SAVE OUR SOUNDS PROJECT
Head, Archive of Folk Culture
American Folklife Center
Library of Congress
use of sound recording equipment in ethnographic fieldwork has been
part of folklife research for well over a hundred years. In fact,
the Library of Congress holds Jesse Walter Fewkes’s wax cylinders
of members of the Passamaquoddy tribe that he recorded in 1890—probably
the first ethnographic field recordings (Fewkes 1890; Gray and Lee,
eds. 1985:221-32). Since then, ethnographers have preserved the voices
and performances of countless people from virtually all the world’s
cultures, and the American Folklife Center’s Archive of Folk
Culture is the largest repository in the country of this type of material.
What makes the library’s collection particularly valuable is
that many of the field recordings are accompanied by other documents,
making each recording a context-rich package of information. These
documents range from notes written on cylinder housings, disc sleeves,
and tape boxes, to recording logs and long narrative field notes,
to correspondence and other manuscript material related to the ethnographer’s
fieldwork. As well, photographs, drawings, and other graphic material
often accompany these documents, making the sound recordings part
of a truly multi-media package of information.
There are, of course, many problems associated with the archival maintenance
of multi-media collections, but among the most serious of these is
the potential deterioration of all or part of these packages of information.
No sound recording was meant to last forever and each recording format
presents its own set of preservation issues. Likewise, paper and photographs
need their own preservation treatments if they are to remain accessible
to researchers. In answering these problems, the American Folklife
Center has embarked upon a pilot digitization-preservation project
called the Save Our Sounds Project.
Save Our Sounds is a joint initiative between the American Folklife
Center of the Library of Congress and the Center for Folklife and
Cultural Heritage of the Smithsonian Institution. The project is financed
through the Save America’s Treasures Program of the White
House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation,
and administered by the National Park Service (see National Park Service
and National Trust for Historic Preservation n.d.). Because of legalities
involved in government agencies applying for funds from other government
agencies, the Smithsonian is the receiver of monies from the National
Park Service, and these funds are then dispersed to the Library of
Congress through an inter-agency cooperative agreement. The grant
totals $750,000, of which the Library of Congress share is $285,000.
This particular arrangement between three government agencies—the
National Park Service, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress—was
to a great extent uncharted territory. Establishing the details of
the agreement, including procedures for fund sharing and expense reporting,
was a time-consuming affair. Adding to the complicated nature of this
agreement, both the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress were expected
to raise matching funds in order to access the earmarked funds from
the National Park Service. Here as well, agreements had to be established
on procedures for shared fundraising, as opposed to the separate fundraising
ventures of each institution.
The legal and bureaucratic components of this project extended from
the announcement of the award in July 2000 to April of 2001, which
may seem like an inordinate amount of time, but this type of inter-agency
agreement was as much a pilot for possible future agreements as the
project itself was a pilot for digitization procedures. Both the Smithsonian
and the Library of Congress learned much about what was, and what
was not, possible in a joint agreement and the Save Our Sounds Project
will undoubtedly smooth the way for future shared initiatives.
The project itself called for the digital preservation of 8,000 recordings,
with the Smithsonian digitizing 5,000 of these and the Library of
Congress responsible for the other 3,000 recordings. What constituted
a “recording” was kept fairly loose—it could be a two-minute
cylinder or a two-hour tape—but it was generally agreed that
the operative unit would be a single sound storage artifact. This
artifact could be in any format. The Smithsonian’s selected recordings
were instantaneous discs and audio tape recordings. The Library of
Congress cast a wider net, including wax cylinders, instantaneous
discs, wire recordings, audio tape (both open reel and cassette),
DAT tape, and video tape (both open reel and cassette).
The recordings selected at the Library of Congress were all from collections
held by the Archive of Folk Culture of the American Folklife Center.
The strategy for selection involved a number of criteria, but the
guiding principle was that the American Folklife Center would save
collections, rather than individual recordings. The reason for this
principle is that digitizing should be seen as a part of the processing
schedule of any collection, rather than as a hunt-and-pick activity.
