Selection in Sound Archives

Selection in Sound Archives: collected papers from IASA conference sessions

Edited by Helen P. Harrison (1984)

IASA Special Publication No. 5

©1984 by the International Association of Sound Archives

[paper edition: ISBN 0 946475 02 4]

web edition published 2010

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Table of contents


Collection of material in an archive setting will sooner rather than lead to a necessary policy of selection.

Selection is one of the most essential elements in most archives, and selection in the archives of notebook materials is a necessity because of the volume of the material involved and the very nature of the material. Sound archives have been in existence for the best part of ninety years and the longer they exist the more necessary the process of selection becomes. Although it is an essential element and has been practiced for many decades, whether consciously or not, selection does not feature prominently in the literature of sound archives. It was with this omission in mind that IASA embarked on a series of sessions during the annual conferences dealing with various aspects of selection in different types of libraries.

This publication is a collection of papers given during these sessions. It is designed neither as a definitive statement of selection in sound archives nor as an exhaustive study but it is hoped that the articles will from the basis of a continuing awareness and development of selection principles for sound archivists to consider in their daily work statements of adequate selection policies criteria and general practice are overdue and the aim of this publication is to stimulate thought and further publication in an important topic.

The editor of the present publication acted as chairman of all three sessions at the IASA conferences and the task was eased by the assistance of those authors of the included papers who updated their own material for inclusion. A note has been appended to each section to indicate the conference at which the paper was given and the present post of the author involved. Some additional papers have been included to provide extra information or enhance the booklet with practical examples. I am particularly grateful to Peter Hart and Margaret Brooks of the Imperial war Museum in London for permission to use the criteria of selection, which were in fact drawn up partly as a result of the IASA sessions and concern in the issues involved.

The booklet begins with an extended introduction and continues with papers dealing with the theory of selection given by Poul von Linstow and Rolf Schursma. Rolf Schursma’s paper additionally enumerates some practical criteria for sound archives in general, as well as the research sound archives he specifically deals with.

Oral history is closely related to sound archivism and often provides the raw material of the archive collection. A paper dealing with criteria for selection for recording in the field is included to illustrate the particular problems involved.

Selection is a widespread problem in all sound archives, but in none more so than national archives where the volume of material deposited or available for retention enforces a selection policy on the archivist. Three papers indicate some of the problems, one from the National Archives in Washington and two from the Public Archives of Canada. One of these papers deals with the Public Archives intake of radio broadcast material. This leads directly to the radio or broadcasting archives where the volume of material constantly threatens to submerge even the most rigorous selector of archive material. Examples of broadcasting organizations are taken from England and the Federal Republic of Germany.

Two papers have been included from the session on the selection popular music, and although they deal primarily with the indexing systems in use in the two libraries concerned they also indicate the selection policies which are in force to make the collections in the very prolific area of popular music more manageable.

The book concludes with a case study taken from one collection, the Imperial War Museum in London, England, which has attempted to draw up criteria for selection. Although many archives have their own methods of selecting material, much has yet to be formalized and written down for the benefit of other archivists. The Imperial War Museum criteria represent a step in the direction of greater exchange of ideas and information in this important area, and it is in the hope that this is only the start of the debate that the present volume exists.


Preface to this web edition (2010)

This IASA Special Publication, originally published in 1984, has been out of print for a number of years. Nevertheless, many of the papers have remained relevant to this day, so as a service to audio-visual archivists, we have decided to republish them in web form.

Readers should be advised that some statements in the following papers may be outdated. When this compilation of papers was originally issued, analogue formats were used universally for archival preservation copying, and many archives still relied on paper-based catalogues. Today, analogue formats are obsolete and computerised records are the norm. Among broadcasting institutions, large-scale digital storage allows archivists to retain their entire broadcast output, reducing the need for selection. An increasing proportion of collection items in audio-visual archives are born-digital, opening up the possibility for completely automated selection, handling and management of items for archival retention, once the initial selection parameters are set. For most archives, however, selection for acquisition of legacy analogue carriers and of digital items is an ongoing process. We hope you find this selection of papers useful.

International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives
June 2010

Introduction (Helen P Harrison)

Selection is arguably the most important and at the same time the most difficult of all the activities of the archivist, curator or librarian, especially those dealing with audiovisual materials. It is an essential element of the archival process and imposes a discipline on the collector almost from the beginning. A collector may not normally consider selection immediately, but the very consideration of what to collect or how wide a range of material one includes in a collection is one of the first principles of selection.

As individuals we are constantly making selection in everyday life, and most of our everyday decisions are forms of selection - shall we take one course or another; go here or there; work, rest or play. Decisions are taken almost unconsciously according to whim or circumstance. But selection takes decision making much further than this. It is usually based on a set of principles or guidelines although such principles may never have been itemised.

Collectors of sound recordings may have their own predilections or whims and this is not to denigrate their purposes, for without collectors there may never have been the basis for libraries and archives of materials.

However collections grow and very soon some process of selection, or discarding becomes necessary. The very volume of the production of sound recordings begins to demand a selection process and this is the point at which problems begin to be apparent.

The collector may be working within his own parameters of cost and space and it is his own decision as to what is kept and what is disposed of by exchange, sale or destruction. Others may question his decisions but are not in any position to criticise unless they do something positive to assist in the retention or preservation of the collection in part or whole.

Where the archivist (and for archivist one should read archivist/librarian in the context of this introduction) meets his problem is in the sensitive area of selection. A collector can be subjective in his approach, but an archivist should be seen to be objective and a selection policy or set of principles is needed here to provide a framework for collection.

Why Select?

The volume of output makes selection inevitable. As well as the commercial production of the recording industry we have a large non-commercial output and the output of oral historians and broadcasting output where far more material is recorded that transmitted and the unedited, untransmitted material may be potentially valuable for later usage. Specialized subject collections may also contain recorded material or the archivist may have conducted interviews, which have been edited down for public access purposes, but the unedited material has its own value. Following from this argument we might also consider one area often overlooked, which is selection at the point of origin. The recordist or sound archivist who initiates a recording needs to reflect on why he has to record this material, at what length he should be doing so, whether or not he should edit the recording and then dispose of the material which is superfluous to the recording he intended or his present requirements.

Selection has been made even more imperative as a result of the increased ease of recording. As tape recording has become easier and the equipment less cumbersome more and more recording is made possible by a greater variety of people. No longer is it the sole province of a technician to record material for preservation purposes. With improvements in equipment and ease of handling such equipment to produce acceptable recordings, more and more people are recording material which can be regarded as a useful record.

The real purpose of selection is to reduce an archive or collection to manageable proportion. The plethora of information and material can quickly get out of hand and unless selection principles are used we are in danger of sinking without trace in a tangle of magnetic tape, under a sea of books, cassettes, videodiscs or computer software. Worse we might disappear altogether into the computer hardware in search of that elusive piece of data, which was not properly labelled.

And herein lies another powerful argument for selection. If we do not select with reasonable care then what is the point of spending resources of time and money documenting, storing and preserving material, which is not of archival value?

Indeed it is a dereliction of our duty as information providers, whether archivists, librarians or information scientists not to select the material for preservation and future use. Too much information can be as difficult to handle as too little – it is equally difficult to access and discover the material, which would be most useful. The idea that you can, with the aid of modern technology, store everything easily on those convenient little cassettes appeals to the research worker, but how on earth does he think you are going to access a roomful, and it has been expressed in that very term, of video-cassettes and audiocassettes, each cassette bearing up to 3 or worse 6 hours of material, not necessarily in edited form. The research worker forgets that someone has to expend effort and time entering the information on to the database in a retrievable or accessible order.

There are inevitable constraints placed on any archive, which make it necessary to adopt selection policies. These constraints may be basic and arbitrary ones such as space for storage or the high cost of storage, or they may be constraints imposed by the available resources in terms of people and time as well as financial resources to prepare the material for storage, conservation and subsequent access.

As stated already, but always worth repeating, archives are not simply repositories. Some form of records management is essential to impose an order upon the record and make it manageable and accessible to future users of the archive, whether these users are researchers, browsers, those with a commercial concern to reuse the material or interested members of the general public.

Records management is about human resources. Without management of the record and the intervention of people the repository of sound recordings would probably deteriorate and certainly it would become difficult to locate particular items or groups of items within a very short space of time. There is of course merit in acquiring as much material as possible in a particular field of interest, especially in the early stages of development of a collection, but once acquired it is bad practice to leave such materials in an unordered state. The archivist has a responsibility to the material itself as well as his “user”. The material needs processing, filing in a retrievable order, conservation, and some form of information retrieval, however basic, should be imposed upon it as soon as possible after acquisition.

Selection may be a more leisurely process, but it is nevertheless a necessary one and should at least be considered from the outset. It need not happen immediately, but with any volume of material the need for it will quickly become apparent.

Archivists are not simply store-keepers. They must impose a discipline of management on their collections, and one of the more important disciplines will be the selection process. Selection, like management, is not an exact science. If it were then the archivist might have exact criteria and theorems to guide him. Nor do I believe that selection is an art. It can be argued as more of an art than a science, but I would prefer to consider selection as a craft, practised to achieve certain ends with suitable criteria or guidelines to meet these ends.


If the first principle of selection is to reduce the collection to manageable proportions, the purpose of selection is to ensure a balanced, representative collection of material relevant to the nature of the subject matter of the archive concerned. This means different archives will have different selection policies according to the intended use of the collection. Selecting material within areas of interest of the individual archive immediately raises the question of what is in the field of interest and what is outside? There will, almost inevitably, be grey areas where the material could be considered of use to the archive in conjunction with the rest of the collection. Rigid criteria are thus going to be of little use to the archivist; criteria must be flexible and try to take account of the related areas of interest.

Who Selects

Given the guiding principle that selection is of necessity one of the first major concerns of the archivist it will be necessary to establish who it is who is to select the material and then formulate the criteria for selection. Let us start with who is to select the material deposited in the archive. Some archives have selection staff who concentrates on the areas of acquisition and selection. Some archives use a system of selection committees, usually an ‘ad hoc’ arrangement whereby committee members are made aware of likely items of interest, or debate the merits from a listing supplied by archive staff. Such systems normally depend on the subsequent availability of the material and cost of acquisition. A lot of material escapes the net by this method of selection, but it does nod in the direction of consultation.

