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”.

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

Support the Center for Black Music Research

A recent report that ironically proposes to “increase resources” at Columbia College in Chicago actually proposes to lower the quality of research and academic infrastructure at the College by eliminating funding for the world-renowned Center for Black Music Research (CBMR). The news was publicized in a Chicago Tribune article earlier this week, and many in the sound archives and musicology communities are gathering support for the Center. Here is an excerpt of a blog post by musicologist Fredara Mareva, “Help Save the Center for Black Music Research”:

Yesterday, Howard Reich (@howardreich) wrote an Chicago Tribune article that informed us that the CBMR at Columbia College in Chicago is slated for elimination as a part of a plan to “increase resources.” Dr. Louise Love, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Interim Provost, is responsible for proposing a cost-saving plan that will help offset the school’s decreasing enrollment. The irony is that enrollment in Columbia College’s music program is increasing while the rub is that the CBMR is not housed in its music department, but in its Office of Academic Research. A final decision about the CBMR’s future will not be made until June 2012, but now is the time to voice your support for its important work. . . .

I fervently encourage you to join us in a letter writing campaign to show support for the work of the CBMR. Please take a moment to send a note of support for the CBMR and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble to the following:

Dear President Carter:

This is my letter in support of the preservation of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. I am gravely concerned about the proposed plan to eliminate the CBMR, which would eliminate access to invaluable resource that document the evolution of African American music. Its contribution to knowledge includes on campus Columbia College students and extends to all of us who appreciate the history of African-derived music from around the world. There is no other organization that provides the comprehensive level of research and programming that CBMR does. I believe that the access they provide to rare recordings and collections is an important cultural service that needs to be preserved.


Please send to:

Dr. Warrick Carter, Ph.D.
President of Columbia College

Prioritization Team responsible for making recommendations to the President:

Read Mareva’s full post here and Howard Reich’s article here.

Scenarios of Cultural Memory

Last month, I posted a few notes on Diana Taylor’s book The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Duke U. Press, 2003).[] I’m not sure that I completely outlined what Taylor is getting at with the “acts of transfer” concept.

The idea of “the repertoire” is very much grounded in action. As Taylor describes the investment in performance studies, it derives “less from what it is than what it allows us to do” (16). The goal is to shift the focus in studies about the transfer of knowledge to the embodied and performed: “instead of focusing on patterns of cultural expression in terms of texts and narratives, we might think about them as scenarios that do not reduce gestures and embodied practices to narrative description” (ibid). Taylor’s theory is based on an epistemic distinction between embodied and disembodied knowledge. In Taylor’s words, the rift “does not lie between written and spoken word, but between the archive of supposedly enduring materials (i.e., texts, documents, buildings, bones) and the so-called ephemeral repertoire of embodied practice/knowledge (i.e., spoken language, dance, sports, ritual)” (19).[1]

My interest here is what Taylor says about the archival perspective. What is “archival memory” if there is a distinction of the archive and the repertoire? Taylor describes archival memory as that which “works across distance, over time and space.” Archival memory “suceeds in separating the source of ‘knowledge’ from the knower—in time and/or space.” Finally, what changes over time is the “value, relevance, or meaning of the archive, how the items it contains get interpreted, even embodied” (19). The key acts (it is not, after all, just the repertoire that is subject to “acts”) of designating objects archival are selection, classification, and presentation for analysis. Just think about the elaborate acts of cultural performance that keep archives going—the time and space that are taken to select, prepare, preserve, and keep materials is staggering—and you will notice that archives are also based on acts of transfer, albeit highly formalized and ceremonial. Archival objects are not, as popular mythology would have it (and also preservationists), static; they change as interpretations change, politics change, individual acts remove or place objects within the archives.

The two spheres of knowledge—archive and repertoire—at least in the ways that Taylor discusses them, entail different modes of transmission (embodied or archival), levels of materiality (intangible or tangible), mode of expression (oral or written) and all of these layers intertwine dynamically. They work in tandem with other flows of knowledge transmission. From an archival point of view, what I find interesting in Taylor’s viewpoint is the suggestion that archival memory works in tandem with other memories, and these relationships need not be binary or polarized (22). To an archivist, this suggests letting in other sources of knowledge, as well as letting go of the ideal of the archive as indelible and impermeable.

This also reminds me of David Bearman’s assertion that archives should, of course, be concerned about transferring information across time spans, in various forms: “we need to better understand the nature of the cultural document itself and its connections to social action. We need to explore its internal structure and its use. We need to design systems for its retrieval which provide access by a variety of perspectives and allow users to move between views in the conduct of research.” In short, archivists should adopt a more inclusive and open rhetoric. In Bearman’s words, “we need to revisit our rhetoric, removing the unconvincing references to our role in preserving evidence for posterity, and replacing them with our role in focussing and connecting the past and the present.” Archives, then, are embedded in complex cultural systems and should be seen as such.[2]

Numbers in parentheses throughout this post refer to this book’s print edition. You can read most of the first chapter of Taylor’s book in an electronic version, if you’re so inclined, at
1The distinction of the embodied and disembodied also links to the Cartesian mind/body split, or Cartesian dualism. Read more on dualism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
2Bearman’s essay, “Recorded Memory and Cultural Continuity,” can be read in full at The excerpt here is used under Creative Commons as designated at the source.

