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2.3 Records management in sound archives

Helen P Harrison

1. Some form of records management is essential to impose order upon records and make them manageable and accessible to future users of the archive, whether these users are researchers, browsers, those with a commercial concern to reuse the material or interested members of the general public.

2. Actually little of the material in a sound archive can be followed through from its creation to its ultimate preservation? The idea of records management before the material arrives in the archive is desirable, but seldom achievable.

Records management is concerned with the creation of records at the time when the relevant material is created, or at least with communicating to the creators the necessity for adequate documentation dealing with the identification, maintenance, restoration and use of the material, before the archive necessarily becomes associated with the material involved. Ideally the conventional archivist would like to be in a position to decide at the time a record was produced if it has archival value that the creator would ensure that the record was produced bearing in mind future archival requirements. In the case of sound recordings this would include ensuring that the proper technical standards were achieved in the recording for long term preservation, that the information elicited in an oral history interview was relevant to the programme as conceived, that appropriate related documentation was provided in the form of transcripts and background information, and so on. This is an almost unattainable ideal for many sound archivists. But it is possible in some instances, especially with programmes where the archivist has an active role, such as initiating the recording programme or cooperating with the creators to produce material of archival value. If it is possible in some instances then it should be a goal of the archivist to try to widen the possibilities and the occasions upon which he can influence the creation and documentation of the potentially archival record.

3. Should sound archives try to preserve complete collections or representative samples of particular subject coverage? It may be argued that popular music may be of ephemeral interest and only a representative sample should be kept. Certain genres, such as folk music, may once have been a despised section of the recorded output, but now it and ethnic music are studied all over the world.

The challenge to the appraiser is how to predict which of the ephemeral material of today will become either the research material of tomorrow or indeed remain ephemeral.

4. Archivists should participate in decisions about how records are stored before they come to the archives. There is a need to influence file organisation, access systems and storage media. These methods will either help or hinder the work of archival preservation. The archive may be in a position to influence the setting up of some systems and of suggesting the level of technical standards which should be achieved or the type of documentation required. Records which conform to these standards can then be transferred to the archive with much of the initial processing and preservation already paid for. This is management of the record at the time of creation or before it ever comes into the archive.

5. It must be remembered however that commercial manufacturers are just that - they do not consider or cater for archival needs. They record, experiment, entertain if you will, but not necessarily with the future in mind.

Commercial producers regarded their function as providing an opportunity for a wide audience to hear (and see) the world's entertainers and artists in the comparative comfort of home. This is especially true of recordings of musical works. Sound recordings tend to become a private or personal entertainment. They enable people (rather as video and television today) to listen and enjoy in the comfort of their own homes. Although in the early days of sound recordings, gramophone record societies conducted "public" performances and in some situations still do, it was much more likely that the recordings would be made available either for sale or for loan to listen to at home and in peace - without the distractions of one's neighbours in the concert hall. Therefore we do have to ask in appraising sound recordings for archive purposes just why and for what purpose we are preserving the material. Is it as an historical document, a cultural object or document, or as a record of fact, or even as a development in recording technique?

Archives may be in a reasonable position to keep up with the acquisition of current or recent material, but historical commercial recordings and the non-commercial recordings pose additional and serious problems.

6. Commercial record production began in the 1890s; thus a large number of recordings were made long before many of the national archives were established and began serious collection. This, in turn, meant that a very large number of early recordings did not survive. Most sound recordings were not primarily designed with preservation in mind, but to produce reasonable quality playback combined with low-cost manufacture. Hence the problems presented to the technician for restoration or re-recording.

7. Without adequate collections management and the intervention of people the repository of sound recordings itself would experience difficulties and it would become increasingly difficult to locate particular items or groups of items within a reasonable period. Herein lies another argument for selection. Unless holdings have been selected with reasonable care there is little or no point in spending time and money documenting, storing and preserving material which is not of archival value.

There is merit in acquiring as much material as possible in a particular field of interest, especially in the early stages of development of a collection, but once acquired it is bad practice to leave such materials in an unordered state. The archivist has a responsibility to the material itself as well as his 'user'. The material needs processing, conservation, and some form of information retrieval, however basic, should be imposed upon it as soon as possible after acquisition.

An extension of records management is to survey the current record, that is before it is ever offered to the archive for retention. The objective is to identify material which has archival value and to ensure that this material is identified, documented and preserved against the day when it is finally offered to the archive.

8. Audiovisual archives are now in a better position to influence and improve by working on standards and guidelines for adequate bibliographic systems as applied to archives, and of trying to achieve wider recognition of the value of control at an early stage, rather than waiting for the unidentified, often incomplete and degraded copy to arrive in the archive. This is not only a matter of self interest but could achieve an economy of labour and release the archivist to concentrate on the maintenance and preservation of the record and the provision of adequate research facilities and services.

8.1 The body of commercial recording can be treated in an entirely different way from that of other types of recording.

Commercial records - primarily of music, but sometimes of the spoken word - are made for a wide market and the originals or matrices can be controlled in an archival situation, whether by a national depository or by the production company itself. The matrix is rarely deposited in a separate or independent archive, usually only copies are deposited.

8.2 Broadcast materials are created for a particular purpose, and a system of appraisal or selection can later be applied to such materials. Creation of such materials as with many paper records, is for a contemporary or current purpose; the process of selection or appraisal is thus undertaken to determine value for future use, and research.