But is selection by consultation and committee necessarily a good thing? It is fraught with difficulty when sectional interests appear and squabbles break out between people from different disciplines. A short piece paraphrased from a book on Archive Administration written in 1922 by Hilary Jenkinson serves to make the point;

“The archivist is concerned to keep materials intact for the future use of students working upon subjects which neither he nor any one else has contemplated. The archivist’s work is that of conservation and his interest in his archives as archives, not as documents valuable for proving this or that thesis. How then is he to make judgments and choices on matters, which may not be his personal concern? If the archivist cannot be of use, can we not appeal to the historian - he may seem the obvious person to undertake such a task. As soon, however, as the historian’s claims in this connection are investigated it becomes clear that the choice of him as arbiter of the fate of archives is at least as open to criticism as that of the archivist. Must he not be regarded, where his own subject is concerned, as a person particularly liable to prejudice? Surely there will always remain the suspicion that in deciding upon a policy of archive conservation he favoured those archive classes, which furthered his own special line of inquiry. The very fact that a historian is known to have selected for an archive is fatal to its impartiality”.

Some of the more curious suggestions about retention of material, which have been encountered, come from eminent people in their own fields who want everything kept ‘in case they need to study it’. Why do they want to study it? Uncharitably we could suggest in order to select information for the benefit of the rest of us, but more seriously any archivist would wonder that they have the unlimited time at their disposal which is needed to sit through hundreds of hours of material.

It would appear that selection should be done by the archivist or librarian and not by outsiders with peccadilloes and sectional interests. Specially appointed staff in the archive can see the wider implications and, if thoroughly versed in the aims and objectives of the particular archive, are in a good position to select. But to be effective they must be carefully chosen and they should have a set of criteria to work with.


The purpose of this publication is to indicate possible criteria for selection in different archives. There are several governing principles, which should be considered before guidelines can be enumerated.


  1. One mentioned already is that the archive selects material according to the needs, purpose and intention of the collection and with the ultimate ‘user’ in mind. Subject areas of interest may be narrow, but the related or ‘grey’ areas should not be overlooked in selection.
  2. Material for archival preservation should be either unique to a collection or not duplicated in several existing collections where there may be a waste of resources preserving the same thing three or four times over. Legal deposit is a rarity and one archive cannot assume that any other is collecting in a particular area or country of origin. In these circumstances it becomes important for all sound archives to have selection policies and to discuss their policies with other archives both nationally and internationally and ensure that valuable material is kept somewhere, but not in each and every archive. This is one of the main reasons why the International Association of Sound Archives was formed.
  3. Quality. This is a relative principle; closely related to the unique quality of the material. In theory the best quality material should be selected, but sometimes, when the only available material is of poor quality, its unique nature overrides the principle of quality. A closely related factor is that of technological change which may mean a recording is only available on an ‘obsolete’ carrier. Archives should not select on the basis of whether or not they can replay material - this is library selection, when the only material in a library relates closely to the playback machinery available either in the library or in the user’s home. An archive must consider other qualities of the material and if it is essential to the collection, but on an unplayable medium, an archive needs facilities to transfer it to a usable medium.
  4. Some material may be ‘unusable’ because of copyright or contractual restrictions. However, copyright can lapse and one of the functions of an archive could be expressed as outliving copyright and other such restrictions. The material is held for the restricted period (it may even be possible to use it under certain conditions during such a period) and then, when copyright is released, the archive will be able to grant access to valuable material. Copyright restrictions should not necessarily deter selection of valuable items and the selector must think beyond the temporary restriction.
  5. The timing of selection is also an important principle. It should never be a once-for-all decision. Some material need be kept for only short periods while checks are made on existing material which it may duplicate. Other material can be looked at retrospectively after a period or periods of time. Most archives, which practice selection, will be found to use this principle.
    An archive will collect material in accordance with its purpose and objectives but, as these may change at intervals, the selection principles will have to be flexible to accommodate these changes. Selection principles should, therefore, be subject to review.
  6. One of the main principles of selection is objectivity within certain guidelines. Selection staff should be as objective and free form bias as possible within realistic parameters. Hindsight is a useful mechanism here and it can be achieved by adopting a long-term policy of selection. Optimum selection decisions are best taken after a ‘decent’ interval.

These principles are not of course criteria for selection, but they include many of the considerations the archivist should take into account in formulating his own criteria for selection.

The rest of this publication will expand and elucidate many of these principles and indicate how practice and practical considerations affect them.

The criteria for selection of sound recordings have not been, and indeed cannot be laid down as hard-and-fast rules, but it is hoped that the readers of the book will find many practical examples and working principles in the pages which follow; examples of criteria used in different types of archive with particular purposes which will assist the profession of sound archivists to arrive at reasoned, practical criteria for selecting material to store in archives for passing on to future generations.

IASA has recognised that selection is a central area of the archivist’s concern and this series of papers exists to continue the debate about criteria or guidelines for selection; a debate which may rumble on for some time. In highlighting the problems we can only hope that our successors will recognise that we took notice of an obligation to select, and even if they may quibble over what was selected or destroyed, will be grateful for the production of more manageable archives.

Helen Harrison is the Media Librarian at the Open University in England. This paper is an extended version of the brief Chairman’s introduction given at the IASA conference in Budapest, 1981.

Philosophical and methodological aspects of Selection (Poul von Linstow)


As a widespread phenomenon sound-archives have not been in existence for very many years compared to other types of archives and collections from man’s past. We have only just started to realize some of the problems which other forms of collections have had for many years; for instance the problem of preservation, and problems in connection with the rapid growth of collections in modern times. Suddenly, the collections may - for different reasons - be considered too large, awkward to handle and too difficult to use.

We all know - or have a clear suspicion - that audiovisual materials are much more difficult to preserve than documents. The cost of preservation may in the long term be so large that the necessary resources cannot be raised. Utilizing material in the archives, in research, in broadcasts or reused in the form of sound- or video-cassettes will for many subject-groups become a problem, because of the sheer size of the collections. It is not only limited space that causes us to declare the collections too large - audiovisual material is very, very slow to work with, and one can fear that some research-disciplines will give up using audiovisual material to answer traditional problems and questions if unreasonable amounts of time have to be used referring to audiovisual material compared to other forms of source-material. This problem should not be underestimated. The type of questions which the users of the archive expect an answer to after investment of a reasonable amount of work, will degenerate into simplification and end up in becoming irrelevant for serious research, if the collections are too large or confusing.

Up until now we have only seen the beginning of a selection-debate within the realm of sound-archives - and have been spared the merciless necessity of radical selection until now. This is the beginning of a debate which will last for many years and which will be constantly reformulated in connection with technological developments, changing types of users and economic development. The debate will be intensified and we will hear echoes of it every year at IASA conferences and many articles about the problems in the Phonographic Bulletin.

The problem of selection has many aspects and it can be discussed in several ways. It is of course impossible to solve the whole problem in one short session. This paper will, therefore, concentrate on a somewhat over-looked aspect; namely how selection is conceived of philosophically and methodologically. What kind of philosophical conception offers the best interpretation of the general structure in the selection process, and what type of methodological conception can, in the most fruitful way, be used in analysing the details of the selection process?

A Concrete Example

In the first place it is necessary to create a clear image of a selection process, because it is the image, which is the starting point of the analysis. It is not unimportant what kind of selection process you imagine. Some archives have very rigid selection-typologies - so rigid that it is almost meaningless to speak of selection - and other archives take everything they can lay their hand on. It is clearly unfruitful for our analysis to take such procedures as a starting point. It is necessary to build up our image from elements of a selection process which is reasonably free from rigid selection-typologies and at the same time considers it absolutely necessary to make rather thoroughgoing selection. When one is investigating philosophical problems it is important not to get lost in practical problems - we want to analyse the structure of the selection problem, and to that end it is necessary to construct a kind of ideal-typical image of the selection process - ideal-typical in the sense that the image consists only of elements in the process which are relevant for the analysis. The ideal-typical cannot be found in any existing archive but, nevertheless, our construction of the image has to originate from a knowledge of existing archives. I will, therefore, describe very briefly the selection process in my own archive and thereafter, you must supply this image with elements from other archives, which are known to you. In short: we want to create an image of a ‘clean’ selection-process, and in this creation or construction we only use the elements which characterize and accentuate the structure in the process.

The archive used as an example is Radio Denmark’s archive for spoken word and non-commercial music. The only principle we need to take into consideration in our selection of material is ‘possible re-use in radio programme production’, and as radio programmes are being made about almost everything - or at least one can imagine so - we are relatively free from rigid typologies. But we are restricted by the fact that if the collections become too large, they will at the same time become unfit for programme production - a problem which is normally greater for journalists than for researchers. 95% of the material is actively selected by archive staff and the selection is based on short descriptions of content which are sent to the archive from the programme production departments, including television when the sound track is sometimes relevant for our collections. Every day we receive these short descriptions of content covering about 50 hours of production and we select on average 5% from the large number of complex problems being treated in a nation-wide non-commercial broadcasting station. The intention of selection is that the material shall contain the essence of the subject and its treatment; and that, of course, cannot be done by selecting some ‘objective’ percentage from news and cultural relevant programmes - in fact it is a question open to debate as to whether ‘objective’, automatic percentage-selection deserves the name ‘selection’ - rather it should be called ‘sorting’. The selector is supposed to possess an educated problem-consciousness - an education which not only derives from knowledge of the radio-medium itself and its specific way of treating the problems, but also from independent and thoroughgoing knowledge of the problems essential and characteristic of his own time and our knowledge of man.

In Radio Denmark the selection procedure is mainly founded on one staff member who examines all the radio and TV programmes each day. After this first examination the selected material is secured by other persons such as technical staff and the programme departments themselves - but the important thing here is the principle - one person/all the programmes - which forms the corner-stone of selection in Radio Denmark. One of the advantages of this principle is that it makes it possible to build up the collections systematically around essential themes and developments in the medium. For example, all the small but perhaps important elements from news and magazine programmes are examined in the selection procedure. Separately they are perhaps not relevant for the archive, but if systematically pieced together they can be used in the future description of many important problems, some while ago in Copenhagen there were episodes in connection with young people who illegally moved into empty houses. Several programme departments, both television and radio, reported these episodes, which were rather interesting in bringing into focus otherwise unrealised problems. But the reports where only given as short items in magazine and news programmes, and they would have been lost if selection was limited to the large, unique programmes. This is often the case if the programme department has a monopoly of selecting material for the archive. One problematic point in the procedure is that the basis for selection is short written summaries. To what extent is it possible to use written abstracts as a basis for selection of audiovisual material? Another facet of the selection process, which cannot be covered in this paper.

