The ARChive of Contemporary Music: A Closed-Off Treasure Trove

By tim gann

The ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC as they like to be called) is located in the first floor of a building in Tribeca, just south of Canal St. Frequently closed to the public, the only way to enter the building is to call someone inside, or tap on the glass doors with a key. Stepping inside, one is greeted with many rows of shelving units roughly 15’ tall, all filled with records. The archive grew out of the personal collection of B. George, an ex-DJ who worked with artists such as Laurie Anderson and literally wrote the book on Punk and New Wave, and who is also giving me some time to ask him some questions. Interestingly enough, the biographies found on the ARC website of George as well as Fred Patterson, the Head Archivist, have more music credits than they do traditional LIS credentials. The only other employee is Alex Curtin, a recent LIS graduate, and the only one with any formal training. “We had a real archivist here,” George jokes, “but they didn’t know anything about music!”

Still, this lack of trained professionals is reflected in they way the materials are stored: records are tightly packed on some shelves, too loose on others, and stacked horizontally in some cases. The staff has little to no control over the temperature and humidity of the building, creating potentially harmful environments for the materials. In addition to the bulk of the collection on the first floor, there is also a basement storage section. This area, which houses, among other things, what Patterson tells me is “maybe the largest collection of Country music in the world,” is peppered with roach traps, some of which are not empty. Dust is thick in the air, and considering the institution’s location towards the tip of Manhattan, it feels less than stable.

George knows this, though. It is no fault of his own that these conditions fall far short of ideal; he and ARC are merely victims of a scarcity of resources of many kinds. Despite the high-profile projects and jobs they’ve completed – old clients include MTV, Rolling Stone, and Martin Scorsese – they are still underfunded. Though they have applied for state and federal funding in the past, they have been routinely denied to the point where they no longer try (this, George explains, is because ARC’s collection is deemed commercial because the recordings fall under the wide “Pop” umbrella, which encompasses any genre that isn’t classical). Rent costs for the building, again considering the location, are terribly high (though George is hopeful that a permanent building will be bought for them with the help of Atlantic Records, which works closely with ARC and donates recordings). ARC’s collection and funding are completely donation-based, though some funds are given with the express purpose of buying particular records; however, this limits how much money can be spent on operating costs.

The lack of funding and staffing also affects access: with only three full staff members, George explains, and so much work to be done, it’s too much for them to have to deal with people coming in to use the collections – they’re just too busy. Michelle Caswell writes about and tries to dispel the cliche of archivists as “bureaucrats who hinder rather than aid access to records,” but ARC in some ways embodies this cliche – focused solely on preserving the records, ignoring anyone who might want to use those records. But George is quick to point out that the main mission and purpose is to build the collection for preservation purposes, and that’s what they need to focus on in their day-to-day operations.

It’s not as if George wants to keep the collection away from people. George expresses great hopes that partnerships with Atlantic Records as well as the Internet archive will help expand access to the public. ARC has partnered with the Internet Archive for several projects, and Brewster Kahle, founder of the IA, also serves on the board of advisors. They have not only helped ARC with digitization projects, but have also helped store some of ARC’s collections, particularly the CD and 78 collections. The Internet Archive has also begun to digitize these collections on their own, taking those responsibilities over from ARC. On the other end, the IA gave ARC one of their Scribe machines, which ARC has used to digitize books, primarily on Jazz, in ARC’s collection. These digitization projects have allowed the IA to open up a listening room in San Francisco, and George hopes that access can be opened up even more as these projects develop.

ARC is wise to prioritize their CD collections. As Bob points out, CDs are relatively unstable media compared to vinyl, especially CD-Rs (which ARC collects – one particularly bright part of ARC’s policies is their willingness to accept music even if it’s an extremely low-budget, DIY self-release). Still, there are no current plans to digitize ARC’s LP collection, which is the real bulk of the institution. While they pledge to try to keep two copies of everything, it’s not as if these copies are stored offsite, instead residing next to one another on the same shelf. With no digital copy, some of these recordings are at great risk of being lost in the event of a disaster. And considering the conditions detailed above, it’s easy to imagine a scenario that could decimate the collection. But understandably, there is only so much time, and only so many resources, and ARC’s collections contain millions of recordings, all of which could not even be listened to in several lifetimes. And the collections only grow as the years pass – certainly, there has been no dearth of new music over the years.

