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Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis

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Stating the Obvious: Lessons Learned Attempting Access to Archival Audio Collections

Virginia Danielson
Archive of World Music, Harvard University

All of us have experienced compelling, even jolting, intellectual awakenings when confronting primary audio and visual resources that document the lives of people and societies. One of mine from the past year occurred while being shown archival film footage of Marian Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial. An international conference held in Europe brought another to my attention that is personal to me. Norwegian Radio preserved the recording of the Nazi officer announcing the takeover of Norway during World War II, assuring citizens that "resistance was futile." As an American of Norwegian descent whose great-aunt worked in the resistance, this audio recording gave immediacy and chilling reality to a history that I already knew rather well. Last week I received a phone call from a former student who had taken a seminar at Harvard in 1978. As part of a research paper, he had made a recording of his Texan grandmother singing cowboy songs. Now, his college-age daughter wants it for a project. It is at once a part of family history (more valued now than it was when it was originally made by a teenage college student); it also presents cowboy songs not widely documented in the literature; and it is a source of American vernacular music history. More than the simple entertainments that some of these materials started out as being, the songs and tales, speeches, performances and events recorded by participants and observers have become treasures of collective memory and heritage. In our universities, faculty, students and researchers increasingly want to use these materials in teaching, learning and scholarly production. Audio and visual materials are both by us and about us in important ways. Families and local communities demand access to materials that they often, with justification, consider their own. Radio stations and museum exhibit curators want to use them. All sorts of people want access to recordings and the materials that accompany them--programs, program notes, field notes and other documentation--in a convenient way.

Access to these collections, particularly unique archival collections, has rarely been easy. Our fragile audio materials must be reformatted for any kind of use. As special collections that present difficulties in cataloging and housing, and as collections sometimes regarded as highly specialized or ephemeral, they have not occupied high places on the list of priorities for funding or for work. And we have been plagued by the view that we as audio archivists have no established standards for preservation and therefore should not proceed with projects. Thus, a potential user typically has had to find out somehow what is in a collection, then place a request for the items he or she would like to hear well in advance so that labor-intensive reformatting can take place, then travel to the library during its business hours there to confront a plain-looking audio cassette and some sort of photocopied list of its contents or accompanying materials. While some institutions will mail copies of materials to users, others cannot. Often, the cassette and photocopies must be left in or returned to the institution.

Current expectations from our users contrast dramatically with this practice. Many expect fast delivery of MP3 files with scanned images of whatever accompanying documentation there may be. Users expect access to contents of collections via free and well-maintained online Web sites. Sitting in an institution to listen to materials, not to mention waiting for them to be prepared, never enters their minds as a reasonable avenue. As a faculty member, researcher, and librarian, I know that, in our hearts, all of us want this immediate access, even those of us who still prefer to read from paper, take notes with pens, and buy books.

To state all of this, especially to a group such as that gathered for this program, is to state the obvious, for all of you live and work with these materials and demands every day. The question is, how do we do meet these needs? How do we overcome the multitude of enormous problems that seem to attend our every effort at reasonable access? Why is access so hard and what can be done, if anything, to improve it? Of course, myriad technical and legal problems attend online access, which I will leave to my colleagues to discuss. Access to collections and information about them presents its own challenges, some of which I will outline here.

My favorite library patrons will gesture wildly toward a part of our collection and say, "of course, all this will be digitized eventually." As someone working in a large collection, I find this view variously hilarious, pitiable, or depressing. As a nation, we have not managed to catalog our collective holdings. We have not managed to complete online conversion of existing catalogs. Retrospective conversion and even cataloging are generally less labor-intensive than digitizing collections. Our chances for extensive, let alone comprehensive, digitization of primary materials are not good.

A useful starting point for discussion of paths of access may be to acknowledge that not everything in our collections requires the same system of access. Limited access to highly specialized materials may be fine. In-library only access to sensitive or restricted materials may be the best practice. Probably, one wants to offer wide access to information about the contents of collections through cataloging and inventories. Probably, one wants to offer international, networked access to some parts of our collections. But the first step toward an art of the possible in access to audio collections is recognition that not everything needs to be treated in exactly the same way. Starting from this point, and pursuing, in particular, the issues surrounding networked digital access, what are the principal roadblocks?