To sum up, the process of selection can be described as follows. Each day short abstracts of about 50 hours of transmission are received representing about ten pages of written abstracts. On average you must select five per cent and it must happen in such a way that the selected material does not give a passive reflection of the broadcast material. The selection ought to be active and creative, so that new problems can be treated and researched in the selected material.

The next step in the analysis is to move from this newly created image of the selection process to a precise formulation of the selection problem itself

The Problem Of Selection

Formulation of the problem is of great importance to the kind of answer arrived at in the end. The formulation of the problem depends on the purpose of the analysis, and the purpose is to reveal some essential logical structures in the selection process. We are now moving into a broad and difficult field within theory of science, it is the field concerned with the relationship between general or ‘nomological’ knowledge and concrete, ‘ontological’ knowledge. This relationship between general, nomological knowledge and concrete, ontological knowledge is basic to understanding that the sciences are composed of a systematic, ‘law-seeking’ part, and when trying to use a science to investigate specific, practical problems and events. This can be applied to most of the sciences; theoretical physics being used on practical problems, for instance, Newtonian mechanics can be used to calculate the time for a specific solar eclipse, or other general physical laws can be used in specific weather forecasts, or theoretical economics can be used to explain specific economic events; or within our own archival realm, a generally formulated selection-typology or subject-typology can be used to decide whether a specific recording is to be selected or erased!

But a subject-typology is not scientific ‘knowledge’; and there are other differences. However, the structure of the problem of the relationship between a generally formulated subject-typology and a specific, concrete decision to select or erase is the same as in the just mentioned sciences. Of course this does not mean that a decision to select or erase has the same degree of precision as an astronomical calculation of the orbit of Halley’s comet; a comparison between selection-decisions and weather-forecasts might be more proper. Selection is not, and cannot become, a science in the classical sense of the word - but the structure of the problem of the relationship between general and specific knowledge is identical in the sciences and in selection-work. When the structure is identical, then we are permitted to use the available philosophical and methodological scientific literature in so far as this literature is concerned with the structure of problems and not for instance with the nature of the objects to be analysed. Before taking up these matters it is important to solve the formulation problem, or rather the two interconnected problems, which appear in the selection process. As it is in the sciences, the case in our archival interest of knowledge is split in two different ways of thinking. One of these is systematic and general and is concerned with the formulation of the archive’s selection-typology or subject-typology, and the other is concerned with the problems of the specific decisions of selection. The selection problem can be formulated as follows: the problem of selection is the problem about the interconnection there is or ought to be between the more or less explicit general subject-typology and the specific selection-decisions. The subject typology need not be explicitly formulated-in a way it is just our general conception of what ‘ought’ to be selected.

The Subject-Typology-Epistomological Status

An example of a short subject-typology could be:

  1. Material of interest for contemporary history,
  2. Biographical material concerning known personalities,
  3. Ethnologically and culturally interesting material, and
  4. Material of interest for the arts.

Now, one can ask, what is the condition of possibility for creating such a typology? What must necessarily be known before the typology can be formulated? The answer to these questions is of course that it is necessary to have a more or less conscious or clear conception of what it is essential to know about man, combined with a conception of the way in which the audiovisual material in the archive can be expected to contribute. Some of the most important aspects of the problem of selection are to be found in the thinking connected with formulation of the subject-typology. The distinction between essentials and inessentials, which in the typology is formulated in a general way and in relation to the archive’s purpose, rests on criteria derived from conceptions of a metaphysical character such as conceptions of ‘man’, of ‘society’, of ‘culture’ etc. It is in these concepts, which in our knowledge and actions work in a heuristic and not a deterministic way, that our personal ‘philosophy of history’ or our personal ‘metaphysic’ are to be found. All these concepts are often very vague and only partly consciously analysed, but nevertheless they are necessary and form the basis for our image of world. They are a kind of a priori, torso-like, but absolutely necessary total-image of our life-world, and in reality it is this flickering and unanalysed image, which is fundamental for our thinking knowledge, when we act, and when we select. It is the flickering, metaphysical image, which is behind both the formulation of the general subject-typology and the specific selection decisions. In the typology the image has been formulated in a general way - in the specific selection the image has the character of a heuristic basis for a decision. Everyone who has made decisions about essential/unessential has to find his arguments in these metaphysical conceptions if his selection decision is being criticized and therefore needs some kind of argument. It is an eventual critique, which makes clear the metaphysical character of selection work - and metaphysics does not mean pseudo-religious conceptions, but the common principles and concepts, which create coherence and integration in our thinking. Coherence and integration are the key words!

It can be seen therefore that the problem of selection is founded one kind of metaphysics; but it also has other philosophical aspects. One of these lies within theory of knowledge. One could say, that the metaphysical part of the problem is concerned with the answers to the question: what are the conditions of possibility for selections - what is the a priori in selection? But the theory of knowledge problem is concerned with the answers to the question: why must this material be selected and that erased? It is the structure or logic of thinking in practical selection work we are looking to find. How does the selector motivate a specific selection?

At this point the discussion can take advantage of the previously mentioned debate about the relationship between general and specific knowledge, between nomological and ontological knowledge. In the space available we can mention only a few elements in the dominant conception of the problem and some of the points of critique. The dominating school is positivism, and it is the positivistic conception which underlies what many Americans call ‘hard’ science’.

The literature about positivism is very large, but a classical representative is Carl G Hempel, whose articles The Function of General Laws in History, (1942) and Studies in the Logic of Explanation (1948) are worthy of reading. In short, the positivistic ideal is, that when you must explain an event, then it is necessary to split it up into several parts, so that every part can be explained by means of the general laws formulated within secure sciences. If, for instance, you must explain a specific traffic accident, the first thing to do is to establish the experiential data; influence of alcohol, braking distance, the specific traffic situation, mental condition of the driver, etc., and then you will investigate these data by means of the relevant sciences, which in the case will be: medical science, technical science, traffic-sociology, psychology and so on. The general knowledge from these sciences, which can be used, is called ‘covering laws’ because they are considered to cover the established facts. After the analysis of the facts by means of the respective sciences, the positivist nominates the sum of these separate explanations to be the explanation.

The same kind of procedure is involved when a selector motivates a specific selection by referring to it being ‘covered’ by one or often several categories in the subject-typology of the archive. But this kind of explanation suffers from great weaknesses and the critique of positivism is about to uncover some of them. A brief critique of positivistic theory of knowledge can be found in Maurice Mandelbaum’s article: The problem of covering laws, in History and theory, (1961), and a very profound critique can be found in one of the most exciting, modern philosophical works, Bernard Lonergan’s Insight. A study of human understanding, (1958).

The starting point for Lonergan’s theory of knowledge is the analysis of the event, which we call an insight. He is not interested in insight as a psychological phenomenon, but analyses the character of the increase of our knowledge, which is involved when we get an insight. For Lonergan it is, so to speak, the insight, which is the atoms of knowledge – for the positivists the atoms are verbally, formulated, elementary statements about what is considered the reality. There are of course many problems involved in this, but the point is, that the positivistic summing up of their many separate explanations involves an insight, an epistemological operation, which is overlooked by the positivists. The separate explanations of the mentioned traffic accident are: influence of alcohol, bad brakes, bad traffic conditions and a depressed driver, and the positivist considers it unproblematic to put a circle around all these separate explanations and to nominate the sum: The explanation!

What is overlooked is that the circle or summing up involves an increase of our knowledge, and therefore it must be motivated. The positivistic theory of knowledge is unable to motivate the summing up! There are perhaps secure sciences which can be used in explaining the separate parts of the event - but there is no science which can explain how the specific parts of the event are integrated again; remember the key words are coherence and integration! The positivistic theory of knowledge will only be able to create explanations in the form a long string of possible separate explanations. In the same way, a positivistic selector can only motivate his specific selections by referring to this or that point in the explicit subject-typology of the archive - that is the reason why a positivistic selector always has an explicit and very detailed subject-typology: he simply cannot live without it.

In short, the problem for the positivist is, that his theory of knowledge does not include principles by means of which coherence and integration can be created. In practical work there are no differences between a positivist and a non-positivist. The difference is in their philosophical and methodological understanding of what is involved in their practical work. To the positivist, the integrating principles of coherence are ‘unscientific’ or ‘subjective’ and are, therefore, not included in his theory of knowledge. But the selector with a fully developed self-awareness will recognise the integrating insights, which are involved as a necessary part of his work and these integrating principles are exactly the same metaphysical principles, which have been mentioned before. It is, therefore, a self-delusion to believe that a reference to some selection-typology can be used as a proper motivation for selection - unless of course the typology is so restricted that the problem of integration does not exist. Then the positivistic understanding can be used, because no integrations of separate explanations or motivations are involved. If, for instance, the archive must select every kind of material on a certain person, then it is obvious that the motivation problem does not exist. However, in that case the question remains as to whether selection is involved at all.

The problem of selection has only been solved in a very general way in the formulation of the archive’s subject-typology. The kind of general solution of the problem in the subject-typology cannot be directly used to solve specific problem of selection. Often you will have a feeling that the selection problem is buried in the typology. For instance, the typology contains the category ‘contemporary history’, but within this very category there are essentials and inessentials. And furthermore, the category contemporary history cannot be defined in relation to history as a science. It is defined in accordance with the nature of audiovisual material or the needs of the programme producing departments. This means that the criteria traditionally used in the science history cannot be directly applied. A typology can only in a very restricted sense be used to solve specific ad hoc selection problems. It can be used to give potential customers a general idea of what can be found in the archive, and it can be used to define in a formal way the working-purpose of the archive. It can also be used in the selection of material, which may be unambiguously described as in a particular category.

