Stating the Obvious:
Lessons Learned Attempting Access to
Archival Audio Collections
by Virginia Danielson
All of us have experienced compelling, even jolting, intellectu-al
awakenings when confronting primary audio and visual resources that
document the lives of people and societies. Art Silverman shared
with us the narrative of Marine Corporal Michael Baronowski recounting
experience in the Vietnam War recorded on cassette tape in Vietnam
in 1966 and sent to the soldier's family in the United States (National
Public Radio 2000). Silverman told us of the compelling recording
made by William Rathvone recounting his memory of listening to Abraham
Lincoln's address at Gettysburg and reciting the speech as Rathvone
remembered hearing it (National Public Radio 1999).
An international conference held in Europe brought to my attention
another example that has personal meaning. 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 took 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. His college-age daughter
now 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(more valued now than it was when it was originally made by a teenage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), a record of cowboy songs not widely documented
in the literature, and a source of American vernacular music history.
More than the straightforward communications and 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 to bring home the impact
of people and events from the past and in scholarly production as
primary sources. 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 John Suter pointed out in his response to
this paper, these special collections present difficulties in cataloging
and housing and are sometimes regarded by administrators as highly
specialized or ephemeral. As such, they have not been given priority
for funding or for work. Access usually costs money: for cataloging,
for access to online systems, for reformatting. "Most archives," Suter
writes, "operate on very small budgets relative to their needs" (Suter
Audio archivists have been plagued by the view that we have no established
standards for preservation and therefore should not proceed with
projects. This hurts the potential user, who must find out somehow
what is in a collection, place a request for the desired items well
in advance so that labor-intensive reformatting can take place, then
travel to the library during business hours to confront a plain-looking
audio cassette and photocopied list of its contents or accompanying
materials. Although some institutions will mail copies of materials
to users, others cannot. The cassette and photocopies often must
be left in or returned to the institution.
Our users' current expectations contrast dramatically with this
practice. Many expect fast delivery of MP3 files with scanned images
of whatever accompanying documentation there may be. They expect
access to contents of collections through free and well-maintained
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 option. 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 meet these needs? How do we overcome the multitude of enormous
problems that seem to attend every single effort we make at reasonable
access? Why is access so hard and what, if anything, can be done
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 the catalogs that exist.
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
A useful starting point for discussion of paths of access may be
to acknowledge that everything in our collections does not require
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. We probably want to offer wide access to
information about the contents of collections through cataloging
and inventories. We probably want to offer international, networked
access to some parts of our collections. The first step toward establishing
what is possible in access to audio collections is recognizing 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?
To order our thinking, Suter suggests five milestones on "the
road toward archival accessibility":
- creating or acquiring and accessioning important collections
- processing the collections for complete accessibility in house
- describing collections online
- producing detailed finding aids on the Web
- making archival collections themselves available on the Web
He hastens to add that, although these may appear to be a logical
order of work, "in the practical world of an archives, work
may be happening on all steps at the same time and sometimes out
of order" (Suter 2000:1-2). Suter offers a useful starting point
for a discussion of the problems we face.
An immediate issue in 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 of Byzantine
and Eastern Orthodox Chant required that we identify which typed
notebooks belonged to which recordings, which notes were lecture
notes derived from field notes, and then which tapes had been copied
from earlier ones and where the other accompanying documents belonged.
Ethnic collections often require highly specialized subject and language
skills 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 Research
Libraries Information Network is needed. Preparing electronic documents
requires some command of mark-up language. Preparing and storing
digital images requires 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. A computer programmer is often necessary for using 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 is always the most expensive component of any initiative,
certainly in the long run. Moreover, pleas for more staff members
generally require extensive justification and may not be 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 require four hours of
skilled labor for one hour of sound.
A common solution to the problem of labor cost is to get a grant.
After one has invested weeks or months preparing a compelling argument
for a necessarily trendy or attractive part of a collection and assembled
the requisite budget, a granting agency may provide the needed help.
The problem is that, at the end of the grant, project staff members
must depart, taking their skills with them, and the process must
begin again in another part of the collection. The maintenance of
digital products created by grant-funded projects may itself be a
One might justly argue that some of the necessary skills are quickly
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. What if you want your access
tools to persist, to be durable and refreshable? One homemade CD
probably will not meet this need nor will it offer networked access.