After a collection has been donated, accessioned, inventoried, stabilized
and rehoused, described and catalogued, the next processing step would,
in ideal circumstances, be the digital preservation of the collection.
Obviously, each of these processing steps involves decision making,
and each collection demands its own customized processing plan. Regarding
digitization, the first question to ask is whether the entire collection
should be digitized, or only a selected portion. Given a particular
collection, certain administrative files, duplicate material, or published
material may not be part of the digitized collection—in essence,
for each collection a decision was made as to what part of the collection
was “it” and what was not “it” from the digital
point of view.
I will further describe this decision making below, but the first
task of the archive staff was to select the collections that would
be part of the Save Our Sounds Project. As I stated earlier, there
were a number of criteria for selection, ranging from the technical
to the political.
° Content. The Save America’s Treasures Program required
that the material to be digitized should have American content. In
effect, the recordings should be of American traditions or should
reflect an American perspective on folklife. This criteria was political,
in that the Americanness of any part of the archive is not normally
a criteria for preservation. We are the Archive of Folk Culture, not
the Archive of American Folk Culture, and our collections policy
extends to traditional material from any of the world’s cultures.
° Historical or cultural significance. All of our collections
are culturally or historically significant, and it is a mug’s
game to distinguish between more and less significant collections.
However, archive staff were aware that certain collections were in
high demand, or were well known within the scholarly community, or
were likely to gather a readership, once they were made accessible
in digital form. This criterion was, of course, subjective and demanded
that, in order to arrive at their decisions, archival staff needed
to apply their experience and knowledge of the center’s archival
holdings, as well as the habits of researchers.
° Present state of accessibility. Another criterion involved
how accessible a collection was, in practical terms, for use by researchers.
As is standard practice, we do not serve original sound recordings,
but many of the listening copies in our archive are of poor quality
and are deteriorating. In many cases, we have no listening copies
for collections that have been in the archive for years—making
these recordings almost entirely inaccessible. As well, although we
do serve original manuscripts and photographs, certain items may be
held back from researchers because of their fragility or deteriorated
° Fragility and deterioration. A major criterion was the
physical state of the recordings in a collection. Some sound recordings
are, by their nature, more unstable than others—and this is not
always a matter of age. A 100-year old cylinder may be more stable
than a 1970s audio tape.
° Variety of sound recording formats. Because Save Our Sounds
is a pilot project, we were intent on trying out our procedures on
a variety of formats. Thus, we selected collections that called for
the digitization of cylinders, discs, wires, audio and video tapes,
and born digital recordings.
° Complexity of collections. Again, because the project
was a test of our capabilities, we chose collections of varied complexity.
Some were composed of sound recordings and little else, while others
were multi-media in the extreme, consisting of several kinds of recording
formats, manuscripts, and images.
° Diversity of material. The project depended upon raising
matching funds from outside sources. To maximize our chances of attracting
donors, we understood the necessity of including a variety of kinds
of collections that would appeal to different kinds of donors. It
was important that we keep in mind the ethnic and national traditions
represented by the collections, their genre, their region of the country,
and gender issues, among other aspects of diversity.