An important barrier to any access project for archival collections is that nearly every step of the work requires specialized skill. Simply unpacking and sorting the Laura Boulton Collection required that we identify which typed notebooks belonged to which recordings, which notes were lecture notes derived from field notes, then which tapes had been copied from earlier ones and where the other accompanying documents belonged. Often, ethnic collections require highly specialized subject and language skill to prepare even the most rudimentary inventory. If the collection is to be cataloged in a standard library catalog, then a skilled cataloger familiar with national utilities such as OCLC and RLIN is needed. Preparing electronic documents requires some command of mark-up language. Preparing and storing digital images implicates another set of equipment and skills. Working with digital audio is a bona fide specialization. For networked resources to persist and remain viable, systems of metadata need to be developed and used. Often, a computer programmer is necessary for such tools as digital collection management programs. Our sources of inexpensive labor--students, interns, volunteers and the like--may be but are not predictably suited to this work, especially with large collections that take many months to process.

Labor, in my experience, is always the most expensive component of any initiative, certainly in the long run. Moreover, pleas for "more staff" generally require extensive justification and are rarely met by budget-conscious administrators who may be under the impression that most work can now be automated and that little human intervention is actually necessary. The expense of audio reformatting is phenomenal. Getting the "last, best play" from a fragile recording may occupy four hours of skilled labor for one hour of sound.

One common solution to the cost of labor is to get a grant. Following the investment of weeks or months of time preparing a compelling argument for a necessarily trendy or attractive part of one"s collection and assembling the requisite budget, a granting agency may provide the needed help. The problem is that, at the end of the grant, project staff must depart, taking their skills with them, and one is generally left to start all over in another part of the collection. Maintenance of digital products created by grant-funded projects may itself be a problem.

One might argue with some justification that some of the necessary skills seem to be fast becoming common. Many of us can scan a document, burn a CD and put together a Web site that is fine for rudimentary purposes and may offer decent access to our collections. But what if you want your access tools to persist, to be durable and refreshable? One homemade compact disc probably will not meet this case nor will it offer networked access. Hard links on Web sites eventually lead to non-existent servers. CDRs made just a few years ago may or may not play on every CD player.

Given the cost of labor and the value of our collections, our products must last as long as possible. We cannot afford to make and remake them, if, indeed, we have the opportunity to do so. We need durable audio products. We have seen the failings of cassettes, open-reel tape, CDRs and DATs. Our cataloging and other electronic documents must be stored in a secure and widely accessible environment, preferably one that can be searched internationally free of charge.

There is an important, qualitative difference between building a Web site such as a course page (or even an institutional Web site) and building an electronic resource such as a finding aid. At our university, for example, our finding aid for the Laura Boulton Collection differs from the course page for Professor Thomas Kelly's well-known music course, "First Nights." Kelly customarily describes his course page as a pile of rocks, that is, ideas that he and his assistants have tried out, moved around, added, or eliminated (thus changing the shape of the rock pile) in different versions of the site. Mutability is critical to his use of his course site as a dynamic aid to teaching. The Laura Boulton site, on the other hand, is characterized by the goal of near-immutability. Unlike teaching tools, library resources need to remain relatively stable over time. We must construct a series of permanent resources. We must finish one and move to another and so the revising and innovating that is appropriate to the "First Nights" page would be inefficient for our purposes. We want to select durable technologies and document our choices and procedures well so that the processes of migration, refreshing and so on can be conducted mechanically if possible. Whereas we welcome the flexibility of electronic formats for adding new data or correcting errors, we do not really want to constantly change our pile of rocks.

Well-organized and accessible housing and storage of physical materials can be expensive; digital storage is a major technological and financial challenge. For the long run, digital objects and metadata about them must be stored securely, preferably in a place where migration and refreshing can be managed automatically. We can learn from radio and national archives in Norway, Switzerland, and Germany that have developed and are using such systems.

