Digital Prevalence v Digital Persistence

Much attention has been paid of late to the recent/old report The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age (recently published by CLIR on behalf of the National Recording Preservation Board and Library of Congress, though based in part on testimony provided to the NRPB in 2006, including representation of AES and AMIA performed by our own Chris Lacinak). It's heartening to see the play this report has gotten in the press from NPR, the BBC and other outlets. The outreach effect of similar reports regarding film preservation and video preservation have been important factors in increased attention and funding.

This report is especially important because of its focus on digital materials and the much more sudden preservation risk they face as compared to their analog analogs. All -philes are a bit odd, but I've always thought of audiophiles as the mad scientists of the preservation world. The way I see it, or hear it, the capture and playback of audio is a more visceral experience. The language around image capture is all about ghosts, momentary reflections, and flickering lights; it's about trying to grasp onto intangible moments and fix them in static form. Audio capture feels a little more stable, though still like catching butterflies -- the sound waves undulating through the air as we funnel them into our ears or other receivers. That signal seems to be pinned down on the tape/disc/k/etc. more firmly than an image constructed from chemical reactions and dyes.

Maybe I just notice it more than with image capture, but the result of this physicality in the audio signal seems to lead to a higher level of tinkering with, creating, or re-creating audio capture and playback devices. I've been greatly impressed with the homemade wire recording players I've seen, but, though within the realm of possibility, I'll be amazed when I see a DIY Umatic deck.

Of course digital media throws a spanner in this beautiful mess of a half-formed idea, but, here again, with digital, audio is different. The earlier and wider spread adoption of digital audio for playback and as a preservation format, as well as the smaller sizes of audio files (both as compared to video files) means there is a greater volume (in terms of number of assets at the least) of file-based audio collections. This fact has pushed ahead the development of distribution models, extensive metadata sets, and more widely agreed upon standards and best practices.

This fact has also pushed ahead the timeline for obsolescence and degradation risks, a timeline which is already accelerated in the digital domain.

That is why the promotion and distribution of the NRPB report is so important. The report points out the hopefully well known physical risk to audio recordings, but more significantly it discusses the legal hurdles related to copyright law that impede preservation and access efforts, as well as the immediate risk to digital materials that have no clear guidelines or strategies for preservation. Making public institutions, potential funders, and the general public aware of these sorts of issues is a major step toward acquiring greater support and funding for audio preservation activities, establishing better federal law that enables preservation, and for prompting the development of the tools we need to effectively manage digital collections.

That is why I am disheartened to read comments posted on stories and blogs related to the findings of this report and other preservation issues. I have noticed that there is a large segment of commenters whose general response is 'What's the big deal?' The consensus seems to be that an increased focus on preservation is not necessary because A) The studios have it under control; B) Pretty much everything is online; C) If it's on the internet it's safe from ever being lost; and D) Peer-to-peer is the answer to everything so copyright owners and archivists should just lighten up already.

I really shouldn't get too worked up about all-bark internet comments, but they are disheartening nonetheless. One can't really argue with the ideals of their logic. Copyright owners ought to have an interest in preservation and access. Online storage and P2P models ought to reflect the LOCKSS concept. But...

We oughtn't to be surprised when lay practices don't match up with our professional archiving standards, but perhaps there is a finer point here regarding the division of access and preservation. Really, they are two sides of the same bi-directional audio reel, and they act to inform the parameters set out for the activities behind each effort. However, there is a fundamental disconnect here. What the commenters I have seen are discussing is access in its loosest form -- the widespread use or distribution of content in unmonitored form and format. Preservation in its strictest form is the highly selective use or distribution of content in a monitored or pre-defined format that is or most closely maintains fidelity to the original object. Preservation enables access, and access promotes preservation. These are fundamental tennets of archiving, but they also maintain an essential conflict.

Perhaps the ease of distribution via computers as well as the invisibility of the 'mechanisms' (i.e., codecs, players, and other compatibility issues) required to access audiovisual materials makes the problems of digital preservation less apparent. Having to deal with a film distributor or video store and acquiring the proper projector or deck underscores the problems of multiple formats, obsolescence, and temporal degradation. Also, very few people would say that Gone with the Wind didn't need preservation work because there were likely lots of 9.5mm versions floating around Australia or New Zealand, or that songs recorded at Sun Records don't need any attention because there are so many audiocassette compilations scattered around at truck stops nationwide.

Also at play here is the fact that maximum access must necessarily ignore the quality gap between various formats. Watching Gone with the Wind in 9 minute YouTube segments on an iPhone is a different experience than viewing an original nitrate print in a theatre. Maximizing the reach of access can minimize the quality of access. Increases in textual literacy would not have been so great without changes in printing technology and the development of cheaper (shorter-lived) paper. Visual or audio literacy follows the same fate.

All of this is a longwinded / longwinding way of saying what is contained in the title of this post. (I'll give you a minute to scroll back up and check.) Prevalence is not in and of itself a reliable, active preservation strategy. Yes, if all Sun Records master recordings were lost and those compilations were the only extant recording of them, they would be an invaluable source. History would be saved, but a certain essence based on quality would be lost. Do we really want to rely on chance rather than action to preserve our past? It was 'lucky' to have found the paper prints of silent films at the Library of Congress, but that chance was enabled by the direct actions resulting from established deposit guidelines. Now is our time to set up some good luck for the future.

--- Joshua Ranger