9 Sound recorded content, as has been noted, will also have an influence on collections policy. A discographer for example may wish to ensure that the discography and therefore the collection it is based upon represents all the available material, and also that the material listed will be preserved; hence the necessity for adequate collections management. A discographer or a discography compiler will need information about the location of the material and also, before publishing findings, some reassurance about the preservation of the material to be included and the durability or physical life of the recording medium used. In archives which initiate their own recordings the eventual retention of the documents can be envisaged and taken into account from creation onwards. Oral history is another area in which some measure of control from the time of creation can be achieved.

10 A few statistics may help to illustrate the problems of control. The number of sound archives is approximately 400, ranging from the large national archives to specialised subject archives holding but a few hundred items. This figure does not cover the numerous collections of oral history and private collections of discographers. The Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) based in North America, has nearly 2000 members, many of whom are private collectors, while the Oral History Society in the UK alone has over 450 members.

11 With regard to the recording industry very few countries issue more than 1,000 commercial LPs annually, although a number of countries issue LPs and many archivists argue that one or two copies of each commercially produced recording should be housed within the national archive, if one exists. The figures may become a little blurred when we consider that recordings which could be classified as 'national' are manufactured, abroad and the national archives in particular will have to maintain a watching brief on these activities to ensure that they acquire copies

When one considers non-commercial recording the figures ar even more difficult to acquire and the situation becomes

For example, the figures for commercially-produced recordings in 1982 in the USA, that is, recordings produce by American companies, were 2,600 long playing records and 2,800 '45s. In 1983 in the UK, 1,700 titles were issued in classical music and spoken word, of which between 200 and 500 titles were in the spoken word category. Some 12,000 titles of popular music were issued.

11.1 Such figures do not take account of broadcast materials. For example, the BBC through its national and regional networks and External Services produces at a conservative estimate, puts over more than 3,000 hours per week.

11.2 In addition there are the oral historians who are constantly collecting material for their research purposes, and it would be very difficult to estimate the amount of material which is generated under this heading.

11.3 Finally there is the material already in archival custody, much of which requires appraisal or reappraisal.

11.4 A brief mention of some of these collections will highlight the problems involved and the necessity for post accessioning selection and reappraisal to reduce and maintain collections in manageable proportions.

The National Sound Archive in the UK holds an estimated 1/2 million discs, tapes and cylinders. The holdings of the Library of Congress is even greater. Arkivet för Ljud och Bild (ALB) in Sweden has 1,100 cylinders, 80,000 discs and 8,000 tapes and cassettes. The US National Archives has 12,000 microgroove recordings, 40,000 radio transcriptions and 12,000 tapes. The Public Archives of Canada holds some 90,000 items. The National Sound Archive of Australia holds more than 1/2 million items, and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, some 40,000 items. The University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) has several major collections; the Ethnomusic Sound archive, with 15,000 tapes, the oral history collection 3,000 tapes, and the music library with 18,000 discs. Of the radio archives, Norsk Riksrasting in Norway holds 30,000 tapes and discs in the programarkivet. NOS, in Hilversum, Netherlands, holds 150,000 discs and 50,000 tapes. The Voice of Kenya has 10000 electric discs, 200,000 microgroove and 30,000 tapes.

Such holdings grow exponentially at an annual rate.

Specialized subject collections may also contain recorded material or the archivist may have conducted interviews which have been edited for public access purposes, but the unedited material has its own value.

12 Much of the material being saved is not of intrinsic archival value. The number of extant wax cylinders, Philips and Miller recordings, and wire recordings is not great, and they are also concentrated in a few locations. The situation is different for sound recordings than for film, where there is considerable scope for retaining old equipment in order to replay the film in its original form and also to transfer volatile film to safety stock. The number of archival sound recordings on unusual formats will only justify the retention of comparatively few items of old playback equipment and the building of one-off machines for restoration of the sound content to acceptable listening levels.

13 The documentation of sound recordings includes scripts, transcripts, synopses, summaries, disc labels and gramophone record sleeves. In addition, there may be interviewing questions, project outlines, and outlines of interviewing procedures, related stills, especially in oral history and even artefacts. Newspaper clippings can be used to refer to the material in radio archives, giving more detail of daily events and news broadcasts. Related textual material should be surveyed, and the merit of selecting and appraising material based on textual material which refers to recorded sound materials that have been destroyed, should also be considered, (eg. the use of Hansard in the UK in Parliamentary archives).

13.1 Related documentation should not be used as a substitute for the material itself, indeed it cannot be used as a substitute for some recordings such as musical works. In some circumstances it may stand instead of the original recording, either because the original recording has been lost; because it was too lengthy for the archivist to contemplate maintaining and retaining in the archive; or, in fact, was so ephemeral, so much a waste of recording material, that it did not even warrant retention.

13.2 Documentation of oral history recordings should indicate the reasons for the interviews having been conducted in the first place - that is, why this material was recorded. This may have been to fill a particular gap in the collection or to capture a particular informant's information about a person or event before the inevitable happens. This is sometimes referred to as "active archival collection", and the oral historian and ethnologists in sound archives are prime examples of this type of activity.

13.3 The appraisal of the technical documentation of why a recording was restored, of what rerecording process was employed, and of the condition of the original is also an essential part of the appraisal process and information of this type should be kept and accessioned with the recordings.


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