Metadata becomes critically important and we need all sorts of it. We need descriptive metadata: what is it that is stored? We need structural metadata: how do I find this virtual object and what is its virtual format? And we need administrative metadata: who reformatted this object and what equipment was used? Without the metadata, we may as well not bother to create the digital object. Without the metadata, we probably can't find it, let alone use it or migrate it.

Cataloging, of course, is a familiar form of metadata in which we record information about the physical and intellectual characteristics of our collections. I suspect that most of our archives produce fairly good catalogs, given the staff to do so, and have done for some time. Our issues in intellectual access involve searchability across archives. In the first place, we need databases and library catalogs that present users with familiar formats and familiar mechanisms for finding out what we have. Even though we can now potentially access each other's databases if they are online and use them, I have never felt that inventing an idiosyncratic, stand-alone database is a good idea. It seems to me that we need catalogs and databases that are more or less standard, that look or feel similar to each other. The Archives for Traditional Music at Indiana University was the first such collection to enter its cataloging on OCLC. Adjustments of standard library formats--particularly MARC--were necessary, of course, but the result was widespread access to information about the Archives that reached from the university into public libraries and school systems. Non-specialists could find information about the Archives' collection by using a standard library tool. This is surely a good thing. Making use of existing practices, adapting them if necessary, is an effective approach to access.

Unfortunately, it does not always work. Existing classifications systems and such common tools as the Library of Congress Subject Headings, designed as they were for a limited repertory of European arts, fail our highly differentiated, multi-cultural collections. Developing new tools, such as thesauri, has proven complicated by the different ways in which musicians, folklorists, anthropologists, and local communities think about, name, and classify performances. Creating thesauri on which any part of our community can agree turns out to be very time-consuming and becomes work that moves too slowly because few of us can devote the necessary time to such a project. Hence, we lack consensus on genre terms and categories for such common concepts as devotional music. What do we do about Arab American Muslim communities that refer to their Sufi rituals as dhikr, where their Turkish American co-religionists call the same phenomenon zikr? In the Indian communities, we find Sanskrit-derived names that are also written in Tamil script and have English versions. Systematic transliterations of the Sanskrit and Tamil names produce two different romanizations, and the English version may be different still. We can decide to use AACR2 rules to "establish"the name; however, who is going to verify that the multiple variants represent the same person? Representing our various local communities accurately is hard and searching is harder.

Electronic finding aids constructed to the standards of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) offer a looser, more narrative, and adaptable format for inventorying collections than does standard cataloging; they are a good alternative. Producing the proper diacritical marks for the names and terms of a Vietnamese or Hmong community in these documents is nearly impossible at present. Does this matter to us?

Designations from the Human Relations Area Files have been useful for organizing access to ethnic collections, however these are a bit old and sometimes incomplete. The terms can be too "purist" to suit multi-cultural communities.

As archivists, we may easily feel "stuck"; everything we do, we may feel, has something wrong with it. We make very little progress in our collections without running into an insurmountable wall that seems to preclude access to a collection.

Attempting to step out of the morass, I would like to describe an initiative our library launched in 1999, that we called Music from the Archives and that attempts preservation and access to some of our unique collections. I offer this not as a prescription at all, but as an experience and as a set of decisions that might start our discussion. "Music from the Archives" engages digital technology to offer a model for access. It is not conceived as a comprehensive program through which everything we have will be digitized; rather, it tries to advance ways to offer as wide access, intellectually and virtually, to selected items from our collections. Our selections proceed from the strengths of our collection, which in turn proceeds from the priorities of our primary constituency which is the faculty and students of the Harvard Music Department and the related larger research community.

