Play/back: The Challenge of Selection in Audio Archives

A couple weeks ago, on September 30, the NEH sponsored “Play/back,” a symposium on audiovisual preservation. As one of the planners of the event, I put together a panel of archivists and scholars who talked about collection building. Originally created around the theme of “Appraising Our Audiovisual Heritage,” the panel discussed various projects that have created or identified materials that are of use to humanities-focused inquiry, including community representation, oral history, documentation, jazz history, and new modes of analysis. Here’s a lightly edited version of my introduction to the panel:

Let me begin by telling you a bit more about the spirit and ideas that frame this session. We are all here because we care about addressing the many hurdles remain in our race to steward and ensure meaningful access to audiovisual cultural heritage resources. I’m sure many of you are familiar with some of the major challenges: Many reports from the cultural heritage sector have focused attention on the physical degradation of legacy audio and moving image recordings; much playback equipment may be nearing the end of usable life and replacement parts are difficult to come by; and needs remain to convey the knowledge and skills and educate new professionals in transferring legacy media. The large amount of recorded material on at-risk analog formats, and the growing amounts created and preserved digitally, may exceed the resources available to manage this content for the long term, which suggests that we face pressing issues about selecting content to be preserved; these choices will carry critical consequences for the cultural heritage community. At the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives meeting, held at the Library of Congress earlier this week, Will Prentice from the British Library voiced this issue when he asked: “If we carry on with business as usual, will we be able to save our audio and moving image collections?”

Humanists and others must lend their voices to the preservation conversation, particularly to inform the choices around selection of audio recordings for preservation, rather than leaving the issue to benign neglect or survival of the fittest.

In some ways akin to the “Brittle Books” crisis, in which NEH played a major part in the 1990s, the challenge of preserving audiovisual materials is complex. Many items are in unknown condition and are scattered among institutions. Some are held by public and private institutions, others by individual collectors. The combination of physical degradation and the absence of playback equipment has led some to declare that these materials must be reformatted in the near future, perhaps within a 10 to 15 year time horizon, or risk being permanently lost. In the 1990s, as the preservation community feared the loss of millions of volumes to the “slow fire” of acidic paper, Patricia Battin, recipient of a 1999 Humanities Medal, suggested that humanists and others have an “obligation” to lend their voices to the conversation, particularly to inform the “difficult choices” around selection for preservation, rather than leaving the issue to benign neglect or survival of the fittest.

Such issues were among those that motivated NEH to sponsor this symposium. But our hope in this event is to look into meaningful actions that we are taking now, to spark productive collaboration, and to spur this cross-domain conversation: to bring together archivists, scholars, educators, and other humanists who have a stake in using and accessing audio and moving image resources, but may be isolated from the work of preservation. Humanists, including oral historians, anthropologists, musicologists, linguists, and folklorists, along with educators, students, and cultural producers, are often unaware of the technical challenges involved in preserving audiovisual materials. As more content is turned or created digital, the methods for effectively analyzing it, discovering it, and making use of it in research and teaching remain underdeveloped. YET, Humanists can articulate the value of audiovisual content for research, teaching, and other cultural heritage work; as a whole, humanities scholars need to become more fully engaged with the serious threat facing our audiovisual heritage. So we hope that what you learn today, and the connections you make here, will seed new conversations and foster further collaboration.

In this spirit of dialogue, we’re structuring our first panel session as a prepared conversation, which we hope leads to further discussions in the breakout sessions to follow. This session, titled “Appraising Audiovisual Heritage,” was designed around ideas theorized by archivists, that of determining whether and why items and collections resources should be sustained for the Long Term.

We hope that the ideas of the session serve as a starter for our cross-domain conversation. As it’s come together, I see that the panel will discuss ways of identifying the sorts of activities that audio and moving image materials support in humanities work, how they may be accessed and repurposed, and we hope, articulate the value of preserving content for these engaging modes in which we communicate human stories.

These were followed by four great presenters, who provided examples of their work:

Video and transcripts of these presentations are in production for the NEH website, so check there soon for more!

I’ve also posted an essay version of this titled “On Purpose, or By Accident? The Challenge to Select in Audio Archives”.

Preservation Week 2015

All you cultural heritage information workers out there, it’s the end of preservation week!

For those not in a library, archive, museum, or other such organization, there are many resources online that can help you to find out more about preservation. Preserving family treasures, keepsakes, or just a few things in the attic? Here’s a few resources where you can find more information:

MI Digital Newspapers Project

An update on Michigan’s digital newspaper project, currently ongoing and some titles now available.