Application of a general typology presupposes an integrated insight into the elements of the specific problem of selection. Otherwise you will not be able to discover that the typologies or categories are involved in the specific problem - and in the same way you are unable to discover the specific integration of the categories. In short, the application of a general typology needs interpretation in every specific selection decision. The typology is only one out of several factors involved in specific selection work, and it must be stressed that the typology itself does not contain principles by means of which the integration can be motivated. The principle of integration is to be found in ourselves in the form of the aforementioned heuristic, pre-scientific, but necessary total-image, which is activated in the meeting between the selector and his specific selection problem.

Therefore selection is a kind of metaphysical achievement resulting in a creative, integrating insight and decision, and it is founded on a complicated combination of our more or less conscious and educated total-image, explicitly formulated general subject-typology and understanding of the specific selection-problem involved. Selection is not in the category objective, secure, hard science, but in the category meaningful, subjective action. For that reason a selection decision will always have to live with the possibility of being questioned. The selection decision is not a science but an action, which is open, creative and perhaps even playful - and long may it continue to be so. Objectivity in selection, for instance in the form of percentage selection or the impossible (in the long run) total selection will transform archives into stores and the creative, educated selection into automatic, mechanical sorting.

Therefore, in reply to the first of the two questions raised in the paper’s introduction, I am of the opinion that the problem about the philosophical conception of selection is best solved by conceiving selection as meaningful subjective action, always open to debate, and as a philosophical method I would recommend self-awareness in relation to the practical selection work based upon the epistemological phenomenon insight as understood by Bernard Lonergan.

The second question, which was raised in the introduction, concerned the methodological conception of selection. The problem has only been touched upon and space decrees only a very brief mention of the research-discipline, which will be staid the selector to make his practical work transparent. What I have in mind is the decision-making theory.

To recapitulate, I tried at the beginning to show the presence of a kind of metaphysical heuristic total-image, our subjective-reality, as a foundation for selection-work. This image was formulated in the general subject-typology as a description of what categories of material the archive must select to fulfil its purpose. The general subject-typology has the character of a normative description, however specific selections are not description, but decisions! The typology and the specific selection are two different ways of thinking about the same problem and that is why the problem of essential/unessential seems buried in the typology when you try to motivate specific selections by means of the typology. The typology is not a set of rules to be followed blindly; rather it is a kind of framework for creativity. The specific selection is a creative decision, and it is of course unwise not to use the large literature about this subject to reach a more profound understanding of what is involved in decisions.

Some of the fundamental works within the discipline are to be found in the general action theory, but the most directly usable works are strangely enough to be found in the special elaboration of the theory for analysis of political decision-making. Richard Snyder, Graham T Allison and John D Steinbruner ought to be mentioned and if you are interested in analysis of the concept meaningful subjective action, Alfred Schutz ought to be consulted. Space forbids me to enter into details of decision-making theory, but the self-understanding of the selector will be much improved by studying the decision-making theory’s analysis of the many very complicated factors involved in decisions, from the cultural blind spots, through the organisational forms of the archive itself and on to the individual psychology of the selector.

Understanding these factors cannot, of course, make selection objective but it can make the selection decisions less arbitrary - and the selection debate can profit from the definitions and the very differentiated concepts within the decision-theory. Another problem, which can be illuminated by decision-making theory, is the problem of differentiating between types of selection. Earlier in the paper I outlined the type of selection in my own archive, but there are of course a lot of other types - one of them I have referred to elsewhere as sorting. In the decision-theory there are at least six different paradigms or types, each of them characterizing a type of decision. For instance, there is an analytical paradigm, a cognitive paradigm and a cybernetic paradigm - the last one can, with advantage, be used to characterize the very simplified and automatic form of selection, which I have called sorting. But these differentiations and refinements will come in connection with the intensified selection debate, which we can expect in the years to come.

Poul von Linstow is the Radio Archivist of Denmark Radio, Copenhagen.
This paper was given at the Brussels Conference in 1982.

Problems of selection in research sound archives (Rolf Schuursma)

An archivist is usually the opposite of a selectionist….

This was the first sentence of a paper, which I presented to the Annual Conference of IASA in Jerusalem in 1974 (Phonographic Bulletin, No. 11, May 1975, P.12-19). The paper was called “Principles of Selection in Sound Archives” and it is perhaps symptomatic that the focal point of the present contribution has moved from principles to problems. Since 1974 I have been involved in various efforts to cope with the ever growing amount of sound and film records in the Netherlands, and again and again the term “selection” has appeared as a kind of incantation - a miraculous keyword - which should open the road to archival happiness. In fact, selection means a lot of problems, which mainly have to do with a lack of funds and, most particularly, with a lack of staff. This paper does not attempt to provide the final solution to our troubles. It is meant as a stimulus for discussion and a starting point for critical questioning about archival policy. It is primarily restricted to the problems of spoken word collections, but some observations might also refer to archives of music recordings, and even film and TV archives could easily recognize some of their own deliberations and solutions.

This paper will summarize statements made in the 1974 conference about selection criteria, and the then draw attention to the process of selection and the effectiveness of selection.

In the context of the paper, ‘record’ means the carrier, including the audio-information. ‘Recording’ means just the audio-information itself. So a gramophone record or an audio tape is a ‘record’, containing for example a ‘recording’ of an interview with Bela Bártok or a performance of one of his string quartets.

Why Selection?

To reiterate: an archivist is usually the opposite of an individual who makes selections. By nature the archivist is striving for an ever-growing collection; including whatever he can get; excluding as little as possible. Why should he then apply selection to the collection of recordings ready to enter his vaults? There could be three possible reasons:

  1. Lack of space
    New technical developments will eventually allow smaller formats for records, yet space will always be an argument in favour of selection. Audio-records also demand certain standards of air-conditioning which may involve a considerable investment of money.
  2. Lack of staff and equipment for preservation
    Preservation may consist only of keeping air-conditioning under control and a regular check on the stability of the records in storage. But old and deteriorating records have to be copied, involving time-consuming operations, sophisticated equipment and a quantity of blank carriers.
  3. Lack of staff for cataloguing
    The accessibility of the recordings in our archives is of course very much dependent on the quality of the catalogues we are going to produce. Even a simple catalogue of audio recordings should be based upon standardized title descriptions. For example, the ISBD, while spoken word recordings demand an additional summary of the contents. The descriptions should be classified according to some system using keywords derived from an authority file such as the one produced by the Library of Congress. Cataloguing is, therefore, a time-consuming affair.

Selection should be seen as a means to diminish investments, exploitation costs and above all the considerable costs of staff necessary for preservation and cataloguing.

Criteria For Selection

The term selection implies a procedure based on the general policy of the archive and certain criteria within the limits of the policy. What criteria can we establish without hampering future research and destroying recordings which, in a hundred years or more, could have become interesting or even indispensable? Are there methods to avoid disaster and to protect ourselves from blame by our successors? It is doubtful whether such criteria can be found but we should try to formulate a few points which can be applied without too much risk. Apart from obvious things like the discarding of dubbings or recordings of very bad quality, the following should be taken into account when an archive begins to define selection criteria.

  1. The specific qualities of the medium
    Sound archives are collecting music and spoken recordings or are concentrating on one of the many other fields. Spoken word can, of course, also be preserved in writing or in print. It is, however, not really possible to convey on paper variations in tone, laughter, sighs, chuckles, interruptions and intervals-in short, non-verbal expressions. This does not mean that one has to preserve every recording of spoken word. We should restrict ourselves to records, which contain medium-specific information. So many recordings of speeches by official persons, made entirely in accordance with the policy of their government, are in fact second-rate sources which do not add significantly to the knowledge stored in traditional archives of written and printed records.

    All of this means that we should concentrate on recordings made without previous preparation such as live-interviews, discussions and improvised talks; in other words, recordings, which enrich already existing, printed reports in the daily papers and official documents.

    Medium- specific qualities apply also to music recordings, since such recordings cannot be replaced by printed music in any way. Thus the first criterion will seldom apply to music, because it is by nature medium-specific and irreplaceable.

  2. The division of work between archives
    Most spoken word archives are in fact specialized institutions, concentrating on restricted fields, and usually there is only a small overlap with other institutions. If there is duplication, as is sometimes the case with broadcast sound archives and research archives outside the radio, it is there because radio archives are not able to provide a service outside their broadcasting institutions. However, the general policy of archives should be very clear about the limitations of their own collection as well as others and selection policy should take account of these limitations. This applies equally to spoken word and music.
  3. The length and completeness of recordings
    Selection has also to do with the length and completeness of recordings. This does not mean that only extensive and complete records are valuable, because a very short abstract from an early broadcast may be worth many long recordings of later date. In the case of spoken word it is particularly difficult to decide to what extent fragmentary recordings are useful. News broadcasts, for instance, which are transmitted by the dozen every day, usually consist of many comments and few authentic sounds. They are useless for research and for most educational applications. On the other hand complete recordings of live interviews belong to the more important part of every archives collection and must certainly not be eliminated because of a too strict selection policy. In the case of music, complete recordings are preferable in most cases.

The above-mentioned points give us something upon which to base a policy. In short: are our recordings adding to the traditional written media or are they worthwhile because of their specific qualities as sound records? Are they held elsewhere in the country or abroad, or are they too short and too fragmentary to provide useful information? Criteria along these lines will in general not impede any future research.

There are a few additional points, which are more risky, but can do little harm to our descendants in the world of sound archives.

4. Single records or complete collections
Most records, be they spoken word or music, belong to series or to collections brought together with a specific aim. In many cases records derive their importance from the mere fact that they belong to a collection, while single records without any relation to other recordings stand apart and may be less valuable. The recording of a well known Haydn Symphony by a certain orchestra under a particular director is of course different from the same symphony recorded as part of the complete series by Antal Dorati and the Philharmonia Hungarica.

5. The importance of the subject: estimation of value
Frequently spoken word recordings have been made because at the time people seemed to be interested in the subject. Radio broadcasts, in particular, tend to be of temporal value, fashionable or tied up with sudden bursts of sensational curiosity. Archivists should be able after some time to distinguish between temporal and more enduring subjects. There are risks in this approach, because any tape may contain the one and only recording which eventually proves to be of outstanding value but, as long as we deem selection to be necessary, the subject-criterion provides another weapon against pollution of our precious collections. Archivists of music recordings may easily find parallels within their field of interest.

