Listening in at an Audio Archive, an observation

By belantara

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts is the second largest archive of recorded sound in the United States.  It is home to a wide range of recordings including but not limited to music in just about every genre, recordings of theater, opera and comedic performances, oral histories, speeches, radio broadcasts and field recordings. The archive holds recordings on every kind of format from wax cylinders to shellac discs, magnetic tape, cassettes and digital audio files.

The collection can be accessed by visiting the third floor of the Library of Performing Arts and making a listening request at the audiovisual desk.  Patrons must look up the title, author and class mark, write it down and present a request slip to the library assistant.  Everything is classed according to its format for efficient shelving, not according to genre, record label or subject.  It is easiest to find a recording if one knows the specific track or artist she is looking for.  The online catalog is not designed for browsing like one might do in a record store.  Visitors can search via a massive card catalog or the song index that is also housed in card catalogs.  The card catalogs, though rarely in visible use, still provide something a little more like a browsing experience for those wishing to stumble upon something unexpected.  In addition to the catalogs, one can also peruse finding aides for different collections within the collection.  However the finding aides are varied, and some have very little information listed about what a particular title actually contains. Some of the finding aides have handwritten notes or corrections from previous researchers.  The sheer volume of material is astounding and somewhat overwhelming.  It is truly an amazing and treasure trove of a collection.

After making the listening request, a listener is given a set of headphones and is assigned a seat at a numbered listening station.  The listening stations are equipped with computers that have a special software program installed on them.  A patron must wait while the requested audio is collected from the vast archive that is located in the basement of the building.

A little known fact is that library staff known as the playback team are waiting in the basement to retrieve and play back audio for patrons.  They find the requested material and in the case of vinyl or shellac discs or audio reels, they also operate the playback equipment.  The playback equipment in the basement is connected to the computers on the third floor so that listeners can hear the requested sounds without actually handling the sometimes fragile audio carriers.  The computer software allows listeners to scroll or fast forward through digital audio files during playback, however if a listener has requested a vinyl LP for example, the listener must indicate which track he or she wants to hear via a messaging service on the computer screen.  The playback staff is notified of the listener’s message with a little “beep” and will move the needle to the the desired track on the record.  This can sometimes prove a little difficult for staff when patrons ask to hear specific tracks or parts of tracks repeatedly for their research.  Many patrons assume the entire system is computerized and do not realize the human labor involved in bringing the sounds to their ears.  They do not always understand why it might take a little time to process their request, in these days where messages are sent into space and back in fractions of a second.  Some that do understand the situation send humorous messages to the playback team via the messaging system, like “Dear Audio God, please play the next track.”

Listeners can stay for as long as they like during opening hours.  Some researchers, having made special trips from other parts of the country or abroad will stay the full day or multiple days, only taking short breaks to have lunch in the library cafe.  They are trying to get through hours and hours of material during the short time they have in New York.  While video or photos allow one to quickly scan and find points of interest, it does not work the same way for audio, particularly during interviews or field recordings.  One must sit and listen in real time, unless the audio has been logged or transcribed.  Recent developments in automatic transcription and partnerships with organizations such as Pop Up Archive may prove very useful for researchers in the future.

While the collection holds such a wide array of fascinating recordings and most likely has something of interest to just about anyone, it does not seem that there are many casual listeners or members of the general public who stop in to sample what the archive has to offer.  Lack of  awareness of the collection and accessibility are two issues that perhaps lead to less enjoyment and use of the RHA holdings.

In his article, “The User Experience,” Aaron Schmidt defines user experience as “arranging the elements of a product or service to optimize how people will interact with it.”  Librarians, curators and archivists working with audio collections must think about how people want to interact with the sounds in their collections.  Copyright issues, conservation, audio formats and accessibility are all issues to consider when planning out how audio collections will be encountered and experienced by library users.  In what ways do people want to listen?

From the user experience perspective, one issue members of the public must face is gaining access to the spaces where they can hear the recordings.  To access the listening stations, patrons must first place their belongings with security.  Then, as outlined before they must make a request to hear the material, some of which may or may not be immediately available since some recordings must be digitized before playback is allowed. This situation may not be a problem for researchers familiar with library procedures who need access to the recordings in order to carry out their work.  However, what about the patron who may not even know the collection exists, considering that it is located in a locked basement doors and difficult to browse online?  Audio collections tell fascinating stories through words, sound and music.  However, without more focus on user experience, they may go unheard.  Listening spaces in libraries are in need of an update.  As audio technology becomes less expensive and more widely available, why aren’t library users offered more options for listening?  Innovations in audio technology can raise awareness of collections, improve accessibility and offer library patrons new ways of listening.  How do you want to listen?

Institutional Memory

By belantara

In their article, “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” Schwartz and Cook discuss the important impact archives have on social memory and the often overlooked power held by information professionals. They write:

“archives…wield power over the administrative, legal and fiscal accountability of governments, corporations and individuals…[they] wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups and societies.”

