Conserving and Preserving, This Month and Beyond

My shortage of January posts can be attributed to my thorough immersion in the planning stages of a significant effort to digitize TSLAC’s collection of cassette recordings of the proceedings of the Texas Senate, from 1972 – 2006.  These recordings document the laws and the lawmakers that shaped our state.  Listen to a sampling of the topics and colorful personalities in the collection here.

My work in the last month draws attention to the contrast between preservation strategies for books and paper vs. audio media.  For example, in January, most of the time I normally would have spent working with my hands at the workbench was instead spent working with the computer at my desk.  Conservation strategies for books and paper more frequently involve physical repair; for audio media, they more frequently involve transfer to new media, or, in my case, planning for that transfer.  While I’ve advocated in lectures and research for the artifactual value of audio media, practical realities dictate rapid transfer in the face of chemical decay and format obsolescence.  Digitization is just one reality for books and paper; it’s often the only reality for audio.

What’s interesting is that our decisions about whether to preserve original media route books and paper into the practice of conservation, while they route audio media into the practice of preservation.  Conservators are trained to work physically, and to use both science and craft knowledge to sustain cultural materials in their physical form.  Preservation administrators – note that extra word in the title – are trained to manage environment, storage, exhibition, people, money, etc., to sustain cultural materials in viable forms.   In theory, it’s much the same; in practice, it’s all different.

My feeling is that as the print and digital worlds continue to negotiate their territories, conservation and preservation approaches will continue to unify.  In libraries and archives, one sees many examples of this: conservation treatment supports digitization projects; then, digital access drives increased physical use and, presumably, wear.  But no one person can know all facets of such disparate practices.  That’s why hybrid library-conservation-preservation training programs like the one at the University of Texas were so important, and why we can hope they may be again in the future.

In the meantime, I’m glad for the opportunity to help prolong the lifetime of the Senate tapes, and I look forward to returning to the book and paper workbench in the near future.

Audio Preservation Conference in Berlin

I was most fortunate to be an invited speaker at the International Seminar on Preserving Endangered Audio Media in Berlin last week.  The conference’s unique focus was captured in its subtitle: “Rethinking Archival Strategies for Conservation of Analogue Audio Carriers.” Oftentimes, due to the rapid degradation of modern media and the obsolescence of playback technology, “audio preservation” is simply taken to mean “digitization.”  But as Paul Banks observed in his Ten Rules of Conservation, “The physical medium of a document contains information” and “No reproduction can contain all of the information contained in the original.” These concepts are true in audio media as well as in books and paper.  This conference addressed the conservation of audio carriers in addition to their content, and in so doing offered a refreshing perspective on difficult issues in new media preservation. 

Why should we care about tapes, records, or cylinders as physical artifacts instead of just source recordings for mp3s?  Several presenters offered perspectives.  Susanna Belchior of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal) discussed how original discs, with their labels and packaging, are helping researchers construct a history of the Portuguese recording industry.  The discs offer invaluable information about when and where the recordings were made.  By pairing these primary recorded resources with available ledgers and account books, researchers can begin to understand how the practice and economics of recording evolved in Portugal.  Belchior also suggested that chemical analysis of the physical discs might yield information about specific shellac or vinyl formulations used by particular institutions or in particular regions.  This talk reminded me a lot of a National Archives talk given at the American Institute for Conservation 2011 meeting in which artifactual evidence in book bindings enhanced existing understandings of book binders and their work in revolutionary America.

Silke Berdux and Nadia Wallaszkovits, respectively of the Deutsches Museum and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, discussed a fascinating preservation project focused on the open-reel tape recordings of electronic music innovator Oskar Sala (here is some basic info in English.)  As an experimenter in the recording studio, Sala used many unconventional techniques, such as switching among tape speeds, changing the number of recorded tracks, and splicing many different tape types together.  Sala’s work reminds me a great deal of fellow electronic music inventor Raymond Scott, on whose materials I was fortunate enough to work at the Marr Sound Archives.  I imagine Sala’s tapes would also share commonalities with those produced by the musique concrete innovators, as well; all of these individuals worked in audio tape as a primary medium.  As a result, the physical tape shows as much about the experimentation process as does the recorded content.  In order to better preserve both the visual and sound information in the Sala archive, high-definition video of the tape was taken during playback and paired with the tape’s digitized audio.  The resulting audio / video file is an elegant preservation solution that captures far more information than would the audio or video alone.  

At the conference’s conclusion, George Brock-Nannestad raised the following (paraphrased) question: How can we argue for the preservation of physical recordings when interest in them as artifacts seems like a fairly niche, academic pursuit?  This is a great question, and one that often bothers me at conferences.  More broadly, how can we argue for the importance of physical things in a world that is increasingly digital and intangible?  I think one answer is this: heritage caretakers, historians, and other allied professionals can conduct research that contextualizes material studies within broader trends in history, art, and the humanities.  For example, what can types of paper fibers tell us about trade routes?  What can binding styles tell us about the economics of a region?  What do tape splices say about the creative process? 

As a final note, I recently purchased a copy of Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700, edited by Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon and published by Archetype Publications.  Most of the materials discussed in this volume are much older than anything I encounter at the Texas State Archives.  However, I hope the book will offer a model for the type of conservation research described above: a blend of material evidence with history, trade patterns, economics, and the arts.  So here’s to future research rooted in physical heritage, research that makes the argument for preservation implicitly.