It is enough that ARC does what it can, because ARC is unique. No other institution collects the music ARC collects and certainly not in the capacity they do, and ARC is the largest collection of pop music in the country. After all, there is a huge struggle in many institutions between the ideals presented by standards and the often-grim reality of their situations. Despite these issues, there is hope for improvement, especially as collaboration between the IA continue. The IA has helped immensely in managing, storing, and digitizing materials, and with their considerable resources, ARC will certainly be able to continue collecting more and more music.

Caswell, M. (2016). “The Archive’ is Not An Archives: Acknowledging the Intellectual Contributions of Archival Studies” Reconstruction 16(1). http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/161/Caswell.shtml
George, B. (2016, December 5). On ARC Operations [Personal interview].

Issues and Concerns in Conserving and Digitizing Archival Collections

By tim gann

As a part of Archives Week 2016, NYU hosted an event focusing on a digitization project currently underway. The presentation, titled “What’s on the Back? Updating the Definition of Complete for Digitization Projects,” was given by Alex Bero and Maggie Schreiner, the conservator and archivist (respectively) working on the project. They detailed their work in conserving and digitizing materials from two collections: the Richard Maass collection, which contains materials related to the American Revolution, and the Sylvester Manor collection, which documented early settlers of Shelter Island in Eastern Long Island. As they explained the plans and decisions they made working on this project, they elucidated the many issues one must consider when engaging in such a project.
Bero and Schreiner began by discussing the Richard Maass collection, a portion of which had been digitized in the early 2000s. These items had also undergone a conservation process at that time, but when reexamining the materials to be digitized for this project, it became clear that the previous conservation efforts had in some ways damaged the materials through the use of “archival tape.” The previous project had used tape to hold materials together, but Bero went into detail on problems of using tape, “the evils of which are not to be underestimated,” as one slide warned. Bero explained that tape of all kinds, even those designated as “archival” (which he asserted was a relative term), can dry, embrittle, flake off, stain documents, adhere pages together, cover up or discolor images and words, and is often stronger than the document itself, which can cause tearing. As tape was used liberally in the earlier effort, Bero had to remove it all, which went at a rate of roughly one inch per hour.
Many of the documents were also sealed, but the seals were original, not remnants from the previous project. In order to get clear images of the materials, it was necessary to unseal them, and Bero acknowledged that this in effect changed the original nature of the document. Bero argued, though, that “digitization is a form of preservation,” and unsealed the documents through moisture. However, changing the nature of the document alters its representation of history, and as Michèle Cloonan points out in their essay “W(h)ither Preservation?” “to digitize a collection does not necessary lessen the demand for the original material.” In this case, Bero decided that a clean digital image was more important, but something has been lost for researchers looking into manuscripts from this era. It points to a preference of digital preservation over physical conservation.
Turning to the digitization side of the project, Schreiner discussed the previous digitization project, which, even though it was carried out roughly 15 years ago, still adhered to standards considered appropriate today, and were scanned as 600 dpi TIFF files. However, the backs of many documents were not digitized, and the digital surrogates were only made available as an online exhibit, not linked to the finding aid for the collection. The file names were also very unstructured, with no clear identifiers. This, of course, hinders the ability to find and identify these images, and had they been dissociated from their metadata, it could have created serious problems for access. Schreiner rectified this by renaming the old files, giving them a persistent ID, and integrating the new files while maintaining the same structure. Schreiner also made sure to mention the surrogates will be published through the finding aid as well once the project is complete.
From here, the presentation turned to issues surrounding the Sylvester Manor collection. This was a much larger collection, and the materials were in worse shape, in part due to the use of iron-gall ink in the documents, which can embrittle and speed up decay in paper, and the ink itself can become damaged and even fall off the paper. The papers needed to be moisturized delicately in order to unfold them, as too much moisture would damage the paper. Bero detailed how it was necessary to flatten documents through wetting them along creases, to clean them using vulcanized rubber sponges, and to mend them with paper and adhesives that blend in to the original document and do not obstruct anything. However, he also noted that this process is done only for handling the documents one more time – for the purpose of digitizing them for this project. Their conservation effort is only a very short-term solution, and the documents will not be handled after this project. Again, this demonstrates their belief that digitization is preservation, but it does not clash as much with Cloonan’s suggestion cited above in regard to the other collection. Here, Bero made clear that these materials were badly deteriorated, and the idea that even with these efforts they could only be handled once means that without digitization, these would be inaccessible. It was a more clear-cut decision, and is a better example of when digitization may be the only way to preserve documents properly.
Schreiner noted that these fragile documents were just a small portion of the collection, and had been set aside because they were too fragile to travel. Much of the material was marked for digitization through a vendor, which they employed especially because of their inability to digitize oversized items in-house. Though digitizing oversized items was expensive, they were able to do so because they found room in their budget after calculating all other expenses. This provided an example of how financial issues can potentially restrict an institution’s ability to complete the projects it wants. It certainly gave some insight into why these collections were being revisited. Had they not found the money in the budget, they may have been forced to revisit the collections again in the future to capture the oversized items.
In a Q&A session after the main presentation, they explained that NYU has committed to maintaining and migrating the digital files as necessary, putting to rest common concerns about the stability of preserving digital media. They also explained that the process was facilitated by the existing finding aid and metadata standards, which they update as needed.
One thought I had (which I thought would be rude to vocalize, though perhaps I should have) was that this project was yet another effort to preserve the historical records of white patriarchal society. The fact that these collections had previously been digitized in part made me wonder if perhaps there were other collections that had been passed over which could have offered more diverse perspectives. As this was also a conservation effort, and the materials being as old as they are, it is understandable that these were prioritized. Another factor could have been their source of funding, which came from the Gardiner Foundation, representing a family some of whose members had openly endorsed slavery. This might possibly point to the amount of influence donors have on an archive’s ability to pursue projects; however, I regret to have not explored this topic with the presenters.