6. The importance of the subject: social history
There is a tendency to apply social sciences and historical research to daily life, the life of the man in the street, the unemployed, workers in factories or minorities in great cities. Aside from the inevitable exaggeration of this movement, it is nowadays a matter of common understanding that historians and archivists have spent too much time on outstanding events and very important persons, and that they should change their course. While a lot of documents cover the dealings of the so-called establishment, the number of records related to the circumstances of living and the cultural interests of the public at large is relatively small. Selection should take care of this distinction and place less value on outstanding persons and more on social history, at the cost of our customary collections of voice portraits of VIP’s, who as a mater of fact are well prepared for eternal life anyway.

Further to this summary of the criteria of selection in general terms, it should be indicated that for each specific subject of research, whether music or one of the many fields of spoken word, the archivist may develop his own criteria within general parameters, dependent upon the policy of the archive and the point of view within that field research. However, it is not easy to use more specific criteria without grave risks of the wrong kind of perfectionism. General directives and a well-developed common sense are better remedies than so-called scientific criteria which, in practice, spoil much of the fun of collecting and do not really add to a well-balanced archive collection.

The Selection Process

Before moving on to the process of selection, a few preliminary explanations are required. It should be stressed that this paper has to do with spoken word, although it may also apply to music. Also, the figures used by way of explanation about the effectiveness of selection are based upon both experience and speculation. If they have any significance it is because they may stimulate the discussion and provide a kind of model for calculating. Lastly, the article is restricted to matters of personnel, not investments and costs in the material sphere, because the costs of equipment and materials are usually far less forbidding than the costs involved in hiring staff.

Finally the selection process has been related to the cataloguing. Records which have been selected for further use will, in any case, pass through the cataloguing process in order to become accessible. It is, however, doubtful if all of them will also go through a stage of copying and further preservation. After passing the selection process many recordings will indeed return to storage without further preservation. Including preservation in this calculation model would complicate things unnecessarily.

The selection process consists of a series of actions which lead to the decision to send the collection or the single record for further processing through the archive (positive selection), or to exclude it from further processing or even to destroy it (negative selection). Within that kind of process there are many possibilities, differing in degree of intensity relative to the needs of the archive and the kind of input of records in the archive. At one end of the scale we find coarse-mesh selection, and at the other end fine-mesh selection. Coarse-mesh selection is the evaluation of complete collections of recordings without going into each record specifically. Fine-mesh selection is based upon a record-for-record approach necessary, for instance, in case of probable copying, bad technical quality, etc.

In the first case the selection process is usually not very time consuming, which means that the ratio of the size of the collection and the time spent on selection is advantageous for the archive. However, coarse-mesh selection is risky whenever the collection is not already well defined and well documented. If this is not the case, one may end up with a lot of rubbish and a few really valuable recordings.

In considering fine-mesh selection it is worthwhile to go into the question of effectiveness of selection in more detail. The process of selection with a fine-mesh approach consists of several stages:

  1. Getting the record from storage;
  2. Inspecting the container, the sleeve, the label and the eventual documentation with the record;
  3. Listening to the complete record or to part of it, and/or studying an eventual detailed list of items of the recording;
  4. Filling in a selection-form with headings for a few primary dates;
  5. Sending the records back to storage;
  6. Evaluating the findings and taking a decision about positive or negative selection. Completing the selection form.

Stages 1 through 5 can be described as a pre-cataloguing process because, in the case of positive selection, the selection-form can, amongst other things, serve as a tool for cataloguing proper.

Selection of Different Records

Let us compare a few imaginary records of ten-, thirty- and sixty-minutes duration by running them through the selection stages mentioned above and estimating the time taken for each stage. In doing this we can also make a distinction between a selection process in which the record is listened to completely, for instance in the case of dubious dubbings or a great many separate items (maximum intensity), and a process in which only part of the record is listened to (minimum intensity). See Table1.

Duration of recordings




Stages of the selection process min. max. min. max. min. max.
1. from storage 3m 3m 3m 3m 3m 3m
2. inspection 5m 5m 5m 5m 5m 5m
3. listening 5m 10m 10m 30m 20m 60m
4. filling in form 5m 5m 5m 5m 5m 5m
5. to storage 3m 3m 3m 3m 3m 3m
6. evaluation and completing from 5m 5m 5m 5m 5m 5m
Total of selection process 26m 31m 31m 51m 41m 81

Table1: stages and durations of two different selection processes for recordings of three different durations (in minutes)

It is not insignificant that the only variable figures in this table concern the time necessary for a minimum or maximum listening to the recording. All other figures are, generally speaking, the same for every kind of record. (The storage time has been limited to three minutes each because one should, of course, handle a group of records all in one.) There may be some differences between the one and the other single recording, but such variations are not significant for our comparison. It must be noted, however, that part of the pre-cataloguing process does not have to be repeated during the cataloguing process proper. We should, therefore, deduct some time from the total duration of the selection process in order to make a comparison with the cataloguing process more meaningful. But a suitable cataloguing process should include the listening stage, particularly in view of the production of a summary and the determination of keywords. Only a few data listed on the selection form might then serve to speed up the cataloguing process and you cannot subtract more than five minutes on the average from each of the total times mentioned in the table.

We may, in any, case safely conclude that

if selection does not result in the de-selection of a certain number of records, it will only add considerable additional loss of time to the existing lack of time of the staff.

The duration of the selection may very from twenty to eighty minutes or more per record, depending upon the duration of the recording and the amount of listening we decide to do.

The Cataloguing Process

In order to underline the point, let us take a close look at the cataloguing process and list the stages involved in the process with their estimated durations (a simplified reproduction of the total process). See Table 2.

Duration of recordings

10m 30m 60m

Stages of the cataloguing process

1. from storage 3m 3m 3m
2. standardized title description (the complete process) 45m 45m 45m
3. summary 20m 30m 45m
4. subject-code and keywords 15m 15m 15m
5. input in database 10m 10m 10m
6. to storage 3m 3m 3m
Total of cataloguing process 96m 106m 121m

Table 2: Stages and duration of the cataloguing process for recordings of three different durations (in minutes).

Here also there is a relationship between the duration of the recording and the total duration of the process. The variable is in the summary stage which varies according to the duration of the recording because a longer recording will usually be more time consuming than a shorter one.

In comparison with the cataloguing process, selection takes a lot of time. If we put together the minimum selection figures table 1 and the cataloguing figures from table 2 and subtract five minutes from the pre-cataloguing phase, Table 3 applies.

Duration of recordings




1. selection (minimum intensity)




2. cataloguing




Total time taken




Table 3: duration of selection and cataloguing for recordings of three different durations (in minutes).

To make the comparison work for a group of records ready for a fine-mesh selection process followed by the cataloguing process, let us take a group of one hundred records with an average duration of 30m per recording (resulting in 26m for minimum selection and 106m for cataloguing). Consider that the records pass the selection with flying colours, so that all of them get catalogued in the end. The total duration of processing these records through selection (minimum intensity) and cataloguing would then amount to the following: see Table 4.

Number of recordings 100
Average duration of recording 30m
Selection (minimum intensity) 43h 20m
Cataloguing 176h 40m
Total time taken 220 h

Table 4: duration of the selection and cataloguing processes for 100 recordings of thirty minutes average duration (in hours).

One person, working effectively seven hours per day, would thus spend more than six days on selection and more than twenty-five days on cataloguing those hundred records.

In this case the selection process, seen from the point-of-view of the selecting archivist, was entirely without result. But when does selection become effective? In other words: where is the break-even figure at which it is to the advantage of the archive to process records through the selection procedure and above which selection is a waste of time, indeed only adding to the problems of the archive?

The Break-even Point

Take the following supposition:

As long as we succeed in keeping the total time involved in the selection and cataloguing of a certain number of records equal to the time which would have been used for cataloguing without previous selection, there is an advantage for the archive.

Even if we do not win time during the selection and cataloguing processes, we will have less to store and eventually less to preserve. And we are not losing any time by selecting carefully.

However, if we succeed in making the total time involved in selection and cataloguing less than the time originally involved in cataloguing proper without previous selection, then selection becomes even more advantageous. But as soon as selection and cataloguing time add up to a total higher than the cataloguing time without previous selection, we pass the break-even point in the wrong direction. Then the archivist should decide whether problems of space and preservation might counter-balance the loss in time on the selection/cataloguing side.

Now what does the break-even point mean in the case of our hundred records? Taking the figure of 176h 40m involved in the cataloguing of those records (again: 30m average duration, 106m cataloguing per record), if we are going to put those 100 records through the selection process and if we are only going to catalogue the records which were positively selected, we should nevertheless stay within the limit of those 176h 40m in order not to lose time. To find the break-even point in this case becomes a very easy procedure.

We have to go through the selection process anyway for all hundred records. As we have seen this process takes up 43h 20m (again: 30m average duration which means 26m selection per record). Now we only have to subtract those 43h 20m from the 176h 40m mentioned above to find the time which we can safely use for cataloguing proper.

Thus we have 133h 20m left for cataloguing. As long as we stick to 106 minutes per record for the cataloguing of each of these 100 records, we are then able to catalogue about 75 records without going beyond the break-even point. In other words:

There is a break-even point below which it is even more advantageous to select and above which the archive may lose extra time by selection. The break-even point can be found when one subtracts the time involved with the selection process from the total time, which would have been involved with cataloguing all records, in question if there had been no selection. The remaining time is left for cataloguing and should be divided by the time necessary for each separate record in order to find the total number of records, which can safely be considered for cataloguing.

An archivist should in this case instruct his staff to de-select at least one quarter of the pile of one hundred records in order to make the selection a useful tool in the process of saving staff time and money. This assumption is based upon a selection process with minimum intensity. More intensity means a deteriorating ratio, which may even go beyond fifty-fifty.

100 audio-recordings of different duration – fine-mesh selection with different intensity

Average duration of recordings




Intensity of selection min. max. min. max. min. max.
Total duration of cataloguing if no selection


176h 40m

201h 40m

Total duration of selection minus pre-cataloguing phase 35h 43h 20m 43h 20m 76h 40m 60h 126h 40m
Total time available for cataloguing after selection 125h 133h 20m 133h 20m 100h 141h 40m 75h
Duration of cataloguing per record

1hr 40m

1hr 45m

2h 1m

Number( = percentage) of records to be selected for cataloguing 78 73 75 57 70 37
Number ( = percentage) of records to be de-selected 22 27 25 43 30 63

Table 5: calculation of the minimum percentages of audio-recordings of different duration to be de-selected in a fine-mesh selection process of two different intensities, in order to prevent extra loss of time because of selection.