Hard links on Web sites eventually lead to nonexistent servers. CD-Rs
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 even if we are able to do so. We need durable audio products.
We have seen the failings of cassettes, open-reel tape, CD-Rs, and
digital audiotapes. Our cataloging and other electronic documents
must be stored in a secure and widely accessible environment, preferably
one that can be searched internationally without 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 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.1
Metadata become 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? 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 cannot find it, let alone use it or move 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, when there is a staff to do so, and have done so for
some time. Our challenges in providing intellectual access are in
enabling searches 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 exists. Even though we can
now potentially access and use each other's databases if they are
online, I have never felt that inventing an idiosyncratic, stand-alone
database is a good idea. 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. Nonspecialists 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. The Association for Recorded
Sound Collections (1995) published handy compendia of standard cataloging
rules for audio materials. The International Association of Sound
Archives (1999) recently released a more broadly conceived international
set of rules that presents a "best practice" without reference
to a particular machine-readable format or to practices of a single
country or language.
Unfortunately, adapting established practice does not always work.
Existing classification 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 multicultural
collections. Developing new tools, such as thesauri, is 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. 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 whereas 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 Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR2) 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 descriptors (EAD) are a good alternative. EAD offers a looser,
more narrative, and adaptable format for inventorying collections
than does standard cataloging. However, producing the proper diacritical
marks for the names and terms of a Vietnamese or Hmong community
in EAD finding aids 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 old and sometimes incomplete. The terms can be too puristic to
suit multicultural communities. As archivists, we may easily feel
stuck, that everything we do 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.
Partly in response to such issues, Suter draws attention to the
need for our access tools to feature blunt pointers to general groups
of records likely to include what the researcher is seeking. "A
too-sharp pointer, one that takes a researcher to the precise item
she or he is seeking, is very expensive and difficult to create,
and more important, it means the researcher doesn't need to look
through all the other interesting materials in neighboring boxes
or folders" (Suter 2000: 5). As an inveterate browser of index
screens in online catalogs, I find Suter's point compelling.
Attempting to step out of the morass myself, I would like to describe
an initiative that our library launched in 1999. Called "Music
from the Archives," it attempts preservation of and access to
some of our unique collections. I offer this not as a prescription
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 was not conceived as a comprehensive
program through which everything we have will be digitized; rather,
it tries to advance ways to offer wide access, intellectually and
virtually, to selected items from our collections. Our selections
proceed from the strengths of our collection, which in turn proceed
from the priorities of our primary constituency: the faculty and
students of the Harvard music department and the related larger research
The contents of a collection will be presented in an electronic
document that follows the format of the electronic finding aid. It
draws on national standards and practices for the creation of EAD
documents and serves them from Harvard's Online Archival Search Information
System (OASIS), 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. Ultimately, we want to create
a thoroughly integrated multimedia finding aid—one that may
use the technology emerging in the Making of America projects sponsored
by the Digital Library Federation—in which the digital resource
itself will be conceived as having multiple manifestations. Whereas
now we can move from one set of digital objects to another, our plan
is to produce a more flexible tool that will allow us to show relationships
among parts of our collection that may not be readily apparent to
the user—for example, among a festival program book, a photograph,
a concert program, and a recording. 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. At the music library, we did not try to develop or
invent these procedures. We did, however, develop our own audio preservation
studio because we considered ourselves and our colleagues to be 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 a high rate in superb detail. The
engineer typically reformats recordings onto two CDs (for users)
and two computer data tapes (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 are 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 on request.
Another result is that 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. Although
no particular claims for longevity can be made for CD-Rs 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 possibly hardier, than the
open-reel tape of our originals.
We seek solutions to the problems of digitizing, storing, refreshing,
reformatting, and migrating digital objects over the years. Beyond
creating access to resources, we seek to regularize the processes
of work that are necessary to create the digital products, using
our existing permanent staff wherever possible. Creating a new flow
of work and bringing together regular library staff members in the
production are goals as important as the resources themselves. For
these productions we do not want to rely on temporary project staff
members whose skill and training departs with them when the project
is over; a permanent staff can contribute to this new kind of work
over the long run. To summarize our goals, we seek to use digital
technology to develop a new model of access to rare audio collections,
produce useful electronic resources, and 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 as we can manage. I have
sought ways to develop this project for the better part of 10 years.
