by Abby Smith, David Randal Allen, and Karen Allen
The libraries and archives of the United States house a rich heritage of audio recordings spanning more than a hundred years. From work songs recorded in the field to Native Americans speaking in tongues, these collections of recorded sound are an irreplaceable record of twentieth-century history and are of enormous value for research and teaching. Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that there are significant barriers to the use of these materials. For example, collections are frequently not described or inventoried, are too fragile to handle, or lack clearly documented rights for use.
In 2003, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) undertook a survey to document the state of original audio collections in academic libraries and to identify the scale and extent of barriers to their preservation and access.
Survey Design and Methodology
The Communications Office, Inc., a consultancy firm, designed and administered the survey. An advisory group of audio, preservation, and administrative experts helped formulate the survey and interpret its results. The 100-question survey explored virtually all areas of library stewardship, including access and bibliographic control, rights management, preservation, funding, and collection policies.
Two groups of academic libraries were surveyed-18 member libraries of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and 51 member libraries of the Oberlin Group. These groups were chosen because they are comparable in mission, collection scope, and, often, in size. The two groups also share assumptions and vocabularies about collection care and management-an important consideration in achieving meaningful survey results.
Eighty-two survey data sets were received: 27 from the 18 responding ARL libraries and 55 from 51 Oberlin institutions.
Selected Survey Findings
Respondents reported that a range of collections or items of high importance are not accessible. The main reasons for this inaccessiblity related 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.
With audio resources, as with other archival collections, demand for access is low when collections are hidden from the view of users, undescribed, or otherwise hard to find. Nonetheless, and paradoxically, 78 percent of respondents reported an increased demand for recorded sound in teaching.
The survey also revealed that collections of potential significance to a college or university are often held outside the library; for example, one university reported that its schools of business, medicine, and law each had significant collections. It is unclear how these materials are being stored, preserved, and made accessible, if at all.
Changes in federal copyright law have meant that most audio recordings, even those made before 1923, will remain under copyright protection until well into the second half of this century. Use of these resources is complicated by the so-called underlying rights-those adhering to performers, composers, and distributors-that are difficult to untangle and trace for purposes of clearance.
The right to preserve and the right to make accessible are legally distinct. However, preservation reformatting is labor-intensive. 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.
Survey respondents gave mixed messages about their level of comfort with rights and compliance. Few respondents expressed confusion about their right to preserve materials. However, collections often lack the documentation needed to inform how materials can be used.
Respondents from both ARL and Oberlin libraries identified the same features that make their audio collections worthy of preservation: uniqueness or rarity, historic value, and significance of content for research and teaching were most often cited.
Forty-two percent of the respondents said that between 80 percent and 100 percent of their preservation-worthy recorded-sound collections is available for listening. In many cases, original recordings, rather than “listening copies,” are served. Most respondents said that a lack of appropriate playback equipment was not a barrier to preservation.
Most ARL libraries have undertaken at least one recorded-sound preservation project in the past five years. By contrast, of the 19 Oberlin group libraries responding to this question, only 6 replied that they had undertaken an audio-preservation project in the past five years.
Funding and Resources
Among the institutions surveyed, all but a few ARL institutions reported that staffing for recorded-sound collections is minimal, with few full-time positions.
Funding for preservation of and access to recorded sound appears to differ greatly between the two survey groups. ARL respondents reported average annual spending of $51,600 per institution, whereas Oberlin respondents reported $15,000 per institution. Caution should be used in drawing conclusions from these responses, however, because of differences in how funds for such projects are allocated and reported. Only a few institutions appear to formally budget for their sound collections.
The survey asked whether respondents’ institutions had written policies useful for managing recorded-sound collections. Of those responding to the question, 80 percent said that they do not have a policy for the preservation of original sound recordings. By contrast, 72 percent said they have a policy for bibliographic control, 69 percent have collection-development plans for recordings, and 80 percent have policies for disaster preparedness or recovery.
Although many respondents reported that lack of funding was the primary obstacle to making audio collections accessible, the survey revealed that simply spending more money on the same approaches will not lower barriers to the use of these collections. 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 will be needed to help ensure the preservation of most of the rare and historically important audio collections on campuses. Many of these issues must be addressed at the national level.
The survey also highlighted a dearth of staff with expertise in audio curation, archiving, and preservation. Audio archiving is a field of information-resource management that 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 is likely to emerge as those engaged in audio and now working in various professional organizations coalesce to jointly address a growing list of issues relating to preservation and use of the nation’s recorded heritage.
More About this Report
Survey of the State of Audio Collections in Academic Libraries
by Abby Smith, David Randal Allen, and Karen Allen
ISBN 1-932326-11-1. 59 pages.
The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at https://clir.wordpress.clir.org/pubs/abstract/pub128. Print copies can be ordered at this URL for $20 per copy plus shipping.