A greater percentage of de-selected records is more advantageous to the archive in terms of timesaving. A lesser percentage means greater loss of time and makes selection disadvantageous in terms of timesaving.

Table 6: minimum negative selection with recordings of different duration

Table 6: minimum negative selection with recordings of different duration


The purpose of this exercise in sound archive arithmetic is, of course, not to deliver a ready-made calculation model for all kinds of selection. It is, at best, a clue to the solution for a small part of the total selection problem. Establishing reliable and effective criteria is probably a much more difficult problem to solve.

However, to get back to the beginning of the paper, it is important for any archive to establish the general policy with regard to the limits of its collection. Only when it is apparent that, even within those limits, the archive simply cannot cope with the amounts of records pouring in, it should consider a more energetic selection procedure. Even then, it is better to try a kind of coarse-mesh selection in order to lose as little time as possible on that stage of the total processing of records through the archive.

If, however, records enter the archive without any cohesion amongst themselves or without any connection with the collection already present, it is necessary to apply a fine-mesh selection. In this case, it is advisable to consider the ratio between the time necessary for selection and the time involved in further processing through the archive including the cataloguing process. A fine-mesh selection, which does not result in at least one quarter of the records being thrown out, can eventually end in a bad result in terms of costly hours. See table 6.

One final consideration. Negative selection does not always have to end with the destruction of the records. If space is no problem, one can, of course, store them in some part of the archive where they can do the least harm. One can also offer them to another archive. However, sometime it is definitely better to pull oneself together and have the records either thrown out or destroyed. If some archivists here or there still believes in miracles, the author is the last one to attempt to awaken them from their dreams. However, we can be very certain that the longer we wait, the less money will be available and the more our conscience will bother us. A well-established selection policy, consistently carried out, is the best solution.

Rolf Schuursma was the librarian of the Erasmus University, Rotterdam.
This paper was given at the IASA conference in Budapest in 1981.

Oral history criteria for selection in the field (David G Lance)

At risk of stating the obvious, let us begin with some general considerations that affect fieldwork decisions. Archives do not exist in a selection vacuum. There are three major factors, which dictate and predetermine what the character of their fieldwork programmes will be.

First, archives are established usually for quite specific functions that are defined by their founding authorities. Their activities are guided generally by the policies of the institutions they are a part of and the overriding criteria for their fieldwork activities should reflect the charters under which they have been constituted.

In most cases oral history recording programmes are either connected with the history of a particular city, province or country or else they are associated with a specific subject such as political history, social history, or military history. Depending on its raison d’être each archive will plan its fieldwork first by using the criterion that most appropriately develops its given role. For example, a regional archive in planning its programme might well use as a set of selection criteria for field recording that it should document its leading citizens, its traditions and customs, its government and politics, its industry and agriculture, its art and culture. Similarly, a subject orientated archive, such as one concerned with military history, might organise its research to deal with the history of land, sea and air forces; with arms industries and wartime agriculture; with political and military leadership; with social and economic conditions in wartime.

Secondly, fieldwork is determined by the nature of the institution carrying out the programme. For example, a research institute serving its own scholarly staff and an exclusively academic community will have different objectives from a museum, which has more general educational goals. In the former case field recording may be required to reflect a particular publishing programme the institute is pursuing, while in the latter it may be the creation of sound documents for use in exhibition or the classroom that most influences the choice of recording subjects.

Thirdly, oral history sources rarely stand in their own right but have to be related to the size and quality of other historical records that exist within the archives’ constituted field of study. This reality also directly affects fieldwork programmes and requires different strategies for different situations. To give but one example, a political archive in a developed country with a long tradition of formal record keeping and archival preservation programmes will usually be confronted by a vast amount of written documentation that has to be assessed in devising worthwhile fieldwork projects. By contrast, a similar archive in a Third World country with a history of colonial administration may find that its period of transition to self-government and its early years of independence are hardly documented at all, because during those years no bureaucratic infrastructure existed of the kind that produces such written records. In the first example, the archive would be concerned with gaps; in the second the need could be to fill a void.

These three factors may be seen as the backcloth against which fieldwork is carried out and the archive’s recording programme will be substantially influenced by them. Influential though they are in general terms, they will seldom provide the archive with precise answers to the fundamental question: what subjects can the oral history programme tackle? Unfortunately, there are few shortcuts to reaching these answers. Such decisions can only be taken by developing a thorough knowledge of all the existing sources that are available within the archives field of study and establishing the range of options, which are thereby open to it. Having carried out these tasks the archivist-cum-oral historian can then begin to plan his fieldwork programme.

What can be said with some certainty is that the number of possibilities from which archives may choose is almost invariably in excess of the resources available for fieldwork? This being so, by what kind of criteria may we decide to accept or reject possible research fields and, from those accepted, how do we establish priorities between them?

There are a variety of questions, which may be applied to test the practicability of potential subjects for oral history fieldwork. The two most basic ones concern the suitability of the subject and the availability of informants.

First, is the proposed subject suitable for oral history research? Oral history recording is dependent for worthwhile results on individual memory, a faculty that is notably uncertain. People forget, and the more dependent the historian is on precise factual recall of specific events then the less dependence he may be able to place on the answers he receives to his questions. For example, the politics of a particular period may be analysed in at least two different ways. One may be concerned with decisive events; who said what to whom in what place, at what time and with what immediate and longer-term results. The informant casting his mind back over years or even decades on such specific details would be only human if his recall was not always accurate, and without other sources against which to check these details the historian would obviously not be able totally to rely on them. An alternative approach would be to consider the same political period from the point of view of some of its dominating characteristics. By what means did a particular politician exert his influence? How did he organise his ministry? What was his style in relationship with political colleagues or with civil servants? How did he deal with the mass media? and so on. These kinds of questions are concerned with patterns of activity, which probably took place over a period of years and were observed by many different people from a variety of different standpoints. Field recording projects geared to such patterns of activity are more likely to be successful than those, which are closely confined in place and in time.

Secondly, are the informants available to be recorded? This is not just a question of recognising that interviews cannot be conducted by spirit mediums! It is a case of anticipating the practical obstacles that may prevent you from dealing with the living. As an example, one fieldwork project, which we launched, was concerned with British involvement in the Spanish Civil War. On the face of it, this was an eminently achievable piece of research since a great many British participants were still around. What we didn’t foresee were the reactions of the potential informants that our project was dependent upon. These fell into two extreme and differently polarised groups. On the one hand there were the many communists who served with the International Brigade. These tended to regard the Imperial War Museum as a pillar of the very establishment that they opposed. In some cases they wanted nothing to do with us at all while in others they were circumspect to the point of saying “Well, I’ll give you a statement but I won’t answer any questions”. Not exactly promising ground for fieldwork! The problem when it came to those who fought on the Nationalist side was different. Although we made various public and private appeals, they simply could not be found. Despite the greatest delicacy of phrasing we were led to the conclusion that, in essence, our appeals seemed to say “All British Fascists please contact the IWM”. Today it seems more acceptable to have been of the extreme left than of the extreme right in this war and while those of the left have often courted publicity, those of the right prefer quietly to fade away.

This question of availability has a number of facets. At its most obvious it means, do the informants you need still survive? Assuming they do, it also asks: are they likely to be willing to take part in a research project? This requires the further refinement, are they likely to co-operate with you personally or with your particular institution? Availability has still more connotations. If they are alive, agreeable to the notion of facilitating historical research and willing to collaborate with you, are they also available in sufficient numbers and in the right categories for you to be able to interview a selection that would be sufficiently representative of the research field you are considering? The last survivor of the Lusitania might be good material for newspaper circulation but he is a pretty narrow basis for oral history research! Similarly, if you wanted to study the famous unofficial Christmas truce in 1914, when both sides left their respective trench lines to meet peacefully in no man’s land, but found that only survivors from one side were available, then a qualitative restriction would be imposed on your fieldwork.

Those are, of course, simplistic illustrations. But if the oral historian is dealing with the composition of a specific social group or the structure of a complex historical situation, he is often required first to make a fairly elaborate analysis of availability in those sorts of terms.

Another criterion that applies in a lot of oral history work is whether the timing is right. There is often a right time and a wrong time for fieldwork. For example, a politician still active in political life will usually give a very different kind of interview than one who can look back and reminisce without further ambitions. If the historian makes a wrong decision in the timing of his approach he will not only produce an unsatisfactory or incomplete recording; he may also prejudice his own or any other fieldworker’s opportunity to repair the damage, since informants are not always willing to repeat the exercise. In many cases timing may be all-important, and this is not by any means confined to political interviews. Generally the closeness of events heightens their importance, their sensitivity and the passions that may be associated with them. It can, therefore, require a fine piece of judgement to decide whether the advantages of an informant’s better short-term recall will be outweighed by the disadvantages of doing the fieldwork too early, when openness, detachment and objectivity are threatened by the sort of factors just mentioned.

Selection for field recording should also take account of other fieldwork programmes. This requires archives to establish and maintain contact with all other field workers active in those areas of subject interest. If academic or media collectors, for example, are carrying out recording projects that are central to an archive’s field of study, it is frequently more sensible to try to obtain those tapes or copies of them than to duplicate a project by the archive’s own efforts. Similarly, archives should co-operate with each other. Too much work needs to be done to waste resources on largely overlapping endeavours. Archive users, for whose benefit fieldwork is usually supposed to be carried out, are better served by a wider range of material being collected than by monopolistic tendencies for comprehensiveness which may lead an individual archive to tread again already well covered ground. The archive’s choice of project should, therefore, reflect the availability of oral sources outside its own holdings by giving priority to fields, which are unexplored.

The single most important criterion by which oral history archives may plan their programmes is common to many other disciplines in which archival collections are built up by field recording. Namely, priority should be given to recording the most elderly informants. By concentrating first on, say, the seventy or eight-year olds our projects may suggest themselves with all the brightness of a flashing neon sign, and for certain kinds of research this is perfectly legitimate and the most straightforward way of organising fieldwork. An archive’s interests might, for example, be focused on the working methods and conditions which preceded certain technological developments; or a specific period of urbanization might have brought to an end a variety of customs and traditions which it is important to document; or, again, it might be the leading citizens of a particular region or the chief innovators in some special field of human activity that are central to the archive’s goals. Where these are the type of considerations that dominate the archive’s work, then selection by age is a criterion of primary, simple and effective utility.