° Other political considerations. In the case of one collection—the
Pearl Harbor Collection—which I will describe more thoroughly
below, the decision was of a political and practical nature. After
the September 11th tragedy, the center staff gathered to decide how
we might respond. The result was a collection of audio and video recorded
first reactions of Americans from around the country; these interviews
were carried out by a number of ethnographers, students, and interested
citizens. The project was inspired by a similar project carried out
by the Library of Congress sixty years earlier. The day after the
1941 Pearl Harbor attack, Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress called
on folklorists across the country to conduct man-in-the-street interviews
in order to document first impressions of the event. The timeliness
of these Pearl Harbor recordings—in light of the September 11th
tragedy—combined with the knowledge that the Franklin and Eleanor
Roosevelt Institute had an interest in the Pearl Harbor material and
the American Folklife Center had recently initiated its high-profile
Veterans History Project, made the Pearl Harbor Collection a good
choice for the Save Our Sounds Project. Beyond its obvious historical
significance, the collection would make the project that much more
of interest to donors and to the media—and would give the entire
project a heightened political profile that would benefit future fund-raising
No one collection received top marks in all of these criteria and
deciding on which collections to choose for the project was a matter
of balance and compromise—and the collective wisdom of the reference
and processing staff of the American Folklife Center. With these criteria
in mind, however, eight collections were chosen for the project:
° Eloise Hubbard Linscott Collection. Linscott was a collector
of traditional music and song in New England. She began her collecting
with a cylinder recorder, graduated to a disc-cutting machine, and
eventually used a tape recorder over her collecting career which extended
from the 1930s to the 1960s (Baker 1979). The variety of discs that
she used included aluminum discs and lacquer discs with aluminum,
glass, and paper bases that varied in dimensions and quality. In addition
to approximately 450 sound recordings, her collection includes over
100 photographs and 6,000 pages of manuscript. All of this material
is slated for digitization. Her collection also includes a copy of
her book, Folk Songs of Old New England (Linscott 1939), that
she modified with inserted photographs and notes—all of which
makes it an “association copy” of the book—and this
too is part of the digitization project. The collection also consists
of hundreds of pamphlets, booklets, and other printed and published
ephemera that fall outside of the scope for digitization. They are
not “it” as far as the Save Our Sounds Project is concerned.
° James Madison Carpenter Collection. Carpenter was an American
folklorist who went to the United Kingdom in the late 1920s to record
sea chanteys, ballads, songs, dance tunes, and traditional dramas.
He also recorded songs and narratives in the southern United States.
His collection includes approximately 180 cylinders, 200 instantaneous
lacquer discs, over 400 photographs in several formats, and over 13,000
pages of manuscript. All of this material, with the exception of some
of the discs (which are partly transfers from the cylinders) is being
digitized. Nine thousand pages of student papers that Carpenter kept
from the classes he taught, however, are not scheduled for digitization.
This collection has the potential of attracting researchers who have
become aware of Carpenter’s work (Bishop 1999), but who have
been frustrated by the poor quality and general inaccessibility of
the current analog copies of Carpenter’s original materials.
A team of British researchers has recently created an online catalog
to the Carpenter collection that will greatly add to the value of
the digital presentation of this material (Bishop et al. 2003).
° American Dialect Society Collection. In the early 1930s,
the American Dialect Society conducted recorded interviews with New
Englanders in order to gather samples of dialect (Kurath1939-43; Dialect
Collection for Folk Archive 1985). The result was approximately 880
aluminum instantaneous discs and 1,000 pages of transcriptions and
notes—all of which are scheduled for digitization.
° Don Yoder Pennsylvania German Collection. In the 1950s,
folklorist Don Yoder used a wire recorder to document Pennsylvania
German songs and narratives. This collection is made up of 32 wire
spools. Transcriptions taken from these wires have been used in publications
(see Boyer 1951; Buffington 1974; and Yoder 1961), but the sound recordings
have never been accessible to researchers.
° Eleanor Dickinson Collection. Eleanor Dickinson researched
the Holiness and Pentecostal churches of Appalachia and in the process
made 169 black and white, open reel video recordings of church services,
tent meetings, interviews, and other aspects of mountain religion
(Dickinson 1974; Maguire 1981). These videos are part of the Save
Our Sounds Project, but not her 200 audio tapes and several hundred
° Zuni Storytelling Collection. This collection consists
of 222 audio tapes. Recorded in 1966 and 1967 in Zuni Pueblo, New
Mexico, 19 Zuni elders tell over 800 stories, including seven or eight
narrators relating hour-long telapna:we, a traditional form
of Zuni folktale (for similar material, see Tedlock, 1999).