Cloonan, Michele Valerie. “W(H)ITHER Preservation?” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy. Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 2001), pp. 231-242

Gardiner’s Island: A Rich History. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.rdlgfoundation.org/history.ph

Confronting Bias and Antiquated Terms in the Catalog

By tim gann

Even in fields that are purported to be objective, an individual’s bias in always present. Knowledge organization structures are no different, constructed as they are by a select few people in power. It is no surprise, then, that the bias inherent cataloging terms have been the subject of debate over the past few decades. This debate is the focus of Emily Drabinski’s article “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction” (2013), which points to the use of antiquated, often offensive language and subject headings within the dominant cataloging systems. Drabinski makes the point that cataloging systems tell a story about the information they represent, and have told a story informed from a white, heterosexual, Christian, patriarchal perspective. Drabinski highlights a number of efforts over the years to petition groups to change problematic language and groupings, but believes that this approach falls short of its intended goal. Drabinski advocates instead for an approach rooted in queer theory, which rejects the idea of changing the catalog and rather wants to keep the problematic language in order to make the catalog’s bias obvious and apparent to researchers, allowing them to “very quickly understand that catalogs reflect a particular point of view rather than an objective truth.” While this understanding is important for users to have, Drabinski’s reservations are too extreme, and the education she proposes can be accomplished while still changing offensive terminology and subject headings.

The basic function of cataloging is to sort materials into groups in ways that make it easier for users to find what they’re looking for. As cultural perspective changes, it is important for the catalog to reflect those changes simply so materials remain discoverable. If a user wants to find materials on certain topics, they will not be able to find them as easily if they are found under archaic subject headings. A user today would not think to look at materials dealing with homosexuality under “sexual deviance,” nor would they want to. It is somewhat ironic that queer theory applied to cataloging both maintains that identity is fluid and subject to constant change, yet insists on fixing the catalog in its original state. Drabinski explains the dissatisfaction with changing classifications by asserting that “the political focus on correcting classification structure and subject language solidifies the idea that the classification structure is in fact objective and does in fact tell the truth, the core fictions—from a queer perspective—that allow the hegemony of a universalized classification structure to persist.” However, it really seems that the opposite is true. It could well be argued that changes made to the language used in the catalog are admissions of error in the past, and an attempt to make up for those errors. They demonstrate that the structure is subject to reconfiguration, and in some ways document the shifting perspectives over time.

