Jan 212011

I wrote earlier about efforts that have gone into preserving what are known as ephemeral films: productions geared for educational, advertising or other uses separate from theatrical releases.  One of the largest online sources for these films is the Internet Archive, which has thousands of titles, many of which have long lived in obscurity.  Now accessible in digital form, these films are open to discovery.

A colleague pointed me to a U.S. government film in the IA FedFlix collection, The American Scene Series, Number 11: The Library of Congress.  It was made by the Office of War Information, Overseas Branch, around 1945.  Over the course of 20 minutes it presents a remarkable portrait of the Library at that time.  The film mentions the Library’s work to conduct field recordings of “unknown primitive singers” and has brief clips of two recording sessions.

One is of Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, very well-known artists in the “acoustic, folk-oriented Piedmont blues style… ready-made for the folk festivals and college campuses of the 1960s.”  The duo perform one of their signature songs, “Red River Blues” for about two minutes.  The setting appears to be in a farmyard and shows two earnest recording technicians at work.  It is an amazing scene, as the embedded video attests.

The second clip is also remarkable:  Woody Guthrie singing “Ranger’s Command,” again in a rural setting with recording gear in evidence.  The Guthrie clip is already on YouTube, but is no less compelling than the first.

I think I may spend more time trolling through these old films for such unexpected treasures.  But only the digitized versions!

Jan 132011
His Master's Voice by Metrix X, on Flickr
His Master’s Voice by Metrix X, on Flickr

If you are the keeper of important audio recordings—grooved disks, magnetic tape, CD-ROM and the like—you may wish to carefully assess their physical condition at some point.  This assessment can be for the purpose of a basic inventory, identification of preservation needs or setting priorities for activities such as creating digital copies.

Before you get started, you may wish to consult Issues and Answers in Digitization: Audio: Digitizing for the Future, which summarizes a Library of Congress workshop held in December 2010.  This document describes four preservation assessment tools.  The tools are designed identify preservation issues for various types of recording media.

  1. Visual and Playback Inspection Ratings System (ViPIRS), New York University Libraries.  For magnetic media (videotape, audiocassettes, and 1/4″ reel-to-reel). Assesses the condition of the item, the item’s ability to be played back, and the ease or difficulty of conserving/preserving/reformatting the item. The accumulated score at the end of the inspection generates a numerical rating that informs the user on what steps need next be taken in the preservation process.  For basic to intermediate users.
  2. Audio/Moving Image Survey Instrument, Columbia University Library.  Provides a mechanism for setting preservation priorities based on (1) quantities and types of audio and moving image materials, (2) the physical condition of the media and their housings based on visual inspection, (3) information about existing levels of intellectual control and intellectual property rights, and (4) the potential research value of each collection. .  For basic to intermediate users.
  3. Field Audio Collection Evaluation Tool (FACET), Indiana University Digital Library Program.  Ranks audio field collections based on preservation condition, including the level of deterioration they exhibit and the degree of risk they carry. It assesses the characteristics, preservation problems, and modes of deterioration associated with the following formats: open reel tape (polyester, acetate, paper and PVC bases), analog audio cassettes, DAT (Digital Audio Tape), lacquer discs, aluminum discs, and wire recordings.  For advanced users.
  4. Audiovisual Self Assessment Program (AvSAP), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library. Helps identify format type, physical condition, and storage conditions.  Available either as web-based software or as part of a larger Archon software package, which calls for some technical knowledge to install and configure.   For basic to intermediate users.