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 “Play/back: The Challenge to Select in Audio Archives”.

Public Musicology as Connectivity

The ethnomusicology advisory board of the College Music Society has sponsored a panel at the 2015 CMS meeting about “public musicology.” As previously noted, I suggested that an approach to public musicology must explore the ways in which such an approach could and would develop and explore new connections.

What sorts of connections might a “public musicology” explore? From the scholarly and performance perspectives, it might recombine what some describe as the Cartesian split – the ideological distinction of mind and body; if a “public musicology” is a connective one, then we would want to join together theory and practice. We may want to join education audiences with broader public service opportunities. Connections between music and other academic spheres (sociology, anthropology We may want to connect the aural expressions we often describe as “music” to the social and cultural worlds we inhabit in other spheres of life. It would also connect research approaches, educational approaches, and performance in an integrative way. It would connect internal and external audiences. In short, a connection to audiences, and a focus on broad audiences, toward an engaged musicking in the public sphere. (Or, to be musically engaged in the public sphere.)

Thinking Public Musicology

On Thursday, a few colleagues and I will present a panel discussion on “public musicology” at the 2015 College Music Society meeting in Indianapolis. Here are my initial thoughts on what we might mean by “public musicology”:

I ended our panel abstract [see below] with a quote from the novelist E.M. Forster, “Only connect.” The phrase serves as an epigram to his novel Howard’s End (1910). In the novel, the characters living in the late Victorian era struggle with making and maintaining connections. The epigraph appears to place a positive value on making connections – at one point in the novel, Forster describes the phrase as a “sermon” to connect the prose of life with the passion so as to “live in fragments no longer.” However, the novel also explores the despair and difficulty of making such connections while the characters struggle with different issues of class, wealth, taste, and social convention. As we were discussing a potential theme for this panel, sponsored by the Ethnomusicology Advisory Council of the College Music Society, it seemed a fitting metaphor. All members of the society are doing creative outreach, diligently devoted to their performances, teaching, and other aspects of their work, and it is sometimes difficult to see where and the connections between the exceedingly rich and varied activities of our CMS can be made. We therefore wanted to join together some of the recent insights, from the Task Force on the Undergraduate Music Major, to the challenges of dialogue between the various disciplines that come together in CMS, and also to the currently vibrant work in public scholarship, including work happening at the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as others engaged in what some have described as “alt-ac” careers.

You may know that this is not unexplored territory, so the job of the panel is not to define what public musicology might be but rather to explore and elucidate various approaches that might fall within this rubric. Feedback and thoughts are welcome!

The panel is described as follows:

From folk festivals to orchestra concerts, music is inescapably a social and public phenomenon; and from music bloggers to popular performers, musicians are public figures. Yet, the voice of scholars and musicians has often not connected beyond the academy. This panel discussion will explore approaches to “public musicology” – that is, making musical knowledge open, accessible, and available beyond the academic and classroom spheres – from perspectives of scholars, performers, and teachers.  Music is more present than ever – via digital delivery to personal music players; from greater diversity of musical styles and crossovers pushed by increasing global flows of culture, trade, and media; and through massive, open, online courses with lengthy menus of musical offerings. We consider the promise of these avenues while acknowledging some of the difficulties and accompanying challenges.  We ask: How can we train our students to be active in more public spaces through engaging scholarship and performances?  What is our role making musical knowledge, understanding, and appreciation more accessible and open to new audiences and what are the best techniques for doing so? What venues, formats, and spaces, including digital platforms, provide the most compelling “interfaces” for engagement? How can we make our music studies resonate with the musical and cultural realities beyond academia?   We follow Forster’s injunction to “only connect” by bringing together these varied voices and encouraging dialogue among the audience to share related projects and commentary.

Computational ethnomusicology

RILM features computational ethnomusicology!


Block diagram

The June 2013 issue of Journal of new music research (XLII/2) is a special issue devoted to computational ethnomusicology.

The editors, Emilia Gómez, Perfecto Herrera, and Francisco Gómez-Martin, explain that the term computational ethnomusicology is over 30 years old, but it has recently been redefined as “the design, development, and usage of computer tools that have the potential to assist in ethnomusicological research.”

Above, a diagram of the Tarsos platform from “Tarsos, a modular platform for precise pitch analysis of Western and non-Western music” by Joren Six, Olmo Cornelis, and Marc Leman (pp. 113–29). Below, a vintage computer cover of The house of the rising sun.