The contents of a collection will be presented in an electronic document that follows the format of the electronic finding aid. It draws upon national standards and practices for the creation of EAD documents and serves them from Harvard's online OASIS catalog, which includes Harvard's other finding aids for archival collections across the university. Audio files of selected performances and image files of field notes and other documentation will be available through links from the finding aid. What we are working toward ultimately is a thoroughly integrated multi-media finding aid in which the digital resource itself will be conceived as having multiple manifestations. Whereas now we can move around from one set of digital objects to another, our ultimate plan is to produce a more flexible tool that will allow us to show relationships among parts of our collection--for example, between a festival program book, a photograph, a concert program, and a recording--that may not be readily apparent to the user. We will thus be able to bring parts of our collections to the attention of users quickly and graphically. Digital standards and systems for metadata for our images have been developed in consultation with the Harvard University Library Digital Imaging Group. The Music Library did not try to develop or invent these procedures itself. We did, however, develop our own audio preservation studio, as we considered ourselves and you, our colleagues, more reliable resources than any existing at Harvard. Our studio is centered around a Sonic Solutions high density audio workstation that allows us to sample at 88.2 kHz and to digitize audio at 24 bits, which enables us to capture sound at the densest rate known in the audio industry in superb detail. The engineer typically reformats recordings onto recordable compact discs (for users) and computer data tape (for storage). This form of tape is much more robust than any other we have. Real Audio streaming sound files are produced for networked use. Metadata is captured about all processing performed on the file, so that it will be possible to recreate the labor-intensive decisions made by the audio engineer.

One result of our project will be the production of research-intensive tools. Our documents will have several important features: they will offer entire musical sources rather than short samples. Researchers will actually be able to conduct research, not simply browse collections or sample holdings. Although not every item from every collection will be networked, every item will be inventoried and we will be able to add audio files upon request.

Secondly, our digital products will be durable. With very modest investment of time and money, we can make two copies of the CD using products from two different manufacturers and two copies of the exabyte tape using two different lots of tape. While no particular claims for longevity can be made for CDRs or computer data tape (let alone Real Audio files), we feel some confidence that one of the four exemplars we produce will persist until a viable remote, robotic repository is available. Certainly these formats are most convenient and accessible, and they may be hardier than the open-reel tape of our originals.

We seek long term solutions to the problems of digitizing, storing, refreshing, reformatting, and migrating digital objects over the years. Beyond the creation of access to resources, we seek to regularize the processes of work that are necessary to the production using our existing permanent staff wherever possible. Creating a new flow of work and bringing together regular library staff in the production are goals as important as the three resources themselves. We do not want to rely on temporary project staff for these productions whose skill and training departs with them when the project is over; we want to rely instead on permanent staff who can contribute to this new kind of work over the long run. So to summarize our goals, we seek to use digital technology to develop a new model of access to rare audio collections, to produce tangible electronic resources, and to institutionalize the process of work that emerges. Durability is an important result. To achieve it, attention to the choice of digital audio formats is critical. Once formats are chosen, a durable system of identifying, characterizing and locating them--that is, systems of metadata--must be constructed that will function for as long a run as we can manage. I have sought ways to develop this project for the better part of ten years. Only recent circumstances and priorities in my institution have rendered it finally possible. Our work is inextricably linked to the time and place, the character of the institution in which we work. What is possible one place does not work in another and our project at Harvard may not make sense in other contexts. What broad ideas from "Music from the Archives" might help us move beyond local constraints?

To make effective progress with our collections, selectivity based on our collections and our constituencies may help. Each of us working selectively from strength may produce a good corporate result for access to our collections. We should probably work together and rely on each other, as no one institution is likely to have all the necessary expertise or facilities to provide all of its own paths to access. For the short term, creating multiple digital formats may answer our needs for access and persistence if we are careful about the equipment and processes that we use. Most physical formats have become inexpensive to use. For long-term digital access, we need storage facilities. Might we work collectively to persuade public and private agencies to build digital repositories that we might all use? To make long-term use of such facilities, we need to master systems of metadata. Certainly we need to re-tool ourselves a bit for these tasks. However, we also need to find ways to acquire or to share the services of specialists such as audio engineers, computer programmers and subject specialists. Most importantly, we need to fashion workable collaborations that produce results and that do not produce years of committee meetings that yield nothing we can actually use.


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   May 15, 2015
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