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Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis

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No Time to Dawdle: Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis

By James B. Hardin

The following article is reprinted from Folklife Center News, Winter 2001.

"One hundred years of sound recording has left us with a legacy of the equivalent of five petabytes of professionally recorded audio," said Elizabeth Cohen, one of three keynote speakers at the Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis symposium, sponsored by the American Folklife Center (AFC) and the American Folklore Society (AFS) and held at the Library of Congress, December 1 and 2, 2000. The event was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Recording Industry Association of America, and the GRAMMY Foundation. The purpose of the symposium, said Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center, was to "identify and define common problems, encourage the sharing of best management practices, suggest responses to critical issues, and develop plans to preserve folk heritage recorded sound resources for future generations."

The Documentary Century

In 1890, the first field documentary recordings were made by Jesse Walter Fewkes, who recognized that the recently invented Edison wax cylinder recording machine (1877) would allow anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, and others to bring the songs and stories of the people they interviewed back to the laboratory for study. His recordings of Passamaquoddy Indians in Maine began a century of documentary activity that has resulted in both a bonanza of recorded sound heritage and the challenge that we have before us today: how to keep that documentation safe, audible, and available for many years to come.

Over one hundred invited experts and observers assembled in the Mumford Room of the Madison Building to discuss what they are individually and collectively doing, or hoping to do, to meet that challenge. The symposium organizers invited them to address three major topics: preserving recorded sound (in various recorded-sound formats); providing access to collections regulated by complex terminology and differing restrictions; and negotiating the tricky landscape of copyright law and intellectual property rights.

There were librarians, archivists, audio engineers, computer scientists, preservation specialists, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, entertainment lawyers, and recording company executives. There were representatives from the National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Council for the Traditional Arts, the National Society of Audio Engineers, the Association of Recorded Sound Collections, the International Association of Sound Archives, the Society for Ethnomusicology, the Society of Archivists, and others.The title of the symposium derives from a growing perception among folklorists, archivists, and others that the various media used for field documentation are in serious danger of deterioration. Even tape recordings made as recently as ten years ago are at risk.

According to a recent national survey conducted by the American Folklife Center, hundreds of thousands of historic ethnographic audio recordings are in danger. Of the three hundred respondents to the survey, more than three-quarters reported that 25 to 50 percent of their collections are "seriously deteriorated." Problems associated with the 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 1970s and early 1980s, "drop outs" on DAT tapes, and delaminating CDs.

Welcoming the symposium participants, Associate Librarian of Congress Winston Tabb noted that "the word crisis is not exaggerated" when applied to folk heritage sound recordings, as demonstrated by the enthusiastic response of the assembled specialists when the symposium was announced.

"We can't afford to dawdle," said Elizabeth Cohen, head of Cohen Acoustical, Inc., Los Angeles, California, who proposed that digitization and data migration were the best solutions that the current technology has to offer to the problem of preservation. To raise money for the task, she emphasized, you must make the case in compelling language for "why what you are doing is important."

Importance of Folklore Archives

The two largest folklore archives in the United States are the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress and the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. There are smaller archives at UCLA, the University of Washington, the University of Illinois, and Harvard University, among other institutions. In addition, there are innumerable private collections held by individuals, museums, or local organizations, of material stored in conditions that range from good to deplorable, in climate-controlled areas, but also in basements and attics, some of personal, family, and local interest only, others of rare and important material.

Unfortunately, according to John Suter, New York Heritage Documentation Project, "ethnographic archives are often given low priority within the academy, and low budgets." Folklorists, inside and outside the academy, often have a difficult time making the case for the importance of their work and their ethnographic collections. It is the chief goal of their respective professions "to make the stuff of folklore and ethnomusicology a universally recognized part of the foundation of our cultural heritage," said Suter.

Sound recording has been "crucial to the profession of folklore" and has contributed greatly to "the development of concepts in the field," said Jo Radner, president of the American Folklore Society, which cosponsored the symposium. It is "the engine at the heart of folklore."

