information Management Project was very challenging as we had to implement for all practical purposes, Records Management, in the SABC.  It involved drafting a corporate File Plan, getting approval from the National Archive, and getting buy-in from the SABC management and staff. It also introduced us to formal project management, which was a learning curve for me and my team. I was very fortunate to have had a great team and support from our CFO, who was also the Executive Sponsor. Part of rolling out the project, was to build a storage area, the Written Archive, for the SABC’s paper records. We are currently working to systematically capture all our older paper records on an indexing system we acquired for this purpose. The next step will be to obtain a suitable Electronic Records Management System. This is being investigated at the moment.

We are currently working on a very exciting project which is a proposed integrated Information Management and Archive (IM&A). It is part of the SABC’s Turnaround Strategy and we hope that the Board will approve our proposal. The IM&A will, for the first time, consolidate all the archive and library services in the SABC, both Radio and TV, inclusive of print, audio and video, and will integrate workflows in preparation for the Digitisation Project. This is an extremely challenging but exciting project. The integrated workflows will mean that radio archivists will need to learn about video archiving and TV archivists will have to learn more about sound. Naturally we have resistance from people who have been doing the same job for a long time and who have been reporting to the same division over many years. We have to very carefully plan how to overcome the resistance and at the same time ensure that the integration will be successful.

Do you have any issues with regard to technical difficulties and the scope of the collections?

As with all audiovisual archives, we experience challenges with regard to obsolete equipment, deteriorating sound carriers, new digital equipment and carriers and recommendations from suppliers that do not necessarily meet the archive requirements. As we are members of IASA (International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives, www.iasa-web.org) we are up to date with standards and trends in the archive world regarding technical and other archival matters. IASA has become known for establishing standards in the industry and is widely respected as such by e.g. the EU and UNESCO. 

Tell us more about the collections that your department oversees, and future plans with regard to digitization.

Our collections are huge and we simply do not have the necessary staff to deal with the full extent of our collections. In the regions, we have an even bigger problem with only one archivist assigned to a Radio Stations’ collection.  But the Media Library has a very willing and enthusiastic team that tackles challenges head-on and together we are looking to find solutions. Experimenting with workflows in the Radio Archives and the Information Library is one way to see how we can overcome some of the bottlenecks. We hope, and know it will take more than “hope”, that the digital workflows will assist our work in a positive way so that the work becomes more manageable.

Do you have an interesting anecdote about the collections during your years here at the SABC?

There were so many! Dealing with collectors and trying to make sure that our catalogues are extensive always lead to interesting stories. This also led to many great mentors who guided me along the way, for which I am very grateful.  How to answer your question adequately in this space? I think I’ll rather invite you for coffee!

Tell us why you enjoy doing the work that you do.

I guess I have always liked history, and I like the fact that broadcast archives are much more immediate than our paper archive equivalent.  I am also curious by nature. But it was the technology and the access to information that grabbed my attention when I started in the Radio Archives. I worked with the contemporary music collection and had to catalogue music genres about which I knew nothing at the time. This led to extensive listening through our catalogues and various research projects, which in turn led to field work (oral history interviews and recordings). These days it is still the technology, but the added challenge of making ourselves more accessible that gets me up in the morning. It is very, very satisfactory when we get a nod of approval from our clients or when a new client discover us and is excited about what we have to offer.

My years in management have made me to appreciate the teams I work with, and I find it very rewarding when I see how initiatives such as your social media project gets off the ground. We have a few projects in the Media Library, all driven by people like you and all exciting and successful. Looking back and seeing the progress actually made is equally pleasing.

Working with information the way we do, the technology, the challenges, the people - what is there not to like about my job?

Related posts:
Interview with the Principal Librarian at the SABC Information Library
The weekly archivist interview with the Manager of the SABC Radio Archives

Questions and blog post by Karen du Toit, Afrikaans Archivist in the SABC Radio Archives


  1. Hi Ilse,I don't want to lie or anything this is is good,at first I've read Karen's one now this I'm so happy I don't even know what to say..My name is Vuoykazi Mbendeni working at Buffalo City Muicipality Public Library,I passed my matric in 2000,then in 2001 I went to the University of Fort Hare doing Library and Information Science till 2002,I dropped out due to financial constrait I couldn't finish my Diploma.In 2005 I got this job as a librarian since then till to date,also in 2007 I have done a National Certificate in Archival Studies in Unisa,and to work in this field its my passion but I feel Like I haven't done enough I still want to abroad my knowledge,to look at your interview its a great pleasure I wish I can meet you,all in all you are inspiring me to stay on this field and go on with my career.Thanks a lot.

  2. Hi

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