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 medium.com titled “Play/back: 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

For the Birds

I found my ARSC newsletter in the post when I arrived home this evening. I was quite taken with the illustration on back, RAAF pilot Eric Douglas playing a record for Adelie penguins in Antarctica, January 1931:

Pilot Officer Eric Douglas playing music for unappreciative Adelie penguins, January 1931

The photo was taken by Frank Hurley during the British, Australian and New Zealand Research Expedition (BANZARE) of 1929–1931, an “acquisitive” expedition with the purpose of claiming extensive areas of the Antarctic for the British Commonwealth.

I enjoyed the photo’s playful tenor. Though the caption suggests “unappreciative” penguins (how would appreciative ones look?), the one reproduced in the newsletter shows one looking directly at the phonograph with what might be interpreted as an inquisitive gesture (then again, how would an inquisitive penguin look?). Perhaps somewhere in the National Library of Australia there is documentation as to what Douglas was playing for the penguins!

More photos are at the exhibit page, including a feature on albatrosses. More materials, including photographs and documents from the BANZARE expedition, can be searched online at the National Archives of Australia.

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.

Sincerely,

Please send to:

Dr. Warrick Carter, Ph.D.
President of Columbia College
wcarter@colum.edu

Prioritization Team responsible for making recommendations to the President: blueprint@colum.edu

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

Archives Relief, West Africa

The BAPMAF archives (Bokoor African Popular Music Archive Foundation) in Accra, Ghana were flooded on October 26 of this year. The damage appears to be serious, and a plea for financial support has been circulating via email, blog, twitter, etc. John Collins, the archives founder, state on 10 November: “As you may know I have been operating the BAPMAF music archives since 1990 which was partly opened at my Bokoor House to the public in 1996 and more fully in 2007. However, devastation struck in the middle of the night of 26th Oct 2011 in the form of a flood. . . . The resulting flooding on the 26 Oct was unprecedented with almost 6 feet of water entering our land and 5 feet into the downstairs house and premises where some of the BAPMAF archival holdings are kept.” It is estimated that 10 to 20% of the archives holdings were damaged or destroyed, including all electronic equipment. Further illustrations of the damage were posted by the Afropop blog on November 19—if you have any doubt as to the extent, have a look at the photos!

If you are able to help, monetary donations can be made via Paypal. Information is given at the AfroPop post above, and via the BAPMAF Facebook page.

Further information about the BAPMAF project and its collaboration with Africa House at NYU can be found at the BAPMAF collection page.