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Audio Materials Task Force

The general discussion of the audio materials task force began with comments by the individual task force members about their personal use of audio materials for research and teaching and their administrative responsibilities for audio collections.

The Underuse of Audio Materials

The consensus of the task force was that the store of audio materials available in repositories around the country is, at once, indescribably rich and, for various reasons, underutilized by both scholars and the general public. (The discussants made a distinction between scholars and users based largely on the complexity of the tools which scholars require to do their work.) The materials are underutilized, at least in part, because the bibliographic resources are woefully deficient and therefore it is not widely known that these materials exist. Before scholars can mine the riches, they must have at least a rudimentary awareness of what is there to be explored.

How do you build a critical mass of audio materials and make them available to scholars? The use itself will stimulate evaluation and promote still greater use. The task force agreed on the fundamental need for bibliographic control of these materials and for cataloging (at levels of completeness to be determined) to let people know what is available and to begin to provide subject access to collections. They stressed the importance of finding aids, even from amateur sources, and the need for new sets of tools in the digital environment to manipulate audio files-for example, to integrate sound with images of a musical score and liner notes and to transmit the composite across a campus for instructional purposes. They also agreed on the need to train scholars to use audio documentary sources and said that older scholars in particular are unaware of what the new digital environment can offer for their research.

Some members of the audio materials task force cautioned that, for certain kinds of research, the digital surrogate will not be adequate. In speculating about whether technology might ever provide an adequate substitute for the artifact-by allowing topographical reading of a record, for example, using digital images of the record-they asked whether the market for such specialized kinds of technology would ever be large enough to warrant their development and subsequent support. The cost factors were acknowledged to be inescapable and sobering. One member observed that the nature of the technological mechanisms needed to search across remote repositories makes the cost of providing access “extraordinary.” It was suggested that perhaps just a few institutions should take responsibility for keeping audio materials and for making them accessible; indeed, the economics of access may so require. But some members of the task force maintained that there is also value in a more scattered distribution of the materials.


The fundamental issue of what constitutes a text in the digital environment has yet to be resolved, even as digital libraries complicate the problem by making possible the creation of new documents from existing documents. How then does the reach of copyright extend to the creation, use, reuse, and distribution of these compound documents?

One member of the task force remarked that the process of rights management has at least four aspects: control of access; use or nonuse of encryption; authentication; and a secure method of payment when required.

The panel agreed that the copyright issues are thorny and troubling, but they avoided discussing specific practices or answering the hard questions-for example, what changes to copyright law are required for scholars to have access to audio materials over library networks, or what would the widespread introduction of licensing arrangements, including blanket licenses, mean for the use of audio materials. Some task force members thought it would be instructive for some institutions to tackle the copyright issues by seizing the initiative on access and prompting legal rulings. One participant reported that copyrighted materials are distributed electronically without permission at his university, but only for instructional purposes within the bounds of the campus. The legality of this semiprudent procedure has not been tested.


B.1. Finding aids

B.1 (a) The task force was in general agreement on the fundamental need for bibliographic control of audio collections and for finding aidsof whatever degree of completenessto acquaint scholars and the larger public with the existence of these materials and to promote their use.

The principal problem with spoken-word materials is the cost of proper cataloging: with tapes, there is no getting around the need to listen in real time to know precisely what is there. Given the great volume of materials to be processed, the costs of cataloging, and the surely limited amounts of money to get it done, what, if any, degree of compromise about the completeness of records is possible in structuring databases and finding commonalities? Library catalogers are traditionally disposed to prefer completeness, but is there not real benefit in the provision of at least some information, as compared to no information, about audio materials? The question, of course, is how much information is needed for scholars to know whether they will find the materials useful.

B.1 (b) The task force endorsed the notion of compiling inventories of audio materials, which would provide something between a full catalog record and a mere list. Once the inventories have been created, it will be easier to decide what may warrant full cataloging.

While some task force members urged scholars to set priorities for cataloging audio materials, librarians cautioned that such directives may be unreliable. Today’s scholarly interests may not be viewed so favorably in the future. The responsibility, they thought, would fall to curators.

B.1 (c) Information technologies should be used (1) to help create the finding aids, perhaps by imposing standards on existing data to bring them up to code and build a thesaurus, or by entering data into an existing thesaurus and (2) to disseminate the bibliographic information.

B.2. Costs

The group agreed that a framework for coordinating the digitizing effort and serving as the underpinning for cooperative activity is essential. They further agreed that the database is the essential component of a frameworkand, in the encouraging words of one participant, “We already have it.”

One member of the panel made the following critically important observation: “We are moving from ‘toy’ digital libraries to the next stage of digital libraries, when they will grow substantially, and we shall do something very wasteful if we all digitize the same things.” Within a widely recognized framework, new models of consortial sharing may evolve, and the inadequate delivery mechanisms that have been the undoing of resource-sharing efforts in the past may be rendered efficient-and therefore acceptable-in the digital environment. Because the financial costs are so high, institutions will also need to reallocate resources in order to create large virtual collections (and not just of audio materials) and make them accessible.

ACLS-CLIR Possible Program Initiatives

  1. Survey the state of availability of audio materials for scholarship and teaching on the network.
  2. Survey the state of information technology available to principal audio archives, including state and federal collections.
  3. Promote participation of audio industry for (1) and (2) above by communicating to the industry the importance of non-commercial uses of audio material on the network to the intellectual community.
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