Report Examines Barriers to Audio Access

For Immediate Release: September 14, 2004

Contact: Abby Smith 202-939-4758

Report Examines Barriers to Audio Access

WASHINGTON, D.C.—From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats to the stories of the last native Yahi speaker, from whale songs recorded in the North Pacific to Carl Sandburg’s reading of “Fog,” much of the twentieth-century is captured in audio recordings. U.S. libraries and archives house vast and rich collections of such recordings, which are of enormous value for scholarship and are increasingly used in teaching. Yet, many important audio resources go unused because they are not accessible. A new report from the Council on Library and Information Resources explores why this is so.

The report, Survey of the State of Audio Collections in Academic Libraries, is based on a 2003 survey of 69 academic libraries that explored virtually all areas of library stewardship, including access and bibliographic control, rights management, preservation, funding, and collection policies. Responses reveal the scale and extent of barriers to preservation and access of recorded-sound collections. The survey was designed and administered by David Randal Allen and Karen Allen of The Communications, Office, Inc.; results are introduced and summarized by CLIR Director of Programs Abby Smith.

The most frequently cited obstacles to access relate to a lack of bibliographic control. Physical fragility, lack of playback equipment for obsolete formats, access restrictions imposed by donors, and staff concerns about privacy rights were also commonly cited as barriers to access.

Copyright emerged as a key concern with implications for both preservation and access. Preservation reformatting is labor-intensive, and because digital output is the preferred medium for such reformatting, academic institutions want some assurance of digital distribution rights—such as those of fair use—before they invest in preservation. While most respondents were clear about their right to preserve materials, many reported that large portions of their recorded-sound collections lacked documentation that could be useful in sorting out ownership issues. Lack of clarity on such issues can greatly limit how these resources are served and used.

Most of the responding institutions reported low levels of staffing for audio collections, and full-time positions are rare. Only a few institutions appear to formally budget for their sound collections. Most work from grant money or allocate a portion of employees’ time to preservation.

The survey suggests that simply spending more money on the same approaches to access will not lower the barriers to the use of these collections. According to coauthor Abby Smith, “new approaches to intellectual and inventory control, new technologies for audio capture and automatic metadata extraction, new programs of education and training, and more aggressive access policies under the fair use exemption of the copyright law for education are necessary before most of the rare and historically important audio collections on campuses can be safeguarded.” Many of these issues must be addressed at the national level.

The survey highlighted a dearth of staff with expertise in audio curation, archiving, and preservation. Audio archiving as a field of information-resource management is far from mature. As yet, nothing in audio compares to the professional association in the moving-image community, the Association of Moving Image Archivists. “Such a natural coalition of professionals is likely to emerge as those engaged in audio and clustered in various professional organizations join together to take on a growing list of issues relating to preservation and use of the nation’s recorded heritage,” concludes Smith.

Survey of the State of Audio Collections is available on CLIR’s Web site at https://clir.wordpress.clir.org/pubs/abstract/pub128abst.html. Print copies are available for ordering through CLIR’s Web site, for $20 per copy plus shipping and handling.

The Council on Library and Information Resources is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the management of information for research, teaching, and learning. CLIR works to expand access to information, however recorded and preserved, as a public good.

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