Recorded Sound Collections Endangered

Recorded Sound Collections Endangered

Tracey Sterne
Virginia Danielson of the Archive of World Music at Harvard
Photo by Jim Hardin

Hundreds of thousands of historic ethnographic audio recordings are in serious danger, according to a recent survey conducted by the Library of Congress. Of the 300 respondents to the Library of Congress national survey, more than three-fourths reported that 25 to 50 percent of their collections are “seriously deteriorated.”

Problems associated with audio collections include: inadequate storage conditions, cracked wax cylinders, decomposing acetate coatings of discs that “exude” a white powder, “sticky-shed” syndrome on audio tape manufactured in the late ’70s and early ’80s, “drop outs” on DAT tapes, and possible delaminating of CDs.

In response to the challenges faced by ethnographic archives across the country, the American Folklife Center, in collaboration with the American Folklore Society, hosted a two-day invitational conference, “Folklife Collections in Crisis,” on December 1 and 2, 2000, at the Library of Congress.

For the first time, 50 experts – archivists, audio engineers, preservation specialists, scholars, entertainment lawyers, and recording company executives – gathered to discuss sound preservation, access, and intellectual property issues as they relate to ethnographic collections and make recommendations to assure long-term preservation. Participants included representatives from the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the National Society of Audio Engineers, BMI, the Association of Recorded Sound Collections, the International Association of Sound Archives, the Society of American Archivists and others. The conference was supported by the Council on Library and Information Resources, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Peggy Bulger, Director of the American Folklife Center, called it a “great meeting.” The first day of the conference, three keynote speakers addressed the main issues of the conference. Virginia Danielson, of the Archive of World Music at Harvard, spoke about new modes of access made possible by digital technology; Elizabeth Cohen, of Cohen Acoustical, Inc., spoke about digitization and sound preservation; and Anthony Seeger, Professor of Ethnomusicology at UCLA and the former head of Folkways Recordings, spoke on issues of intellectual property rights. Two people were asked to respond to each keynote speaker. The second day, conference participants were divided up into different working groups to discuss potential solutions to the problems at hand. “They all did a bang-up job, coming up with needs and assessments for each of the main issues,” commented Kelly Fetault, the independent folklorist/oral historian who coordinated the conference.

One issue that kept coming up throughout the conference, according to Fetault, was the need for more extensive education and training. “In the chain of creating original ethnographic recordings, from the field worker to the librarian or archivist to the users of the materials–there needs to be education and training along the whole process,” Fetault explained.

Part of any such training would inevitably concern copyright laws, a subject that has become considerably more complicated lately, with the new possibility of online access to digitized archival material. “A lot of people are already trying to put things on the Web, but the property rights are very entangling, unless the steps have been done right.”

The very idea of putting materials online has caused considerable controversy, however. “There is a lot of disagreement about whether or not to digitize everything,” Fetault confessed. “There are many who dissent – there are communities with very different notions about who should have this knowledge, and we have to respect that. There are communities who would rather have their materials die than allow people to have access who haven’t been initiated ‘into the fold.'”

An intermediate solution to the online problem would involve electronic databases, allowing researchers to do preliminary research before traveling to a library to actually use the materials. But this raises other problems. “The idea of a database sounds simple, but there are no standardized subject headings,” Fetault explained. “If a researcher wanted to find materials on African-American shout bands, for instance, they might find that every database would have them listed under a different heading.” The Library of Congress’ initial survey, in fact, turned up six or seven different cataloging mechanisms currently in use. At the same time, the survey showed that somewhere between 80 and 85 percent of all respondents would like to standardize their headings. One benefit of such a change is that databases, once online, could “talk to each other.”

Another potential glitch in the online database solution, however, is that many collections are so small and under-funded that no database has ever been created. “The survey really got the broadest sweep of the types of collections, and a lot of them don’t have databases at all,” Fetault stated. “A lot of them have one person working with the entire collection. When your infrastructure isn’t strong, then there is no support for digitizing, and no support for putting anything on the Web. There are a lot of great materials out there that people are really struggling to maintain.”

A ‘white paper’ will be published in March 2001 containing the final version of the keynote speeches, as well as the action steps and recommendations formulated by the working groups. The white paper will be published by the Council on Library and Information Resources. Fetault hopes that archivists in charge of the smaller collections can use the paper in making demands for funding to implement change. “We want them to be able to get the institutional support that they need,” Fetault explained.

Fetault is also in the process of developing a Web site that will provide access to the proceedings from the first day of the conference. The new site, which will be an offshoot of the current American Folklife Center site, will go up in February.

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