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”.

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Death of the LMS

Blackboard no longer has a drop box feature.

Blackboard no longer has a drop box feature.


I’ve been using technology in learning environments for most of my career as a student and a teacher. I’ve emailed with my teachers since being in high school, starting when I took music lessons with a professor at the University of Wisconsin in 1996. My first college courses used online streaming to facilitate listening assignments in a music appreciation course through a home-grown (as much as you can call anything “homegrown” at a major research university, though it’s probably a bit ludicrous) course system at the University of Michigan in 1999. That system was replaced by a Sakai-based “Course Tools” LMS at UMich. I used that throughout graduate school, and again when I first taught courses at the University of Michigan–Dearborn in 2008. So, I don’t think that you could say I’m unfamiliar with using technology for teaching and learning. When UMich migrated to Google services in 2012, CTools changed and now integrates with Google web services.

Yet this year, returning as an adjunct faculty to teach one class at the George Mason University, I find myself completely fed up with the current version of Blackboard. Does it exist to provide easy, intuitive, and quick options that facilitate learning? No. It offers a blackboxed, behemoth system that is not open, not attractive, and offers nonsensical descriptions of things. (Like, if you just want to upload a pdf for students to read, you have to create “content” rather than “upload a file.” FYI – that’s not creating content, you’re offering content that someone has already written, and you’re not even creating the metadata for the file, Blackboard is.)

I want my students to be able to upload files to a folder that I can see and they can see, but not everyone else in class can see. Sounds easy, right? But BB doesn’t offer that any more (see above). Instead, if I want that, I’d have to use dropbox. In fact, that is the course I’m taking – using systems that do exactly what I want them to (and that students might actually use) rather than going through the plodding irritation of creating individual module after module. I want the tools I use to teach to be easy to use, lightweight, and to make things easier to do what I want, not more time consuming. And yes, perhaps tools that students might actually want to use. For example, I’m using a mixed suite of tools so far in teaching an archives course, including:

  • Email (Google, and also Office365) – some classics never go away
  • Dokuwiki
  • Twitter
  • Medium.com
  • Google Docs
  • WordPress (the version provided through GMU)
  • Blackboard (begrudgingly, but it does offer a login-protected place for grades and non-public announcements)

I’m afraid that this may be only one of a series of rants as I make my way back into the morass of teaching technology this term. The death knell of the open-source LMS that served the needs of educators and learners probably sounded long ago, and it feels like slogging through the tar pits to even use parts of Blackboard these days.

</rant>

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.