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Postsocialist Realism

We live in a world of many kinds of realism, some magical, some socialist, some capitalist, and some that are yet to be named. These generic realisms have their provinces of origin: magical realism in Latin American fiction in the past two decades; socialist realism in the Soviet Union of the 1930s; and capitalist realism, a term coined by Michael Schudson (1984), in the visual and verbal rhetoric of contemporary American advertising.[1]

I’ve recently been going over some old field notes regarding the culture of postsocialism in the Czech Republic. I came across an interesting reflection regarding commercialism and advertising.

Communist party billboard in Brno, 2006

A billboard advertising “attainable living” (if you voted for the Communist Party) in 2006, but someone has added “in a panelák,” which suggests not that much changed. The beautiful young things, however, are certainly part of the commercialist realist section of an ad agency’s stock photo collection, are they not?

“Capitalist realism,” I thought to myself, “That’s an interesting concept. Funny.” Then I kept reading. Then I left my apartment and saw a billboard with a tanned, scantily clad couple on a tropical beach; underneath it was an ad from a bank for car loans—“Think you can’t afford a new car? Every second driver has loaned money from us. No credit checks.”—; further down the street, a gigantic advertisement for Alfa Romeo luxury racecars covered the side of a building; under it was a small ad for a tanning salon; next door was an appliance store selling washing machines and refrigerators of an Austrian manufacture—“get a free 24-pack of beer when you buy a large refrigerator; payment plans available.” Every day I see glossy annual reports and billboards from banks and investment companies with fit, happy, people enjoying themselves and their bottomless bank accounts; there are happy ladies on posters at the pharmacy declaring the great things about the wonders of hair dyes and weight loss medications. And suddenly I had a new way to articulate some of the things that I wish hadn’t come along with the fall of communism and the advent of capitalism. I can see the attractions of this commercial realism, yet I can’t help wondering about how much of a difference exists between the square and spiky modern steel and glass apartment blocks and the paneláks (the Communists’ answer to the housing shortage).

Are these new office blocks so much better? Are they any less than sleeker and more comfortable versions of the old “rabbit hutch” model? Isn’t it just old wine in new bottles? What’s different but an illusion of “freedom” more visible outside the glass walls of the apartment? Most people are just as beholden to and entrapped in the quest for a comfortable life as the next person. This “comfortable life” is the Czech euphemism for adequate wealth to lead life as good as possible with the least amount of work, which is what a lot of people in a lot of places want. (Of course, there are a lot of people in a lot of places who fight tooth and nail for it, as well, because they don’t want the “adequate” amount but just more, more, more.)

The new office blocks are physical anchors for the strands of culture that, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote, we ourselves have spun. The whole of all those strong little binding strands that give us an illusion of security that constrict as much as support our actions. These strands may look different in the twentieth century (glossier, more youthful, more consumerist, and certainly more corporate), but I can’t stop wondering whether their substance of those strands has really changed.

This was probably written around the time I posted about Brno’s new office park a while ago. Of note, the entire office park that I was writing about is slated to be completed in 2012 (i.e., right about now).

1Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 53 (emphasis mine).

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.

Is There an Echo In Here?

Does the Internet, specifically services like Facebook and Google, narrow or broaden the scope of news and information that you encounter on the Internet? At issue are algorithms that sort and help to select information that you want from the googles of information out there. One of these, that used by Facebook, is called EdgeRank. Underlying all of this is a big question about online social networks, whether online or face-to-face: do your social circles amplify your own views if your friends share information that you are already in the mood to see—i.e., do they create an echo chamber&mdashor do they help you to see new things (and in new ways)?

A new study published by a team at Facebook, led Eytan Bakshy (a colleague and graduate of UMSI), says no. Summarizing the study in, Farhad Manjoo writes:

Although we’re more likely to share information from our close friends, we still share stuff from our weak ties—and the links from those weak ties are the most novel links on the network. Those links from our weak ties, that is, are most likely to point to information that you would not have shared if you hadn’t seen it on Facebook. The links from your close ties, meanwhile, more likely contain information you would have seen elsewhere if a friend hadn’t posted it. These weak ties “are indispensible” to your network, Bakshy says. “They have access to different websites that you’re not necessarily visiting.”