While this yardstick of age touches most oral history research – and indeed fieldwork generally – its application is by no means always the simple formula I have just suggested. Commonly it will create conflicting situations. To give an example of the kind of dilemma which can arise, we may wish to look at some aspect of the First World War through the eyes of the surviving informants who experienced it; but we might also wish to investigate the planning of the D-Day landings in 1944 from the point of view of a small group of the specialists who controlled some element of it. In both cases we may be concerned with people in the same age group. In giving priority to one, human mortality may prevent us from doing the other. This very often, is the nature of the fieldworker’s choice. As a generalization I would say that the age of potential informants is a fundamental criterion by which to establish priorities; but an equally important consideration is the need to record as quickly as possible those key individuals who, for one reason or another, have made a singular or distinctive contribution to the archive’s field of study.

I said that I wanted to begin my paper by stating the obvious. I now think that I may have done this throughout! The formulation of selection criterion is a valuable discipline and their availability may make the practical tack little easier. Better still, is the thoughtful adaptation and development of general guidelines to the needs of specific archival situations, which will provide very much more useful working tools. When all this has been said and done, however, complex choices will always have to be made by individual archivists.

David Lance is now Curator of Audiovisual Records in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Formerly Keeper of sound Recordings in the Imperial War Museum, London. This paper war first given at the IASA conference in Washington DC, 1983.

The art of appraisal and selection of sound recordings archival retention (Leslie Waffen)

The aim of this presentation is to take up the subject of selection and the criteria for selection for sound archives, a subject which has already been addressed at recent annual meetings of IASA in Budapest and Brussels, and which goes back as far as 1974 with presentations at the Jerusalem conference on “Principles of Selection” by Rolf Schuursma and “The Selection of Sound Recordings for Permanent Retention in the BBC Sound Archives” by Timothy Eckersley.

The purpose of this paper is to present a few of the considerations - none of them ostensibly new - that commonly weigh upon appraisers in judging the archival value of documents, specifically audio documents; to arrange these considerations in an order that may suggest a methodical procedure; to point especially to the need for a boldly conceived and clearly defined policy of selection at the institutional level; and to provoke further discussion in the hope that it will either refine and improve on the selection criteria being outlined or develop other criteria which gradually become more suitable to the purpose.


The basic working document being used as the framework for this paper is the selection policy developed by the US National Archives called the General Records Schedule 21. (See Appendix A, p.58) This document provides the selection criteria applied to US government produced or acquired audiovisuals. This policy document was the work of several committees over the years and applies to all AV materials considered for permanent retention in the US National Archives. It includes, for the basis of this discussion, a section on sound recordings and related textual documentation.

At the outset several general statements concerning archival appraisal and selection should be examined in order to establish a common structure for discussion. Appraisal of material for archival value is perhaps the most challenging of the tasks facing the contemporary archivist. The decision to destroy material is irrevocable; the temptation to save all documentation is untenable. We must choose. We must make judgements. We must make selections. This holds true for audio documents as well as paper archives. Either we judge what sound recordings are going to be worth to the future, or any selection is meaningless. Nothing has value of itself. Value in an object is wholly dependent upon the existence of persons attaching value to it.

As Helen Harrison has already indicated in the introduction; but it bears repeating:

“If we do not select with reasonable care then what is the point in spending resources of time and money documenting, storing and preserving material which is not of archival value.”

The task of selecting archivally valuable material, specifically sound recordings, is a difficult one. It is one of identifying, among the voluminous mass of material being created on a national and regional level, the specific types and series of recorded sound materials that are worthy of preservation. It is the function of

“reducing to the irreducible minimum the records (sound recordings) that are needed for research uses.” (Theodore R Schellenberg, “The Selective Retention of Federal Records of Continuing Value”, October 1963, unpublished, National Archives Library).

Thus we must accept the assumption that certain sound recordings or types, classes, or series of sound recordings can be judged to have enduring archival value and that the principle of using selection techniques to choose such material is a basic and necessary function of any recorded sound archives, whether on a national level or a specialized field such as a broadcast or a music archive. (American Archivist, vol. 20 No. 4 October 1957, “Archival Sampling”, by Paul Lewinson.) Without a selection policy there would simply be collections of material but no archives. It is through selective appraisal that many documents are disposed of and a few, of enduring permanent value, are retained. Those retained constitute the archives.

A number of factors enter into the judgement that documents have permanent value and appraisal tests may be applied in various ways. This was the reason for choosing the title of this paper because it suggests a knowledge on the part of the archivist or curator which comes from experience, much like that of a skilled craftsman. Appraisal cannot be done in a vacuum and definitely does not depend on the archivist’s background, education, and general work experience. Yet, on the other hand, there can be an element of science in appraisal and some guidelines which are generally safe to follow and provide touchstones or a yardstick by which to measure a decision. Certain audio documents whether individually, in series, or groups should undoubtedly be preserved; others can generally be discarded without great concern; and then there is a large area which is in limbo. It is in this grey area that general guidelines are especially helpful to the archivist of recorded sound. This is where one combines the “art” of appraisal with guidelines or the “science” of appraisal, and where one can begin to feel that an effective selection of material has begun.

The selection criteria that is used and the tests that are applied vary greatly among different sound archives depending on their acquisition policy and the objectives for which the material is to be used. But there are general selection criteria and guidelines common to the majority of sound archives and institutions with recorded sound collections that could be the basis for a common international working document. IASA should continue this dialogue and continue to take the lead in developing a statement of selection principles for sound archives.

US National Archives policy

Before outlining some common criteria for selection, we should take a brief look at the selection policy developed by the National Archives for its AV material. For it is here that the experience of this author resides and we may see some criteria applicable on a general level. Note that the US National Archives is responsible by law for preserving materials that document the functions and activities of the Federal Government and its history, and that while we select for review all of the output of the government agencies, the archives ultimately retains only about 1% of the paper records and perhaps 20%-30% of the AV materials. As with any public archives the vast majority of materials created and accumulated by a federal government such as that in the US have only temporary administrative, legal, or fiscal values and are eventually destroyed when no longer needed by their creating agencies. A small portion, however, are never destroyed. These documents are appraised and selected by archivists as having enduring historical value and are eventually physically transferred to the legal custody of the US National Archives and preserved. It is in this selection process that the general selection policy in Appendix A is the most useful to the government agencies and to the archivists within the National Archives who do the appraisal.

GRS 21 specifies which types of AV records, including sound recordings, are to be offered for evaluation and selection and specifies certain categories of AV materials, which agencies can automatically dispose of without the prior approval of the National Archives. From the categories relating to sound recordings it can be seen that the National Archives collection is one of unique unpublished sound recordings as opposed to commercially produced and released multiple copy recordings. It is a collection on a national, federal wide basis, of speeches, interviews, actualities, news, public affairs, radio documentaries and spots, oral history, military recordings and information type programs. The schedule also specifies, based on other regulations, that when AV records are offered and transferred certain physical components or elements are required to be deposited for proper preservation. For sound recordings this means in effect that government agencies or donors of government related material must submit the original or earliest generation copy of each sound recording and one copy if possible for reference purposes.

Thus, using these general selection criteria as a base, and also in the actual appraisal process in the National Archives, we have often refined these criteria to apply to specific collections of recorded material, especially large collections of donated material that were not created by the federal government but which have documentation that relates closely to government activities and interests. For example, refer to Appendix B Guidelines for Evaluation of the ABC Radio Collection (P. 63) - a collection of some 27,000 discs and broadcast tape recordings made by the ABC radio network dating from 1943 to 1971. A selection was made of these recordings based on the selection criteria as outlined and developed from GRS 21 experience. As the summary reference report shows, this collection was briefly surveyed prior to its acceptance and it was felt the entire collection should be taken for several reasons:

  • It appeared to be primarily news and public affairs programming;
  • It had been maintained by the radio news division of ABC;
  • It had to be removed from the building it was stored in within a month because the building was to be demolished.

A situation that will undoubtedly be familiar to most readers.

After acceptance and based upon a written agreement between National Archives and ABC Radio a final selection reduced the collection from 27,000 to about 20,000 items. The recordings that were weeded out to accord with the guidelines are in the process of being offered to another institution once approval is received from the broadcasting company as the donor.

General policy

This is the working process that occurs at the National Archives when appraising and selecting sound recordings for archival retention. From this we can move on to a general policy reflecting the mission of the institution; the evaluation and application of selective criteria, often tailored to the particular collection or group of sound recordings being appraised for permanent retention. In summary, therefore, appraisal moves from the general, to specific, to specialized criteria for collections. From this brief discussion of the importance of appraisal and the inevitability of selection, and after seeing how selection criteria is applied in the US National Archives, it is possible to suggest some general principles and guidelines of selection that can be considered common to all sound archives. For example:

  1. Archives acquiring sound recordings have an obligation to ensure preservation by selecting the original or best quality copy available.
  2. Appraisal should be done according to a well-defined selection policy, whether based upon the national production, if a national archives, or for a specialized purpose if an individual archives, or for a specialized purpose if an individual archive such as broadcasting, or musical genre. This means and requires more than just a statement that an institution will collect material of national historical significance. This is the point in which careful appraisal should be emphasised before acceptance. This is the time at which local principles and values can be applied more rigidly. The best way to control the content of a collection is to specify as clearly as possible the selection policy that will be applied.
  3. In developing the appraisal and selection criteria based upon policy, a sound archives should avoid acquiring sound recordings that duplicate material held in other archival repositories. This avoids a redundancy of source material, allocates preservation funds efficiently, and eliminates wasteful expenditures of staff time in cataloguing and preserving duplicate material.

From these three general principles we can suggest some common guidelines or signposts for evaluation and selection of sound recordings.

Uniqueness - That is the degree of rarity of the recordings. This requires some investigation and assumes knowledge of recording history and genres by the appraiser. Uniqueness involves determination of the extent to which the information in a recording is physically or substantially duplicated elsewhere.