Access, Preservation, and Property Rights

Three areas of overlapping concern faced by all folk heritage collection archives (and the three issues addressed by the symposium participants) are access, preservation, and ownership. "Audio and visual materials are both by us and about us in important ways," said access keynote speaker Virginia Danielson, director of the Archive of World Music, Harvard University. "Families and local communities demand access to materials that they often, with justification, consider their own." But access is often complicated by the fact that the materials are fragile, require processing and cataloging, and are sensitive or restricted in nature. There is also disagreement about terms and standards for cataloging. In addition, "the expense of audio reformatting [transferring the sound from a fragile or at-risk medium to a safer one] is phenomenal."

Art Silverman, a producer for National Public Radio who has worked on the series "Lost and Found Sound," spoke of the claim the media have on folk archives, and the way in which an organization like NPR can bring attention to our national heritage of sound recordings. He spoke also of the great "potential for regret" if we fail to save the sound recordings that matter to people. Yet the question is, how to decide which recordings are of value. "My nightmare," he said, "is universal preservation. . . . What to save is a tougher question than how to save it."

Preservation keynote speaker Elizabeth Cohen struck a provocative note when she argued for the digitization of collection material (which allows for universal sharing online) and said that "preservation is dissemination." She outlined what she regards as simple truths: "the machinery will not be around in twenty years; the software will not be around in twenty years. . . You must accept data migration."

Mark Roosa, Library of Congress Director of Preservation, responded to Cohen by saying that the task is more complex for large institutions. The process of digital conversion is complicated, requires trained specialists, and is very expensive. In addition, Roosa said, "The Library must maintain all previous technologies for the next fifty years." Sometimes the originals prove to be better than the copies, and the newer technologies might extract more sound from the originals in the future.

The three central topics of the symposium-access, preservation, and intellectual property rights-are interlocking. Ownership and access are two sides of the same coin, and preservation through digitization has implications for both. Most archives simply do not have the legal right to put their collections online for universal access.

"Just because the collector or archivist has [sound recordings] doesn't mean they can use them however they wish," said intellectual property rights keynote speaker Tony Seeger, University of California, Los Angeles. "The Internet's potential to disseminate information rapidly and widely raises intellectual property issues with an urgency they have not had before."

Seeger played devil's advocate by suggesting that we keep our heritage alive by paying musicians to play their traditional music in traditional venues rather than using that money to archive a small number of performances. Then we could "burn the archives," which are "webs of rights and obligations." The people who have the largest stake in the ethnographic material housed in archives and those who care most about it are the people recorded, Seeger said. And "many societies have extremely elaborate concepts of ownership and control of knowledge." Archival collections are the historical and cultural legacies of particular communities and provide the tools for their "self-determination."

Conclusions and Products

Symposium coordinator Kelly Feltault said that most of the participants agreed on the "need for education and training for future field workers and archivists," who should learn about the best practices and latest technologies to protect sound recordings.

One of the initial hopes of the symposium planners was to produce a list of guidelines and recommendations for dealing with each of the major issues of access, preservation, and intellectual property. But participants found that that assignment was not easily accomplished. Nonetheless, a number of products from the symposium are planned. There will be (1) a "white paper," with the keynote addresses, a synopsis of responses and open-floor discussion, and the results of the break-out sessions on the second day of the symposium; (2) a "Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis" Web site, with the "white paper" and audio selections; links to other sites such as the American Folklore Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and other societies and organizations; and a list of participants; and (3) a listserv for participants, so that they can continue to communicate with one another by email.

Abby Smith, director of programs, Council on Library and Information Resources, invited the participants to "forge new working relationships and alliances." She compared the symposium to "a great dinner party," where folklorists, lawyers, preservation specialists, librarians, archivists, and funders have an opportunity to meet and exchange ideas. She asked everyone to take responsibility for keeping up the conversations after the symposium.

"We have not solved the many complex problems of folk heritage collection preservation and management, but we have made a start," said Peggy Bulger. "We are in this together, and together we can find solutions to our common problems."


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