Monday, 7 October 2013

Do sound engineers have more fun?

At the end of last week I was at the British Library on their excellent ‘Understanding and Preserving Audio Collections’ course.

British Library and Newton by Joanna Penn on Flickr
The concept of ‘Preserving audio’ is not a new one to me. Audio needs to be digitised for preservation and access and that pushes it firmly into my domain as digital archivist. I know the very basics such as the recommended file formats for long term preservation, but when faced with a real life physical audio collection on a variety of digital and analogue carriers it is hard to know what the priorities are and where exactly to start. This is where the ‘Understanding audio’ part of the course came to my rescue, filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge.

The course

The first day of the course was fascinating. We were given a run-down of the history of audio media and were introduced to (and in many cases, allowed to handle) many different physical carriers of audio. Hearing a wax cylinder being played on an original phonograph was a highlight for me. Digital archivists don’t normally get to play with the physical artefacts held within archives!  Perhaps most useful in this session was learning how to recognise different types of physical media and spot the signs of physical degradation.

In the following two days the emphasis moved on to digital carriers and digital files. Interestingly digital carriers were seen to be more vulnerable than analogue in many respects. Digitisation workflows were also discussed and we got the chance to see around the digitisation studios with a wide range of equipment demonstrated. This was the point at which I started to wish I was a sound engineer!

Not so different after all…

One of the things that struck me throughout the three days was that this really isn't an alien subject to me at all. Familiar concepts were repeated again and again about obsolescence of technology, lack of standards (particularly when a new type of media takes off), the importance of metadata, the idea that future technologies may be able to do a better job of this than us, and the vain hopes that an ‘everlasting’ media carrier may be made available to us and solve all of our problems. Standard topics in any introductory presentation concerning digital archiving!

What was new and interesting to me though was that for audio media a time limit has been internationally agreed for taking action. We need to plan to digitise our audio and preserve it within a digital archive within the next 15 years because there will come a point at which this strategy will not be possible any more. We have a limited window of opportunity to work in. Digitising obsolete analogue and digital carriers is becoming harder to do (as the media degrades in a variety of different ways) and more expensive (as the necessary hardware and parts becomes harder to source). In fact, whereas digitisation of documents is becoming cheaper over time as new technologies are introduced, the digitisation of audio is becoming more expensive over time as the necessary equipment becomes harder to get hold of.

Has such a time limit has ever been discussed for rescuing data from obsolete digital media such as floppies and zip disks? If so, it is not one that has hit my radar.

Putting the learning into context

The Borthwick Institute and the University of York curate some substantial music collections, but we have also been carrying out an audit of all the other bits and pieces of audio that are buried within some of our other collections. Currently we have a list with basic information about each item including the media type, the location in the strongroom and descriptive information taken from the label or packaging. The next step was to work out a digitisation strategy for these items.

This is all well and good, but work on this stalled as it quickly found its way into the ‘too difficult’ box. Following on from the information absorbed on this course, I now have the ability to start the process of prioritising the audio for digitisation based on variables such as vulnerability of the physical media and the condition of individual items. Also taking into account whether the content is unique or of particular interest.

Another benefit is that I now feel that I could now hold a conversation with a sound engineer! This is key to planning a digitisation project. Every discipline has its own particular language or jargon and happily I now have some understanding of waveforms, equalisation curves and sampling rates. At the very least I know what to ask for if writing a specification for an audio digitisation project and have a wealth of references, resources and contacts at my finger tips if I need to find out more.

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