Only recent circumstances and priorities in my institution have rendered
it finally possible. Our work is inextricably linked to the time
and place and 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, it may help to
make selections based on our collections and constituencies. Each
of us working selectively from strength may produce a good corporate
result for access to our collections. Storage of archival collections
often predicates access, and labor (to alter storage systems by reformatting)
is expensive. These two factors suggest that access and preservation
or storage decisions and actions should be made simultaneously if
We should 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 could all use?
To make long-term use of such facilities, we need to master systems
of metadata. For these expensive enterprises, we need to have an
ideal in mind from which we retreat as necessary when costs are prohibitive
or processes inappropriate to the desired long-term result. The simplest,
cheapest alternative may be the one we have to take. (Even well-endowed
institutions have budget constraints.) However, simplest and cheapest
is not a fertile place to begin a thoughtful planning process. We
need to consider the possible best alternatives in concert with what
we can do immediately and practically to lead our institutions forward
Certainly, we need to retool ourselves a bit for these tasks. We
also need to find ways to acquire or share the services of specialists
such as audio engineers, computer programmers, and subject specialists.
We as individuals cannot become all of these people. We need
to bring specialists into our environments by hiring them or, more
practically, by establishing regional centers of service and consultation
to which the smallest archive might have affordable access. We need
to fashion workable collaborations that produce results rather than
years of committee meetings that yield nothing we can actually use.
about these programs have appeared with some frequency in the IASA Journal (formerly The Photographic
Bulletin) and the Information Bulletin of the International
Association for Sound Archives.
Association for Recorded Sound Collections. 1995. Rules for Archival
Cataloging of Sound Recordings, 2nd ed. Annapolis: Association
for Recorded Sound Collections.
International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives. 1996. Information
Bulletin. Baden Baden: International Association of Sound and
_____. 1999. The IASA Cataloguing Rules: A Manual for the Description
of Sound Recordings and Related Audiovisual Media. Compiled
and edited by the IASA Editorial Group convened by Mary Miliano.
Stockholm: International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives.
National Public Radio. 1999. Gettysburg Eyewitness. Produced by
Jay Allison. Available from http://www.npr.org/programs/Infsound.
_____. 2000. The Vietnam Tapes of Lance Corporal Michael A. Baronowski.
Produced by Christina Egloff and Jay Allison. Available from http://www.npr.org/programs/Infsound.
Suter, John. 2000. Response to Virginia Danielson's "Stating
the Obvious: Lessons Learned Attempting Access to Archival Audio
Collections." Presentation at the conference Folk Heritage
Collections in Crisis, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,
December 1–2, 2000.
Summary, Responses, and Discussion
Virginia Danielson began the summary of her paper with the acknowledgment
that as she wrote the paper, she thought of entitling it "Failing
Laura Boulton." Part of the Laura Boulton Collection is housed
at the Archive of World Music at Harvard University, and the Archive's
first major digitization project was designed to get a significant
portion of this collection online. As is common with digitization
projects, there was a steep learning curve. Many of the lessons about
access that she imparts in her paper were learned the hard way and,
to some extent, at the expense of Laura Boulton and her heritage.
The Archive digitized everything in the collection, and the process
took three full-time employees 18 months to complete. When she assessed
the progress made and the price paid, Ms. Danielson had to conclude
that, despite their best efforts, they had failed Laura Boulton by
not providing effective access. By May 2001 that will be rectified:
a multimedia finding aid will be mounted to enable ready access to
Ms. Danielson underscored the key themes of her paper:
- Preservation must begin now because we cannot afford to wait
until a better technology comes along.
- Digital access must be selective for ethical, legal, technical,
and financial reasons; comprehensiveness should not be a goal.
- Digital storage costs may go down but labor costs will not; we
must strive for cost-effective approaches to digital access.