Michigan Archival Association

FYI the Clarke Historical Library has created a portal to the MI Digital Newspaper Project at; We thought that you or some of your associates or patrons might be interested in knowing this. For further information you can contact Kim Hagerty at

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Green Bytes: Sustainable Digital Preservation TwitterVerse

A panel discussion titled “Green Bytes: Sustainable Approaches to Digital Stewardship” was held this morning at the Library of Congress‘s Digital Preservation 2013 meeting. On the panel were David Rosenthal (Stanford University), Kris Carpenter (Internet Archive), and Krishna Kant (George Mason University and National Science Foundation), with panel organizer and chair Joshua Sternfeld (National Endowment for the Humanities).

The panel took up questions of how we think about making digital preservation more sustainable. As we realize that digital information is not ephemeral, but requires significant resources of time, money, and energy, how will we make sure that we can still be able to access, read, and use the information that we create?

Here are a few of my favorite (mostly my favorites) tweets during the panel. The first are about the deeper questions: what are we preserving? Why? How?

These tweets mention some of the panel ideas:

A quote from Krishna Kant’s slides:

Kris Carpenter mentioned some uses of data center heat that the Internet Archive staff has mentioned:

Here’s an excerpt from the panel abstract, as linked from the announcement on The Signal:

As our digital cultural and scientific heritage grows at an exponential rate, it is often easy to overlook the underpinning material costs. Data, of course, are not “virtual” or “ephemeral”; rather, every byte requires resources to ensure its reliable storage and accessibility. Recent reports suggest that data management currently taxes upwards of 2% of total global energy consumption. The data center is quickly emerging as a counterpart to the “analog” storage facility as one of the central infrastructural components of our preservation ecosystem.

Current research into the sustainability of data centers, especially in the commercial sector, would suggest that there is plenty of room to improve energy efficiency. The greening of data centers has led to innovations in every facet of their operations, from retrofitting buildings in order to recalibrate air flow and cooling, to adopting computational strategies that reduce the load on spinning hard drives. This panel will explore how approaches to achieving green sustainability already underway in otherindustries could be adopted by the digital preservation community.

David Rosenthal’s remarks can be found here at his blog.

Recent Tweets and an Exotic Dance, or, The Joy of Archiving

Two January entries from my tweet diaries.

The first is about professional identity:

The second was a response to one of my tweets by the guru of archives social networking, Kate Theimer (@archivesnext):

The original tweet

was in regards to the Folkways album “Exotic Dances,” which you can view in its scanned glory (newly available via the beautiful new Smithsonian Collections Search Center) below:

Exotic Dances (FP 52/FW 8752, 1950) selected by La Meri

Ethnography and Information

Coming from a background deeply rooted in cultural anthropology—that is, ethnomusicology—I find ethnography to be an important research technique. Ethnography has drawbacks and there are major representational challenges and questions about ethnography as a method, but I’ll save those for another place and time. So, I was excited to see a post on Hack Library School about ethnography’s utility for studies in libraries.

There are a lot of ways to talk about ethnography. Ethnography can refer to a mode of presenting research (it literally refers to how you write about culture) as well as a research method. Basically, ethnography encompasses activities by researchers who say, “Hey, let’s actually go and see what’s going on in this place or among these people, ask about what they’re doing, write it down, analyze it, then write some more.” Lots of people talk about it as doing participatory observation (that comes from Malinowski) or semi-structured interviews (perhaps a bit more sociological). Both are possible techniques, but anthropologists and other ethnographers do a lot of different things. Clifford Geertz described ethnographic methods as “deep hanging out” (1988), and Michael Agar describes ethnographers as “professional strangers” who are often investigating unfamiliar situations among people they do not know. I’m partial to Barbara Tedlock’s suggestion of “observant participation,” which suggests the researcher’s inalienable active role in the process. This is only a smattering of phrases with no particular synthesis. I just throw them out there.

The point is, I’m happy to see that ethnography has become at least a topic of interest, if not a standard approach, to researchers in libraries and other information areas, and it seems to be gaining traction. Ashley Wescott writes,

there is tremendous professional value in going out into the field and getting our hands dirty. Ethnographic study and fieldwork can help us with library service in a similar way–it’s another intersection for theory and practice. We can’t just depend on the data, trends and research reported by others to give us an accurate view of the people we serve. Taking a deep dive into the culture of our community can help us appreciate and understand the people we work for while providing on-target, authentic service.

One of my favorite things about Ashley’s post is that she begins with Alan Lomax and ethnomusicology! It’s not often that ethnomusicology is pointing the way, so it’s exciting to see that happening here.

Ethnography is an approach that could also be useful to help understand how people do research in archives. I’m currently using ethnographic (and other qualitative) methods to understand how researchers make use of materials in sound archives, and particularly on account of the methods, I’m very excited about the possibilities of this research. Another notable project is ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries), which combined expertise of anthropologists and librarians to look at how undergraduates use research resources in university libraries. The project illustrates the wide variety of methods that can be used in an ethnographic project. More detailed reports from the ERIAL project are available through the Academic Commons.

Note: I previously contributed Hack Library School‘s roundup post of student experiences at the SAA 2011 meeting edited by Rose Chou.