Audiovisual and Digital Collections: Radio Preservation Task Force

Friday, March 11, 2016

Like many of you, I listen to the radio every morning while getting ready for work, on my commute in both directions, occasionally at work, and while cooking dinner. On average I listen to five hours of radio a day, which is five times the amount of television I watch (and I really like watching television).

For nearly a century, radio has been an integral part of everyday life in America. An immense amount of recordings from the history of radio exist in archives across the country and in private collections.  These audio recordings document our nation's history and cultural heritage. These audio recordings are also at high risk of being completely lost, too many are already lost.

Last month I represented Hagley at the Radio Preservation Task Force Conference. TheRadio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) was created in 2014 as part of the Library of CongressNational Recording Preservation Plan. The RPTF seeks to:

  • support collaboration between faculty, researchers and archivists toward the preservation of radio history;
  • develop an online inventory of extant American radio archival collections, focusing on recorded sound holdings, including research aids;
  • identify and save endangered collections;
  • develop pedagogical guides for utilizing radio and sound archives; and
  • act as a clearinghouse to encourage and expand academic study on the cultural history of radio through the location of grants, the creation of research caucuses, and development of metadata on extant materials.

The attendees and speakers at the conference included radio broadcast practitioners, scholars, professors, collectors, librarians, and archivists. There were many things to discuss and having all the various stakeholders represented provided a rich diversity of perspectives.

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One of the most prevalent topics was metadata. For those of you unfamiliar, metadata is defined as data about data. For example, let’s say you have a digital audio file, the metadata helps to describe various aspects of that file such as the title of program, the names of voices you will hear, who produced it, copyright information, as well as technical information like the file type, sample rate, and duration. Metadata makes digital data discoverable via search in specific databases or, more broadly, via the internet.

A digital file with the absence of metadata is essentially meaningless and invisible. Whether you are a scholar or a general user, we all rely on the metadata to provide us with context, meaning and other salient information about the file.

So what is the problem? Why does metadata spark huge discussions?

Well for one thing, there are tens of dozens of different metadata schemas or formats. The most commonly used standard for describing audio files is called PBCore. Fortunately, PBCore only has two mandatory fields of metadata: title and unique identifier. This fact makes PBCore very easy to use. This brings me to issue number two.

For librarians and archivists, metadata is an inherent part of our jobs. However, it is not just librarians and archivists who are working on preserving our nation’s radio. As I mentioned, there were people from many different backgrounds at the conference, and not all of them are comfortable or familiar with metadata. And there are ways in which it can be very complex, especially when it comes to standardizing names and subjects. Additionally, creating metadata can be time consuming.

Other issues addressed were:

  • Digitization: how to set priorities, realizing that digitizing one recording means that you are not digitizing something else. How do you make these decisions?
  • Pedagogy: how to teach radio history to undergraduates.
  • Copyright and Fair Use: copyright creates many difficulties with being able to digitize, preserve and make available radio programs.
  • Cataloging: the importance of uncovering hidden collections that no one knows exist. Access and discovery is impossible without cataloging and finding aids.
  • Local and specific community radio: the need for preserving and studying African American, Native American, LGBT, and Spanish language radio programs.
  • Funding: digitization projects are expensive and large amounts of radio programs are either at non-profit repositories or in private collections, neither of which have the financial resources for large scale projects. Grant funding for these projects is heavily relied upon.
  • Collaboration: if we are going to preserve as much radio history as possible, we are going to need to work together.

The collections at Hagley contain a large amount of audio recordings on magnetic tape, which is at the highest risk of deterioration and permanent loss. Only a small percentage of our audio recordings are radio broadcasts, the largest being our collection of DuPont’s Cavalcade of America, a radio show produced from 1935 to 1953. While our radio content is not extensive, we do have a fair amount of analog audio tape that contains commercials, interviews, conferences, meetings, and recordings of internal communications among businesses and trade organizations. In many cases, Hagley holds the only copy of these important recordings. Hagley is committed to preserving our audio recordings and making them accessible for researchers.

We too experience many of the difficulties discussed at the conference. We too have a backlog of collections which are non-discoverable, or have copyright issues preventing preservation and access, and tight funding making large scale audio digitization problematic.  

The Hagley Library is in the process of moving to a new digital archives platform, which will give us the capability of providing online access to our audio collections. While we still have a substantial amount of content that requires digitization, we have a plan to move forward to preserve and provide access to these important resources on the history of business and technology. Our participation in the conference will allow us to work with like-minded institutions, and the varied stakeholders, in solving the many issues related to saving historic audio.

Laurie Sather is an Audiovisual Archivist at Hagley.

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