Keeping Tracks was a lively one-day seminar at The British Library which addressed approaches to archiving music in the digital age. It went beyond ‘formal’ archives to the accidental archives of record labels and the Labour of Love archives of die-hard music fans. The big themes were keeping the sound recordings retrievable and playable, and the completeness of collections and their descriptions.
‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’
Unless you did a decent preservation job, that is.
Even before the shift from analogue to digital, sound carriers and players were becoming obsolete. The BL’s Adam Tovell flashed up an alarming image of a degraded 1940’s lacquer disc to illustrate the fragility of a format and loss of content.
Digital media are vulnerable too. It may not be a surprise that a 70 year old analogue disc format is vulnerable; it’s more shocking that 30 year old digital formats (CDR) are in danger (via obsolescence as well as degradation).
The BL has been digitising for 30 years, originally using betamax cassettes and now carried out in 10 transfer studios. Adam outlined their seven stages of sound archiving:
- Select which sound recording if you have more than one – consider formats
- Describe the physical carrier – the metadata must meet the needs of the library etc. and the end user
- Migrate to a lossless, hi-res file
- Describe the transfer process and provenance
- Check – the file and its metadata must be of ‘good enough’ preservation quality
- Ingest into a trusted repository – the BL has four locations, the main repository and three back ups
- Store the digital product for future use and go back to the start because the outputs face the same threats
He estimated it might take them 48 years to digitise everything.
Digital sound copies might yet be lost to users if the metadata is poor. The BL’s Alex Wilson introduced the joint project with Metable, called metable@BL, which aims to prevent this. In essence suppliers submit files and metadata which the BL can use to create files for delivery. This project also allows for supplementary metadata from third party APIs from Decibel and similar outfits. However the arrangement is one-way,so currently there is no facility to add BL-enhanced metadata back into the external resources – most notably a problem with the open repository, Musicbrainz.