° International Storytelling Foundation Collection. This
organization is responsible for the annual National Storytelling Festival,
as well as other public events. The collection comprises a comprehensive
documentary record of every year of the Jonesborough, Tennessee, festival
that began in 1973 (National Association for the Preservation and
Perpetuation of Storytelling 1991; Smith 2001). This collection consists
of 5,221 audiotapes and DAT tapes, 1,161 videotapes, 27 CDs, 174 LP
discs, 1,200 volumes of books, 18 binders of the serial Yarnspinner,
and approximately 196,000 manuscript leaves. The Save Our Sounds project
will digitize all of the 678 open-reel audiotapes and 400 DAT tapes,
as well as any manuscript documents directly related to these tapes.
° Pearl Harbor Collection. As explained above, this collection
has special political significance. Following the December 7, 1941
attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war, the
Library of Congress organized “man on the street” interviews
around the country to document people’s reactions to these events.
Alan Lomax and other experienced fieldworkers conducted interviews
in Washington, D.C., Tennessee, New York City, and Texas, among other
locations, on December 8–10, 1941, and again in January and February
1942. A number of these discs were used for radio programs during
World War II (Gevinson 2002). The collection contains 77 acetate discs
and 90 pages of manuscript material, all of which are part of the
Save Our Sounds Project.
Digitizing the sound recordings in these collections follows a strategy
worked out in consultation with the Motion Picture, Broadcasting,
and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. Audio engineers
will first examine the physical condition of the individual recordings
and perform any necessary cleaning of surfaces and grooves. This is
the only type of cleaning done to recordings, which are otherwise
recorded flat without any attempt to clean them electronically or
enhance their sound. In this way, a recording is treated as an artifact—cracks,
clicks, and all—with as much of its recorded information as possible
available in digital form. Using the same philosophy, discs are recorded
in stereo, even though they are mostly monographic recordings, since
slightly different information might be found on one groove wall as
opposed to the other.
is transferred to three digital files: one preservation master and
two service copies. The preservation master is transferred at 96 KHz/
24 bit word length as a WAV file. The high service copy is a 44.1
KHz/16 bit “CD quality” WAV file; and the low service copy
is an mp3 file. All of these files are stored on Library of Congress
servers and accessed from them. In addition, where no analog preservation
master currently exists for a recording, we are transferring the item
to 1/4-inch audio tape on 10-inch, slotless, NAB hub reels.
This digitizing strategy should allow the permanent storage of the
recorded sound in a system where the digital file can be continually
migrated to ever-newer hardware and software without deterioration.
Of course, the size and capabilities of the Library of Congress allow
for this system of server storage. Smaller repositories will probably
have to rely on CDs or other physical data-storage formats that might,
over time, also degrade or deteriorate.
There are exceptions to this strategy for certain types of formats.
For example, there is no use creating a 96/24 master of a DAT tape,
which is itself a digital medium; rather, a 44.1/16 WAV file serves
as a master, while the mp3 copy is the service file. The Dickinson
video tapes are also an exception. Because of the excessive amount
of storage required for digital moving image files, Dickinson’s
open-reel videos have been transferred to analog BetaSP cassettes
and digitial DigiBeta cassettes as preservation masters. The service
file is an MPEG3 streaming video on the Library’s servers.
Because we conceive of a sound recording as a package of information,
the Save Our Sounds Project also digitizes the following material
that accompanies the sound recording.
cover or housing, if it contains substantial information about the
recording—field notes written on disc sleeves and recording logs
on tape boxes being two examples.
° An image of the recording itself, if it is of interest because
of its deteriorated or broken state.
° Accompanying notes, such as paper log slips inserted in cylinders
or pages of notes kept inside of tape boxes.
the concept of a sound recording as a package of information, each
item receives extensive metadata description. Carl Fleischhauer will
explain in greater detail the metadata standards used, both in the
Save Our Sounds Project and as part of the digitizing strategy of
the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound
Division. Using a Web-based Oracle database, each recording receives
a metadata component of descriptive, administrative, and technical
information. The master and service digital copies of the recording,
images of the recording, its housing, or accompanying material are
associated with this data to create the entire information package.