Does the fact that an object is in an archive make it more a more valuable object or reliable as a source?  Who decides?  What are the possible futures of the past and how can the past be found? Whose memory gets stored and whose gets lost? Author Alberto Manguel calls libraries “preservers of memory of our society” and as such as libraries and archives play an essential role in deciding the fate of the past and as such have a power that is rarely associated with them by the general public.

To preserve knowledge and history seems to be a human need. Is it related to our biological instinct for survival?  Perhaps we feel that even though our lives are ephemeral, memory of our lives should be everlasting?  NASA’s golden record was launched into space in 1977 with the hope of reaching other living beings or perhaps human descendants. The record contains sounds of nature along with languages and music from around the world.   Undoubtedly however, one record can not capture every aspect of human diversity, indeed, not even a large archive can contain a history or memory of everything.  Who then, will tell the stories that are not told by archives, and who will listen?

As Rodney G.S. Carter points out in the article, “Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences and Power in Silence:”

“A universal archive, one that preserves the memory of a culture is an impossibility as memory is necessarily an individual thing: there are many memories that often are conflicting and contradictory. Even if archivists are willing to allow multiple voices into the archives, it will never be complete. There is simply no way of capturing the multitude of stories, although archivists must try. ”

Even if archivists and librarians aim to create an all-inclusive archive, decisions about what to collect and what not to collect must be made. Not everything can be kept.  As Schwarz and Cook point out, these decisions heavily impact memory of the past and materials given precious archival space are often used to validate ideas of how things happened or are assigned a higher value than items that are not part of an official archival collection. Yet, as Schwarz and Cook write, “what goes on in the archives remains remarkably unknown.” Schwarz and Cook mainly address the content of libraries and archives, but their mission to raise discussion about the power held by archivists is reminiscent of radical catalogers’ calls to draw attention to and change biases in cataloging practices.  The organization and classifying methods used in public collections adds yet another layer to the complex power relations embedded in archives and libraries.   How do archivists and librarians make decisions and how can these decisions be made more visible to the people who use them?

Perhaps one solution may be to raise public dialogue on these issues and to begin to raise awareness about the curatorial aspects of library and archival work.   It seems that weeding is one of aspect of collection management that draws wide public attention. News articles describe the public’s dismay at seeing large quantities of books and other materials being removed from a library’s collection. Articles from library professionals list up ways libraries can help diffuse upset over weeding and how to talk about the deaccessioning process in a way that is more acceptable to the public. Perhaps these are times when the public’s attention could also be drawn to the complex task librarians and archivists face when trying to create diverse and useful collections. Libraries and archives could create a public forum to openly discuss these issues and gather input from community members about the stories they want their libraries and archives to tell.

Another strategy that could be useful would be to offer small public tours of behind the scenes archival and library spaces. Such tours could help shed some light on important issues regarding collection development and cataloging practices. People can see what goes into making all the resources available to them. People often have a greater appreciation for work once they have a better idea of what goes into it. People attending the tour can respond to some of the practices they see.  This type of activity can help libraries and archives make their activities more transparent and open to public input.

Another way to increase public involvement in and awareness of important library/archival issues is through art.  Art has the capacity to reach wide audiences and inspire them to see and hear things they encounter everyday in a new way. A number of interesting artworks that explore human interaction with library and archival systems have been on exhibition around New York in recent years, and some of them have been successful in generating much needed public dialogue about some of the issues Schwarz and Cook raise.  Interactive artworks, such as an audiovisual artwork called Kinokologue invite audiences to participate in cataloging tasks encourage them to engage with collections in a new and playful way.

One other interesting option may be to use beacon technology to help tell alternative narratives about the collections. Beacons are small transmitters that can be placed almost anywhere to send out information to smart devices within a certain range.   Perhaps users could learn about the b-side of library collections, such as the story of where a particular item came from or why it was chosen to be part of a collection. Or maybe the beacons could be used to indicate what’s missing from a collection and invite input on this from patrons.

While each of these solutions may not be possible in every context, they do offer ways of increasing public awareness about the important yet often invisible power issues Schwarz and Cook raise. When people have the opportunity to gain insight into how collections are produced and maintained and the decisions librarians and archivists are faced with, they may begin to see these places as less neutral objective spaces and recognize them for the socio-cultural-historic constructed places that they are. While libraries, archives and museums are sometimes known as memory institutions, perhaps such activities may help people realize that these institutional memories, just like each of ours are inherently biased, faulty and incomplete.  Every object and every memory changes with time and context.  What does not change is the human desire to preserve memories as best as possible with the hope that future generations can learn from and find something of themselves within them.

Works Cited:

Schwartz, J. & Cook, T. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.

CARTER, Rodney G.S.. Of Things Said and Unsaid: Power, Archival Silences, and Power in Silence. Archivaria, [S.l.], sep. 2006.