- Identifying technical skills needed—from programmers and
engineers to cataloging staff—must come early in project planning;
outsourcing will be inevitable.
- Digital access is an added value and fees for service should
be considered to offset the costs.
She advocated for libraries to be clear about what is necessary
to do as opposed to what is only desirable. The former should not
be sacrificed for the latter. She called for common archival repositories
for digital storage available to all types of collecting institutions
She made several additional observations that need to be addressed
in considering how to widen access to folk heritage collections.
Among the technical concerns that both folklorists and librarians
mention is that although EAD (encoded archival descriptors) may be
a fine thing for collections of text-based materials, it does not
work for folklore. The field needs to develop a new document-type
definition for sound recordings. Another community concern is that
the field has not developed a controlled vocabulary that permits
ready subject access. This must be attended to quickly. As cataloging
departments are downsized in libraries and networked search and retrieval
protocols gain ascendance, catalogers become "content people," subject
experts who are essential intellectual peers. Ms. Danielson urged
her colleagues to become involved in developing and using descriptions
of collections that are acceptable to the communities they represent
and are also readily understandable by users.
- Art Silverman, National Public Radio
- John Suter, New York State Archives
Art Silverman, the senior producer of "Lost & Found Sound," spoke
of the access needs of users—from radio producers like himself
to the many listeners and researchers who depend on the work of Ms.
Danielson and her colleagues across the country. After admitting
that he risked stating the obvious, he discussed lessons he and his
colleagues have been learning while seeking access to archival audio
collections for his radio show on our aural environment and its past.
Dependent as radio producers are on private and public collectors,
they are even more dependent on deadlines and their ability to find
suitable materials under pressure. The promise of digital technology
to capture faithfully and preserve without distortion over time is
almost magical, as is its promise to enable the quick retrieval and
easy sharing of sound files.
Speaking from the point of view of a consumer, he urged an expansive
view of what to collect and preserve. There is no way to know what
will be important in the future, and the opportunity for regret is
enormous. At the same time he cautioned that preservation must also
be selective, because rich archives that are inaccessible—not
cataloged, searchable, or readily retrievable—might as well
not exist. So, how do we find a happy medium?
"Lost & Found Sound" can serve as an example. In a
sense, the call by the producers for listeners to submit their precious
audio collections created a collection. The producers empowered millions
of individuals to act as curators of their own folk collections.
When National Public Radio accessioned the materials, they suddenly
faced the same difficulties as other collecting groups. They have
a bewildering variety of media, from wax cylinders to 78-rpm recordings
to Dictaphone belts. They came to see that the art of good collecting
is knowing what to discard. Trying to create natural triage and intellectually
sound ways to narrow the choices in audio is hard because we have
been dealing with audio for only a few generations. There is as yet
no audio trail comparable with a paper trail. Hence the promise of
digital storage that Ms. Danielson touts may put off for decades
the painful choices of what to preserve.
In the meantime, it will be important to save some examples of the
original analog artifacts of sound, such as cylinders, discs, and
8-track tapes—artifacts that might be called the audio equivalent
of first editions—together with original playback equipment
that can recreate the original acoustic experience. The voices we
hear from the 1890s are distorted because of the frailties of analog
equipment; it will be important to consider what our present-day
digital fidelity will mean to sound in the future. Radio producers
can help raise current awareness about the importance of our audio
heritage and so raise support for funding the work involved in collecting
Mr. Silverman claimed that the most useful tool he could imagine
now would be a simple online reference guide to audio collections.
This guide would be a one-stop catalog for collections and would
use an understandable controlled vocabulary, or common language,
that would open up the world of sound to all.
John Suter, former director of the New York Folklore Society and
now of the New York State Heritage Documentation Project, focused
his remarks on what the professional librarians, archivists, and
folklorists could do to make concrete advances in access to folk
heritage collections. The underlying theme of his remarks was that
access is about audience and sustainability. The general health of
folk heritage collections is jeopardized by their low status within
academia, reflected in the fact that the academic departments, such
as ethnomusicology, that rely on these collections are often relegated,
literally, to the basements of music departments. As borne out by
the survey conducted for the conference, funding for collections
and staff is also at or near the ground-floor level.