The result of this digitizing procedure is a virtual presentation
of the collection. Researchers will be able to gain access to the
collection in the American Folklife Center reading room, where they
can listen to a recording, see associated images, read associated
texts, and see all of the metadata related to the recording.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to make these collections available
to everyone over the Internet. This goal has already been achieved
in the case of one of the Save Our Sounds collections—the Pearl
Harbor Collection. Because it is a relatively small collection that
was originally generated by the Library of Congress, there were few
problems in exhibiting the digitized sounds and manuscripts as one
of the Library of Congress’s American Memory sites (American
Folklife Center 2003). These sites present significant bodies of material
from different Library divisions, including collections from the American
Folklife Center. In the case of the Pearl Harbor Collection, we were
able to use the American Memory site to present a complete collection—in
fact, three complete collections that make up the Pearl Harbor material
held by the Archive of Folk Culture.
As other collections in the Save Our Sounds Project become available
in digital form, they will be considered for some form of Web site
presentation. Some, such as the Zuni Storytelling Collection, will
probably remain restricted to the library’s reading rooms, given
the culturally sensitive nature of the narratives and performances
in the collection. The same may be true of the Eleanor Dickinson Collection
of religious practices.
The great song collections of James Madison Carpenter and Eloise Hubbard
Linscott, however, will undoubtedly become available through a library
Web site. Presenting these collections in such a way constitutes a
form of mass media broadcasting, which involves at least one more
step in the process of making these collections accessible. Because
early collectors of folklore never sought release forms from those
they recorded, the library is under the ethical and perhaps legal
obligation to make a “good faith effort” to contact the
original performers or their descendants to gain permission to broadcast
their performances. This final step in the digital presentation of
ethnographic material brings the American Folklife Center back to
its core activity of involving tradition-bearers in building Library
of Congress collections.
Bringing this project to fruition involves a great many players: the
directors of the two centers at the Library of Congess and the Smithsonian
Institution who, with their staff, developed the project, applied
to the National Park Service, and who have continued to campaign for
matching funds from outside donors; the donors themselves, who range
from individuals to companies (such as Emtec Pro Media and the A&E
History Channel) to foundations (such as the Grammy Foundation and
the Rockefeller Foundation). The Leadership Committee of the Save
Our Sounds Project has also played a role—especially through
its Chairman, Mickey Hart—in finding support for the project.
As well, many divisions of the library have been involved in the project
(such as the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division;
Financial Services; Office of the General Counsel; the National Digital
Library; Contracts and Logistics Services; Automation Planning; and
Information Technology Services); and outside contractors (such as
the Cutting Corporation, UTA, and VidiPax) have been instrumental
in digitization and metadata structure.
Librarians, archivists, sound engineers, information specialists,
and other professionals have also assisted this project, either indirectly
through their writings and other communications, or directly through
the advice they have given and the questions they have asked. Various
workers on the Save Our Sounds Project have attended meetings and
workshops—such as this one—in order to share their experiences
and learn from the work of others. At present, there are no national
or international standards for the digital preservation of multi-media,
ethnographic archival collections. Large centers such as the Library
of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution will undoubtedly play
an important part in establishing such standards, but only in conjunction
with other centers—large and small—who hold similar kinds
The responsibility, therefore, of librarians is to keep lines of communication
open, and to strive for systems and procedures that can be shared
with or replicated at other centers. Not only will such openness prevent
the re-invention of the wheel (which has already happened to some
extent), but will facilitate the eventual linking of digitized collections
among institutions, or even the sharing of sites and data among institutions.
The time frame for the Save Our Sounds Project extends from June 2000
to September 2004, at which time all of the 3,000 earmarked recordings
at the American Folklife Center will have been digitized and made
accessible to researchers. But the result of this project will extend
beyond the digitization of this group of recordings. The practices
and procedures developed through this project will become the benchmark
for the further digitization of the holdings of the Archive of Folk
Culture. Ultimately, the project will function, for better or worse,
as a model of how ethnographic collections were digitally preserved
at the beginning of the 21st century.
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Note: This paper represents work carried out for a federal government agency and is not protected by copyright.