“Audio Preservation in the Digital Age” — a conference report

As a new member of the Digital Collections department, I was very excited to attend this conference in order to learn more about digital preservation. Having also been interested in the “history of sound recording” ever since my first exposure to the website www.tinfoil.com, I had also hoped that this event would impart new perspectives from experienced professionals in order to guide me to learn more about audio engineering and its importance for cultural stewardship. Luckily, the presentations (especially those by George Blood and Mike Casey) did not disappoint; rather, they supplied many recommended resources to pursue long after the conference was over, and much inspiration to share with my colleagues at Joyner as well as with our profession in general.

In a concerted effort to keep this report somewhat short, though, I will restrict my comments to the following format:

[1-4] Name of the presenter, name of their segment

a) One hyperlink (generally to that presenter’s current “project”)

b) One thing that I learned during their talk or thought that they expressed exceptionally well.

Following those 4 sections, I will close with a few hypothetical musings about how the ideas gained at this conference might also be used here at ECU.

To begin, then, in the order that the presenters spoke on November 2nd:

[1] Sam Brylawski, Audio Preservation Basics Part I

a) Rather than just provide a link to where Sam currently works (the Special Collections dept. at UC Santa Barbara) here’s a link to a “podcast” that he did for NPR about “Music Insiders” picking old analog recordings that “should be issued on CD”. You’ll need RealPlayer, or another method to play real audio files, though:

http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/wesun/20021215.wesun.brylawski.ram

b) Sam relayed quite a number of sayings that doubled as good archival advice, but the one that I’ll mention here is as follows: “Preservation should begin even before you acquire a collection”. With this maxim in mind, you should remind potential donors that:

1. If the rights are transferred to the archival institution along with the materials then the archive will have a better chance of getting grant money in the future, as projects with digital exhibits are easier to “sell” (and this, it should be reminded, will provide more attention to their donated materials).

2. Remind the donors that you cannot give them the full market value for their wonderful collection since you will also have to spend money to sustain their materials in the proper way. This should be narrated as an advantage, however, as the longevity of a collection will hopefully outweigh any slight, immediate monetary gain.

[2] George Blood, Audio Preservation Basics Part II

a) A link to George’s company that provides archival audio services:

http://www.safesoundarchive.com/

b) A book can be physically examined somewhat quickly. Not as quickly, perhaps, as the robot in the movie “Short Circuit” can read an entire encyclopedia, but it can still be given a rather quick visual examination to determine if it needs any immediate preservation work. The same can be done for most audio formats too (to see if there is mold on wax cylinders, warped records, tangled tape, etc). And yet, this ease of examination doesn’t automatically transfer to the digital domain of binary digits. Fortunately, there is an easy solution thanks to the science of cryptography.

Every digital file can be given an MD5 checksum (or any other cryptographic hash function) in order to check the integrity of that file. So, whenever a TIFF, WAV, or any other digital file is created, an algorithm can be used to process the variable-length file into a fixed-length of 128 bits (which will be its MD5 checksum). Periodically – and especially both before & after a file is moved – you should regenerate the 128 bits. If they match, you’re good; when they don’t, you know you have a corrupted file that needs further preservation attention. And so, some sort of hash function should be stored in the administrative metadata of every digital file.

[3] Chad Hunter, Small Scale Audio Preservation & Digitization Projects

a) A link to Appalshop, a small non-profit center in Kentucky that is dedicated to preserving the local arts.

http://www.appalshop.org/

b) Do not be afraid to make mistakes in your projects and do not be afraid to share those mistakes. Granted, even Brylawski mentioned, among other things, that the Library of Congress has improvised with storage materials in the past, but it was Hunter that gave the most detailed information about a few different projects conducted at Appalshop and the lessons that they’ve learned and are continuing to learn.

One lesson: make sure you have a clear timetable and communication points set up with a vendor if outsourcing. You certainly don’t want your materials being mailed back to you without any warning and without any discussion about the archival process and the state of those materials.

[4] Mike Casey, Large Scale Audio Preservation & Digitization Projects

a) A link to the Sound Directions Project, which is a nationally-funded collaboration between Indiana University and Harvard to develop best practices and standards for the digital preservation and interoperability of archival audio formats.

http://www.dlib.indiana.edu/projects/sounddirections

b) As it’s widely known, the TIFF (revision 6.0) is the file format of choice right now for storing archival masters of image files. However, I wasn’t sure what the equivalent was for audio files. Quite simply, then, I learned that the target preservation format for audio files is the Broadcast Wave Format (confusingly, the file extension is still “.wav”). Based on the lossless Microsoft WAVE format, a Broadcast Wave file has been standardized by the European Broadcast Union and (like normal .wav files) includes space for supplemental metadata. Just one piece of metadata that Mike Casey recommended including is the original filename in the description field (just in case the name ever gets accidentally changed!).

Here at ECU there are numerous audio resources that will have to be considered for digitization in the near future – with technological changes in playback devices, there is simply no getting around this. The Oral Histories that both Joyner and Laupus Library collect are a good example. These collections primarily consist of audiotapes, which any good vendor has exceptional experience with. Because of this, as well as their relatively small size, these collections could also serve as ideal pilot projects for any further audio digitization efforts (be those outsourced, done locally, or a combination).

More local resources to consider, of course, would primarily be housed at the Music Library. According to their website, they currently have about 11,000 CDs, 6500 LPs, and 1800 audiotapes. Of course, we do not own the rights to the majority of these materials, but anything that is a local resource or in the public domain should certainly be inventoried with digitization in mind (the Field Audio Collection Evaluation Tool open-source application that IU will release next year could help to prioritize this process).

The digital collections department has already conducted one “music” project of local importance – the Alice Person: Good Medicine and Good Music project – and I have no doubt that there are many more potential projects waiting in the wings.

Finally, before I close, I want to mention one last piece of advice that George Blood shared with the entire group. When you are writing a grant, remember that you can write into that grant site visits to a select number of potential vendors. Mr. Blood confessed that he was surprised at how few of his customers ever made a visit. Of course, making phone calls to the vendor as well as their references and your colleagues is also invaluable and affordable, but if you are able to get a grant to cover it, you should definitely make it a point to personally visit a select number of vendors before fully committing to any outsourcing project.

Here is Johnny 5 – the robot from “Short Circuit” – to close this report and to wish everyone a wonderful Thanksgiving:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Johnny 5. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thanks, Johnny… No. 5 is alive!

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