Mr. Suter proposed five milestones of accessibility for collections:
- creating or acquiring and accessioning important collections
- processing the collections for complete accessibility in-house
- describing collections online with collection-level records in
MARC or other standard formats
- mounting detailed finding aids on the Web
- making archival collections themselves available on the Web
All institutions, regardless of size and wealth, face the fundamental
challenges of identifying collections, bringing them into the archives,
putting them into some sort of intellectual and physical order, and
making finding aids. Perhaps only well-funded organizations can get
to stages 4 and 5, but they will find stages 1, 2, and 3 every bit
as difficult as will their smaller peers. Mr. Suter underscored how
important it is in the fields of folklore and ethnomusicology that
solutions to technical problems, such as cataloging and description,
be scalable to small as well as large collecting institutions. Citing
the evidence gathered in the survey before the conference (see Appendix
II), he pointed out that the folk heritage collections that are in
crisis reside in myriad small institutions. These collections can
reach the milestones of accessibility only if all members of the
communities represented at the conference actively pursue collaboration
and open communication.
Turning to steps essential to achieving accessibility, Mr. Suter
called for a thorough grounding of folklorists in the basics of archival
practice and terminology. He pointed to the work done in New York
State and available in print, Working with Folk Materials in New
York State (Suter 1994) and Folklore in Archives: A Guide
to Describing Folklore and Folklife Materials (Corsaro and Taussig-Lux
1998), as good starting points for folklorists. It is important to
develop and sustain partnerships with professional archivists. He
advocated publicizing the value of folklore materials not only to
folklorists and ethnomusicologists but also to historians, linguists,
genealogists, musicians, and crafts people, among others. Increased
demand for these materials will inevitably lead to more resources
being devoted to making them accessible. Such access cannot be provided
without developing a thesaurus or controlled language in which to
describe the materials. He echoed Ms. Danielson's call to use terminology
that is transparent—a blunt pointer, he said—because the
universe of folk materials is very large and sparsely populated.
A thesaurus must make items used by ethnic groups with different
traditions of transliteration readily accessible to nonspecialists.
The thesaurus project, while widely supported in the professional
community, has run into some resistance by those who wish to make
the vocabulary refined and perfectible. Mr. Suter urged that we not
let such concerns keep us from beginning the hard work of creating
Speaking of the promise of digital technology to make folk heritage
collections more accessible and thus build awareness of them, Mr.
Suter recommended that institutions that could afford to put collections
online strike a balance between attempting to do whole collections—which,
as Ms. Danielson pointed out, can slow the effort and be extremely
resource intensive—and doing what is in effect an anthology.
Making selected and annotated collections accessible can make intrinsically
valuable materials readily available to a new audience while being
an effective marketing tool for the entire collection, the repository,
and folklore in general. The opportunity to inform casual Web users
about the provenance of the materials and the effort behind the images
and sounds, from documenting and collecting to preserving and describing,
should always be a focus of such Web publications. The ultimate goal
of increased access is to make the stuff of folklore a universally
valued part of our common cultural heritage. Ultimately, that is
the only way to secure its preservation and accessibility.
The issues of greatest moment to the participants were those of
identifying what collections exist, creating efficient means for
accessing them, creating a thesaurus, and using the Web for access.
Identification, Selection, and Inventories
Participants were sobered by how small a portion of the folklore
universe was captured in the survey conducted—all of it unpublished—and
how inaccessible even those collections appear to be. Some called
for doing a general inventory of collections that would include published
materials, especially all the ethnic materials recorded before the
Second World War. Given the instability of the commercial market,
how frequently companies were bought and sold, and how spotty the
record is about what happened to the inventory, this seems a daunting
task, although private collectors, many of whom are well-known, may
have a lot of information about commercial recordings. The Association
for Recorded Sound Collections has agreed to seek funds for compiling
a national discography of 78s.
Another aspect of that problem concerns selection: scholars, and,
to some extent, collectors have their fashions and changing interests
and may not even collect some of the materials that will turn out
to be of special value. Are we about to lose the history of white
jazz because we accord black jazz greater status these days? Compiling
information about whatever it is that is held in public and private
hands as well as information about what was commercially recorded,
whether or not it exists in a collection, is essential to defining
the parameters of ethnic music.