At one point in the article, Drabinski cites an example from an essay written in 1972 by Joan Marshall protesting the use of the word “Mammies” as a subject heading, in which Marshall asks, “Could any of us, without mumbling embarrassed and probably useless apologies, even if we dared, tell a young, militant, Black woman who wanted material on this subject to look under mammies!” This is a valid question, to the point where it seems almost rhetorical. However, Drabinski dismisses that question and instead only comments that the suggested improvement, “Negro women,” would be seen as offensive today, seemingly suggesting that “Mammies” should have been kept as a subject heading. Drabinski appears to see this interaction as a potential opportunity for educating the user on the biases inherent in cataloging, but this presupposes that the user is not so offended that they leave the library and become discouraged with the entire system. What Drabinski sees as an access point could have the potential to damage a user’s experience with the library.

Drabinski puts forth that queer theory applied in this context “challenges the idea that classification and subject language can ever be corrected once and for all,” but it should not be suggested that this language, however many times it is corrected, will always remain correct. Changing terminology is and will always be an ongoing struggle because identities are fluid and shift constantly. That only means, then, that the catalog must constantly be reappraised and changed. This might be accomplished through the communication between librarian and user that Drabinski suggests will occur when people are confronted by terms that offend them – users can voice their complaints, and after discussing the history of the catalog, librarians can proceed to lobby to change the problematic language.

While changing subject headings is important, it must be said that it is in no way a bad idea to also educate users on the fallibility of the catalog. History must not be forgotten or revised, and the existence of these subject headings should certainly be noted and taught. It’s important not to forget that bias, racism, and bigotry informed a great deal of these subject headings, and it’s also important to teach that history to concerned individuals. But does that really mean that we should accept those subject headings and allow them to stay just for the benefit of a discussion which, depending on the user, might not even take place?

These two are not mutually exclusive by any means. Discussions about the catalog can still take place on a personal level and in educational settings so long as the librarian chooses to do so. At the same time, when terms are changed in the catalog, it may be wise to annotate them in some way. It may be possible to indicate the changes in the same space cross references occupy, perhaps similarly to the way a dictionary will provide archaic, out-of-use definitions for words after supplying the modern ones. Something like this may be quite difficult, but this way items can be found under socially acceptable subject headings while still acknowledging the insensitive language previously used. Users can find materials under the current socially acceptable, inoffensive terms and still learn the history of the catalog in context. This could even better accentuate the biases in the catalog, and and invite users to challenge the authority of the catalog and help reshape it.

The catalog is a representation of the library, and while these subject headings give insight into how catalogers viewed the world, they do not represent the current positions and viewpoints of catalogers and librarians today. The issue of language in subject headings is analogous to the same issue in regard to federal and state laws, some of which were modified earlier this year (Kelkar 2016). When New York in 2009 eliminated the term “Oriental” from government documents, then-Governor David Paterson said, “The words we use matter. We in government recognize that what we print in official documents or forms sets an example of what is acceptable” (Chan & Lee 2009). The same can be said for libraries: the words we use in the catalog also set examples of what is acceptable, and it is wrong to present offensive terms as appropriate descriptors.

 

Chan, S., & Lee, J. (2009). Law Bans Use of ‘Oriental’ in State Documents. Retrieved from http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/09/law-bans-use-of-oriental-in-state-documents/?_r=1

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83 (2), 94-111.

Kelkar, K. (2016, May 22). Obama signs bill eliminating ‘Negro,’ ‘Oriental’ from federal laws. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/obama-signs-bill-eliminating-negro-spanish-speaking-oriental-from-federal-laws/

 

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