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Recordings at Risk: Pilot Call Pointers

By Pedro Gonzalez-Fernandez

Audio and audiovisual materials of significant value often fall under the stewardship of archivists who lack specialized training regarding their description, storage, and maintenance needs. For this reason, the thought of writing a competitive grant proposal for a digital reformatting project might seem a tall order. What are the most archivally-sound digital formats in which to transfer these open-reel tapes? How many hours do I assume it takes to digitize all the content off of formats X, Y, and/or Z? How do I tell which of my recordings are the most, well, at risk?

Through the new Recordings at Risk (RaR) grant competition, CLIR aims to help professionals in a variety of contexts identify institutional priorities for digital reformatting, build relationships with partners, raise awareness of best practices, and develop practical strategies for getting the job done. Lessons gleaned from each successfully funded project will, when openly shared, assist other institutions in the fight against degradation and obsolescence. For these reasons, CLIR encourages all types of collecting institutions to apply for RaR grants and wants to provide whatever advice and resources it can to help applicants construct strong proposals.

To put together a strong proposal for RaR, it is helpful to think carefully about how applications will be assessed, how to prioritize and select appropriate materials for those assessment criteria, and how to effectively articulate the ways in which a proposed project aligns with the program’s mission.

A strong RaR application provides a compelling case that is centered around the core ideas of scholarly and public impact and risk urgency. Scholarly and public impact are the primary criteria upon which applications to this program are assessed. CLIR instructs reviewers to prioritize projects that include collections that are of high importance to a variety of disciplines and uses. Consider how your project will:

  • spark the interest of scholars from multiple academic areas, perhaps encouraging interdisciplinary research efforts;
  • generate some form of counter-storytelling that will contribute to meaningful public discourse; and
  • make a national or international impact upon scholarship, policy, culture, or the lives of communities.

Risk urgency is more straightforward: the risk of loss of recorded information on the carrier due to threat of obsolescence and/or degradation. Collections should be carefully examined for preservation problems, such as soft binder syndrome, mold, and environmental issues. Thankfully there are a number of online resources that can help novices understand these problems, such as the ARSC Guide to Audio PreservationNew York University Libraries’ Visual & Inspection Ratings SystemUniversity of Illinois Libraries’ Preservation Self-Assessment Program and FACET’s Format Characteristics and Preservation Problems.

An important and easily overlooked factor to consider is that the most at-risk format is not necessarily the oldest one around. In the world of magnetic audio tape, digital audio tape (DAT) reigns supreme over its open-reel and cassette forerunners… in terms of unreliability and obsolescence. At a 1995 Audio Engineering Society panel discussion—less than ten years after Sony unveiled the format in 1987—archivists discussed DAT’s lackluster performance as an archival medium.

Another element of preparing an application for the current RaR pilot call (which is specifically for digital reformatting of magnetic audio materials) is determining whether your collection merits the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s “high-touch, high-quality technical approach.” NEDCC offers a 100% attended transfer, meaning that an audio engineer will personally calibrate all playback machines, listen to the entirety of the recording as it is digitized, follow all relevant industry guidelines, and take the utmost care of the physical carriers. Before starting an application, think hard about which of your collections would benefit the most from such a high level of attention and skill, both in terms of risk urgency and audio fidelity. (Note that CLIR’s exclusive partnership with NEDCC lasts only for the duration of the initial review cycle. Applicants can choose to respond to subsequent calls in partnership with another vendor.) NEDCC provides a helpful list of examples on their About Audio Preservation page:

  • ethnographic field recordings of the now-extinct languages of indigenous cultures;
  • transcription discs of early radio broadcasts;
  • live recordings of musical performances, monologues, political speeches, inaugural addresses, academic lectures, etc.;
  • unique recordings of historical events; and
  • recordings on fragile carriers.

So, to wrap things up: All that an applicant needs to do is find some shabby-looking DATs with audio of now-extinct languages…

…Okay, maybe that’s a little silly. This list hardly covers all the possibilities and we look forward to learning about the unique collections held by applicant institutions. Don’t look back on this post as a series of boxes to tick off in order to be “at-riskier than thou.” Think of it instead as a brief glimpse into the mind of a reviewer, juggling both technical concerns and scholarly value, and use this information to make the best case for your collection as possible.

(Speaking of making your case, be sure to check out the Digitizing Special Formats page on the Digital Library Federation’s wiki for an ever-growing list of helpful resources!)

For more information on Recordings at Risk, visit the For Applicants and Application Guidelines pages.

Pedro Gonzalez-Fernandez is the program associate for Recordings at Risk at CLIR.

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