Acts of Transfer

What is “performance,” and how can it inform and be understood better in the context of the historical expressive cultures of the Americas? These are questions at the heart of Diana Taylor’s book The Archive and the Repertoire (Duke U. Press, 2003).[] More fundamental, at least for the moment and for the archivist, is the distinction that she makes between archives and the “repertoire.” One might briefly understand this distinction as an epistemic separation between knowledge as fixed and knowledge is/as acted/done. In other words, a focus on performance, in Taylor’s terms, suggests a shift of focus in knowledge structures (epistemes) from written to embodied culture.

Taylor draws a contrast between embodied and disembodied ways of transmitting knowledge. Thus, performances become embodied “acts of transfer.” These are stories, songs, dances, habits, customs, and other bits that communicate and preserve ways of being. In other words, performances function to transmit “social knowledge, memory, and a sense of identity through reiterated, or what Richard Schechner has called ‘twice-behaved behavior'” (2–3). We often use performance in ontological ways, for example in saying “That was a great performance!” after attending a concert. This essentially affirms and defines a portion of time just cowitnessed with others as a coherent and definite event. On the other hand, performance has come to be applied as a methodological lens that allows bits of behaviors to be analyzed as performances. Thus, gender, ethnicity, and identity come to be “performed” (as in Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everday Life [1959]).

Crucial to Taylor’s position is that performance constitutes a valid way of knowing. “We learn and transmit knowledge through embodied action, through cultural agency, and by making choices. Performance, for me, functions as an episteme, way of knowing, not simply an object of analysis” (xvi). This body of knowing, which Taylor describes as the repertoire, is inherently “nonarchival” (vxii). Pressuring this distinction, Taylor asks, “is performance that which disappears, or that which persists” (xvii)? This questions the warrant of written, “archival” knowledge, which is constructed as fixed and policed (by the writers and the archivists) as the more reliable. The importance of the question deals, in fact, with the construction and control of knowledge: “If performance did not transmit knowledge, only the literate and powerful could claim social memory and identity” (ibid).

Taylor pits fixed against fluid knowledges. I’d like to propose an alternative viewpoint. Rather than opposing the repertoire of performance with the contents of an archive, might we not join the two? In Taylor’s terms, might it not be possible to bring the archive within the “performatic space”—that is, a space that is not only constructed through discourse and logocentrism? At a presentation at the 2011 conference of the Association for Asian Studies, I suggested that one might define an archives as that which transmits knowledge across a timespan.[1] This line of thought expands on and stems from Jeannette Bastian’s suggestion that “cultural performances” (a term borrowed from Milton Singer) may be considered as archival records.[2] The goal is to pluralize the way that we think about what is “in” an archives and where we might draw the boundaries of an “archives.” Deep understandings of cultural “bits” (i.e., those strips of twice-behaved behavior, and likewise the sheets of paper in many archives) require multiple and varied understandings as well as interpretation by multiple individuals. Thus, by understanding archival as a function, we begin to see that many things, not just an organization’s or individual’s noncurrent papers, we might construct more culturally meaningful archives that speak to and empower communities.

Numbers in parentheses throughout this post refer to this book’s print edition.
1Museums, libraries, and schools also do this, but emphasize various areas such as display, access, and education respectively. In contrast, archives emphasize preservation. This is, of course, slightly different than the “official” definition put forth by the Society of American Archivists.
2Jeannette Bastian, “‘Play Mas’: Carnival in the Archives and the Archives in Carnival: Records and Community Identity in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Archival Science 9:113–125.

Blogging Around

SAA 2011 Conference LogoLast week I attended the Society of American Archivists’ Annual Meeting—colloquially known as SAA. (Oh, and I also presented a poster based on my research in digital video preservation and public television news archiving, which deals with the American Black Journal Collection at MATRIX.) It was interesting despite the conference being held at the Chicago Hyatt, which is currently under a boycott from workers unions and made attending the conference rather awkward for those of us who are trying to build professional contacts but also conscious of workers’ rights.

The exciting part is that I was asked by Rose L. Chou to contribute to a roundup of reflections by graduate student attendees at SAA. Thanks to Rose for inspiring me to reinvigorate the blog, at least briefly! You can read the retrospective on SAA 2011 at the Hack Library School blog. Enjoy!

Copyright, Education, Access and "Other" Media

In the CLIR report “Why Digitize?” (1999), Abby Smith suggests that digitization offered great potential for increasing the access to hard-to-find collections or fragile collections. There are, as she notes, some major problems:

The notion on the part of many young students that, if it is not on the Web or in an online catalog, then it must not exist, has the effect of orphaning the vast majority of information resources, especially those that are not in the public domain. This is not what the Framers had in mind when they wrote the copyright code into the Constitution, “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” This skewed representation of created works on the Web will continue for quite some time into the future, and the complications that surround moving image and recorded sound rights means, ironically, that these will be the least accessible resources on the most dynamic information source around.

This points to a fundamental tension that complicates the existence and use of audiovisual materials in many museum and archival collections: copyright and access. If the purpose of copyright was to promote innovation and progress, then copyright certainly isn’t doing its job anymore but serving the purposes of corporations and profit. There’s currently an important review of copyright going on, which will affect audiovisual materials in the U.S., particularly the access of copyrighted recordings held in research collections.

The Society for Ethnomusicology just released a position statement regarding copyright. You can learn more by reading the statement (click to link).