Bibliographical versus Sound Access
Some participants argued for making collections accessible by putting
them online and providing direct access through sound whereas others
argued that this is a self-defeating and financially unrealistic
approach. A fundamental cleft exists between those who wanted to
solve the problem of access by dumping things online and those who
hold that bibliographic access, while not exciting, is still the
only way to build a sustainable network of access for all. Both camps
agree, however, that there is a need for greater commitment of institutional
resources to mounting sound collections online to build awareness,
constituencies, and so forth. Perhaps if regional collections would
federate to mount holdings online, they could achieve economies of
scale and solve the preservation as well as the access issue by pooling
resources. The online environment, while very enticing, is fraught
with many uncertainties. Certainly, the ongoing legislative battle
over Napster and other file-swapping technologies challenges the
notion that increased online access will lead to increased funding.
On the contrary, some participants pointed out, the public will continue
to assume that music, spoken word, and other audio should be available
Those who argued for a concerted effort to increase bibliographic
access pointed out that EAD needs considerable refinement to make
it work at the item level for audio recordings and that there are
promising new forms of description that may be more flexible for
sound. Among those mentioned were the Dublin Core, guidelines published
by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, and international
rules proposed by the International Association of Sound Archives.
It was noted that there is a need to harmonize or merge descriptive
practices with standards used by the Society of Motion Picture and
Television Engineers and Audio Engineering Society, and with other
Agreement was widespread that creating a thesaurus is a critical
first step in widening access to folk heritage, and participants
moved to lower barriers to working on this important tool. There
was consensus that an ethnographic thesaurus would be a terminology
list for folklorists and ethnomusicologists that would be flexible
to allow deviations for local adaptation. It would allow nonspecialists
to access finding aids and collection descriptions. Although some
debate occurred about how expansive or narrow and how technical or
secular the terminology should be, all participants recognized that
other disciplines had faced similar challenges of scope when creating
their controlled vocabularies and that this group needed to consult
with groups experienced in other fields.
One of the most promising ways to solve several problems facing
folklorists would be to create a portal. This would enable one-stop
shopping—also described as the Yellow Pages for folklore—for
information about collections and would provide a place for small
institutions that cannot create a significant Web presence to find
a place in the larger universe of collections and expertise. The
portal would include information about what repositories hold and
would provide guidelines for collectors and donors about how to document
and prepare their collections, sample release forms for subjects,
and so forth.
On several occasions one participant expressed the need for some
tool to be created or information to be gathered and another participant
said that such a tool already existed or some publication had appeared
with just that information. One example was a call for information
about the key elements of audio folklore documentation; the American
Folklife Center published such information in Folklife and Fieldwork (Bartis
1990). The portal would allow for free flow of expert information
among specialists in different areas. Knowledge transfer between
scholars and preservationists, folklorists, and archivists appears
to be a chronic problem and a major barrier to moving ahead with
solutions. The portal would bridge this gap and also provide knowledge
transfer to small and midsized organizations that cannot afford specialized
Problems always have to be solved in bringing such an idea as a
portal to life—who will do the work, where the portal will be
located, where funding for long-term maintenance will come from.
These problems are solvable.
Because the scope of folklore is so great (one participant pointed
out that it should include industrial as well as so-called community
lore), the only way to deal with access issues is to break the problem
down into regional collection and description responsibilities. It
will be easier to build support for access among those who have the
closest connections with the materials, and we need to empower local
communities to grapple with access and not abandon attempts because
they fall outside the purview of various professional folklore networks.
This again argues for scalable solutions to access issues.
Bartis, Peter. 1990. Folklife & Fieldwork: A Layman's Introduction
to Field Techniques. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress.
Corsaro, James, and Karen Taussig-Lux. 1998. Folklore in Archives:
A Guide to Describing Folklore and Folklife Materials. Ithaca,
N.Y.: New York Folklore Society.
Suter, John, ed. 1994. Working with Folk Materials in New York
State: A Manual for Folklorists and Archives. Ithaca, N.Y.:
New York Folklore Society.
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