Inescapable Biases and the Construction of Catalog Realities

By belantara

Emily Drabinski’s article, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” discusses an important issue library professionals must face.   All attempts to create some type of globally relevant system of classification and organization have problems embedded within them. How can a library catalog ever be expected to be finite and representative all the various mindsets and ways of knowing that exist in the world or even in one cosmopolitan city? Language constantly develops, new ideas emerge, societies change, borders are redefined, concepts evolve, and policies are renegotiated.  Humans create categories in order to impose some kind of structure on the world so as not to feel lost in complete chaos.  Such structures may be imperfect illusions, but it does not seem that we humans have yet fathomed a better solution to finding our way through the labyrinthian archive known as existence.  Until we do, library and information professionals must deal with an ever-growing mass of information.  They must also endeavor to ensure that ways of finding and sorting through it are relevant to as many different people as possible.

Drabinski references the history of radical librarianship and notes that the biased nature of cataloging has been a debated issue in LIS professions since the late 1960s.  While radical catalogers have made progress in making changes to biased subject headings and class marks, Drabinski thinks that making these changes is basically like treating a symptom of an illness without addressing its cause.  She feels that critical catalogers miss an important point in their work when making corrections to the Library of Congress’ classification system: the problematic nature of cataloging itself.  She writes, “such corrections are always contingent and never final, shifting in response to discursive and political and social change…[they] reiterate an approach to classification and cataloging that elides contingency as a factor in determining what classification and cataloging decisions are imagined to be correct in any given context.”

Drabinski’s call for LIS professionals to “theorize the trouble with classification and cataloging in library knowledge systems [as] the root” of the problem is similar to demands critical theory scholars have made on academics to acknowledge the impact that socio-historical constructions, power structures, economics and politics have on supposedly objective research.  In their article, “Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research,” Kincheloe and McLaren discuss how practices in critical theory aim to make implicit inescapable biases more explicit in academic research.  By openly acknowledging and grappling with these biases as part of the research process, critical theorists aim to move towards a more balanced or democratic way of both conducting and representing research.  Both Drabinski’s and Kincheloe and McLaren’s articles draw attention to a tendency in society and in academia to cling to notions of objectivity or the so-called myth of neutrality even though one’s understanding and experience of the world is in constant flux and dependent on numerous changing factors.

So what can LIS professionals do to achieve their goal of making information accessible whilst understanding that the cataloging systems they must work with are irreparably flawed by their very nature?  Drabinski advocates what she considers to be a Queer intervention to this problem: leave contested headings or class marks in place to allow for critical public discussion and deconstruction of their meanings.   She believes that a rupture occurs when someone encounters an “obviously biased classification decision or subject heading” making it easy for library users to see the “constructed quality of library classification.”

While I can appreciate Drabinski’s desire to use biased cataloging practices as an impetus to spark discussions between library staff and critical patrons, I’m not convinced it will have the outcome she desires.  The rupture she speaks of is dependent upon a user already being of like mind about the “incorrectness” of the subject heading or class mark in question.  What may be an obvious bias to one user may be nothing remarkable to another.  Furthermore, it does not make sense to knowingly allow a biased structure to remain in place just to serve as a potential discussion point. People who are likely to experience such a rupture going through a library catalog already experience them everywhere in everyday life just trying to do ordinary things like finding a public restroom, buying “nude tone” bandages or make-up, finding a job, hailing a taxi, voting, getting married…and the list goes on.  They need not go to the library just to find one other reminder of how “the system” is up against them.  It seems to me that aiming to adopt progressive cataloging methods would have more of the desired impact. For example, radical cataloging practices could cause a rupture for those who would use subject headings like “sexual deviance” to organize books about homosexuality.  In my opinion, this is where the rupture Drabinski seeks ought to be taking place.

Towards the end of their article Kincheloe and McLaren introduce an ethnographic research method called “deconstructive ethnography.” Over the past few decades anthropologists have strived for reflexivity in their work, and deconstructive ethnography takes reflexivity even further. Kincheloe and McLaren write, “Whereas reflexive ethnography questions its own authority, deconstructive ethnography forfeits its authority.”  This approach is interesting to consider since many think the goal of research is to produce some kind of authoritative knowledge.

The concept of deconstructive ethnography is very interesting in the library context.  As Drabinski points out, library catalogs do provide an amazing potential to draw attention to the ways socio-political constructions create ideas of reality.  People seek things based off of what they think makes sense, using their own authoritative understanding of the world.  Librarians assign categories based on “authority records” and use “authority fields” to make catalog records.  Do these authorities recognize one another?  As libraries aim to provide equal access for all, it seems that they ought to adopt catalog and classifying practices that incorporate ways of describing and identifying that are in alignment with how those being classified define themselves. With new technology, there is no reason that catalogs could not be designed to provide a wide variety of access points in order to make items findable based on multiple perspectives of library users.  Would this be a sort of deconstructive cataloging?  Does there need to be an authoritative catalog?  While a permanent and universal system is an impossibility, a system that acknowledges its biases and accounts for the diversity of ways of knowing and accessing the world is not.


  • Drabinksi, E. (2013), “Queering the catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83(2): 94–111.
  • Kincheloe, J. and McLaren, P. (2002), “Rethinking Critical Theory and Qualitative Research” in Ethnography and Schools Qualitative Approaches to the Study of Education (Immigration and the Transnational Experience Series) Eds. Zou, Y and Truebe, E.  pp. 87-130
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