Age - The age or date span of the sound recordings, or group of recordings will often be a natural guideline as to the value and importance. It should be recorded that age is a relative term depending upon the type of sound recording being evaluated. For example, instantaneous disc recordings of the late 1920s and early 1930s of radio broadcasts are rare and have historical value because there are so few, and would be appraised and selected quite differently from say commercial 78s from the same time period. The same test can be applied to selecting the recording output of certain record labels governed by the period of their existence, which may be quite recent. Survival rates must also be taken into account since man-made and natural disasters have created scarcities in sound recordings for particular time periods. Thus it is common sense that the appraiser working with voluminous sound recordings of recent origin will develop appraisal criteria different from those of an archivist engaged in seeking out and preserving early cylinder recordings.

Volume - This can be a crucial factor in appraisal selection. Faced with the massive quantities of recorded sound material which can be received in a national sound archives, the sound archivist must evaluate at the collection level, or at best the series level. There will simply not be enough time to arrive at a value judgement of each recording being offered. For these reasons it important to develop a specific set of evaluation criteria taking into account the administrative and historical development of the entire group or collection of recordings.

Form - The physical form of the sound recording can be a factor in establishing criteria for appraisal and selection. Here the appraiser must determine whether he is dealing with originals, or copies, or copies of copies in various recorded formats. It touches upon the questions of origin and source, recording generation, or even reissues. With originals the type of physical format will often be a factor in determining preservation costs and priorities. For example a collection acetate base audio tapes, mini-cassettes or field cylinders, will require different handling and preservation work on a higher priority than a collection of relatively stable vinyl disc pressings.

Accessibility - The research value of sound recordings depends on their accessibility. Perpetual, indefinite or long-term restrictions on access and use significantly reduce the value of a collection and could be a factor on determining whether or not it is accepted. In addition, accessibility could be hampered, impeded or obscured by disarrangement or peculiarities of arrangement in the recorded sound collection being appraised. This may require rearrangement back to the original order, if it can be determined; or in exceptional case a new arrangement in order to make the recordings useful to researchers. This makes it important for a proper appraisal to have paper documentation offered with the recorded sound items.

Relationship to other recorded sound holdings - The sound recordings being appraised should be evaluated against the total holdings already accessioned by the institution. Gaps in existing archival series or time periods, or record label runs are a major consideration in doing a thorough appraisal.

Preservation costs - The cost of staff, and the degree of technical expertise and equipment needed to preserve or restore audio documents must be considered as a selection criteria. Information of a permanent value recorded on impermanent non-archival media presents a serious and expensive problem for sound archives. Such costs must be a factor in determining whether it is worth keeping the sound recordings in their original form once an acceptable archival quality copy has been made and it has been determined that no intrinsic value remains in the recordings themselves.

Some selection criteria

Having elaborated some common principles and guidelines of selection, let us now look at some selection criteria or approaches to criteria for thought and discussion.

Given the scope and amount of commercially produced recordings accumulating yearly (current industry figures estimate that in 1982 2600 LPs and 2800 45s were released by American record companies alone), as well as the output of unpublished recordings from radio programmes and of oral history materials being produced worldwide. Wherever possible a selection scheme on a national level should be considered similar to one advocated in a symposium on selection held by FIAF in 1980; and perhaps this should be geared in stages, with one generation of archivists reviewing the selections of their predecessors in order to deselect materials judged unimportant after the passage of 50 or more years. To do this, greater co-operation is needed among established institutional sound archives in various countries that have recorded sound archives and perhaps even the development of specialized archives working in concert with the existing institutions in a co-ordinated network, to document various types of recorded music and speech. Some of those networks are already being nurtured, for example in the US, where the five leading institutions with the largest collections of sound recordings are working together under ARSC (The Association of Recorded sound Collections) to create an index to their holdings of 78 recordings. Such an index will be a prime tool, not only for researchers, but also for appraisers to use to locate sound recordings and in developing selection criteria, at each institution, applying the test of uniqueness, allocating preservation monies, and eliminating duplication.


It is useful at this point to consider the question of reappraisal and further selection and weeding of sound recordings already on deposit in our sound archives. It is often the case with the collection of all AV materials including those of recorded sound, that material is accessioned, acquired, or gathered over the years without ever having a proper evaluation. Historically, many archival collections have been formed as reference collections for one purpose or another and only later have they evolved into an archive with preservation materials and responsibilities. Thus it is a necessity that we must consider re-examining, reappraising, and re-evaluating sound recordings already accessioned and sitting undisturbed and deteriorating on our shelves. And let us face it, the longer they are there, the more they gain a cloak of respectability. They become old friends and we seldom think to question why they are there in the first place.

Reappraisal may be necessary because, perhaps, the original appraisal was faulty. Material was thought to be worthy of accessioning, when in fact, by the standards of the time of appraisal they were not. Or the appraiser judged the material correctly by the appraisal standards of the time, but standards have changed and by today’s standards they are not worth keeping. But most often, as we know, material is accessioned without any really careful appraisal. Demands on time, shortage of staff, pressure from the agency or donor, the particular and, perhaps, peculiar collecting focus or mania of certain archivists, officials and administrators or the lack of a well-defined acquisition policy all contribute to the fact that we have collections of sound recordings occupying space in our archives that need to be re-evaluated. Reappraising is most important, especially prior to spending preservation funds or going through the cataloguing procedure. It is possible to perform a full reappraisal or in some instances put forth a set of guidelines that can be used for dealing with previously accessioned materials. The National Archives has put together a draft document, a compilation of criteria distilled from the selection criteria in GRS 21 and on-job experience, and formatted into a physical format category and subject matter category. Refer to Appendix C .

The reappraisal suggestion is a healthy one for any recorded sound collection and should help to determine the priorities for preservation in different collections of sound recordings. It may be heretical to say so but all accessioned sound recordings in our collections are not of equal value; why then should they be given equal preservation treatment or even equal storage space. There are different preservation options available. Perhaps it is time to abandon the idea of retaining all sound recordings in the best possible quality, in the original speed and track format, in exchange for the ability to keep quantities of material readily available for access and reference use. It might mean in effect that we have to consider the trade-off between preservation according to high quality standard (i.e. expensive) of a small amount of rigidly selected material versus a system of conservation and retention for the records, sacrificing quality for the ability to retain a maximal portion of the recorded sound heritage of the twentieth century. After all, preservation techniques are really designed to extend public access are they not, to a public remote to our time if not geographically remote so that our successors have as much right to the products of our culture as we do.

Intrinsic value

A related item is also to consider the application of the concept of determining whether or not archival recordings have “intrinsic value”. What is meant by this term is simply that all materials appraised for retention in archives, including sound recordings, do not have to be accepted and continue to be preserved in the original format. Some archival materials have intrinsic value, others do not. This means that applying the test of intrinsic value (and for the characteristics and qualities needed the reader is referred to Appendix D “Intrinsic value in archival materials”), applying the test can enable the appraiser to determine and recommend that once an acceptable archival quality copy is made then there is no obligation to continue to preserve the original recordings. This concept is worth considering for sound recordings. It can be applied at the time of appraisal and selection and restoration techniques are used on material that is archivally valuable for its information content alone.

For example, let us suppose you are offered a collection of audiotape recordings from the 1950s recorded on deteriorating acetate based tape stock. The appraiser applies his selection criteria for archival value including the test as to whether the recordings to be kept from the collection have any intrinsic value. It the archive items do not have any of the qualities or characteristics such as unique physical form or features; no aesthetic or artistic quality; no value for exhibits; no authenticity problem; no direct association with famous people, events or things; and so on, then the appraiser can recommend the original acetate recording be transferred to a new archivally accepted medium (whatever that may be) of equal quality and the original recordings can be considered for disposal.

Every archivist in a recorded sound collection would find it easy to pick out those groups of recordings that have an obvious intrinsic value and should be kept in their original form. We all have our versions of Mapleson cylinders, or Nixon White House tapes, where authenticity requires the originals to be kept; or our examples of kinetoscope cylinders -special or unique collections, which must be kept.

The concept and test of intrinsic value can be of most help in determining the retention or rejection of large groups and series of sound recordings where only the information is of value. An example of this would be the ABC radio collection of 27,000 discs already discussed; applying the criteria of intrinsic value to any part of this collection one would conclude that there are no recording of intrinsic value in that collection where any of the actual recording would have to be kept in original format once copies of archival quality had been made. National collections all have this type of material, thousands and thousands of hours on instantaneous discs and tapes, long-playing reference formats and mini-format cassettes of meeting and sessions of government legislatures and law-making bodies (whether national or international such as the united nations), or thousands of hours of certain radio series on glass-acetate transcription discs. Once this type of material has been re-recorded and preserved in an acceptable format according to archival standards there is no value in keeping and preserving the original material, thus avoiding costly conservation, restoration and storage costs.

Archival Sampling

Finally another technique and selection tool, which could be utilized more often, is that of archival sampling. This is a valid technique in archival appraisal, which is often easy to apply to voluminous groups or collections of permanently valuable sound recordings. The classic definition of archival sampling is “Sampling of archives consists in the selection of some part of a body of homogeneous records (files) so that some aspect of an organization’s or government’s work or the information received or developed by that organization or government may be represented or illustrated thereby” (Lewinson, “Archival Sampling”). Sampling is appropriate and has been used by archivists for years on large series of paper material, case files, registration and application files, correspondence files and so on. The same sampling philosophy and technique can be more widely used as selection criteria for recorded sound materials. For example large series of transcripts of radio broadcasts or recoded monitoring of radio broadcasts, or large series of recordings put out by broadcasting organizations such as Voice of America or the BBC. The aim of this technique is to carry out an archival (not statistical) sample on a body of material when the total volume is very large compared with the importance of the content and the degree of research interest in the subject matter, or put another way, “If it is inconceivable that all can be kept, but undesirable that none should be”.

Sampling is something which is already being applied in the broadcasting area. The Public Television Archives of the Public Broadcasting System has a selection criteria which states:

“With regard to program series, the Archives will generally preserve the first and final episodes and such other episodes as are necessary to document changes in plot, setting, characterization, technique, etc. In the case of daily series, a full week of programmes will also be selected. Where series run for more than a season, each season will be considered as a separate entity in order to ensure a full record of the programs over their full span of time.”

It is also interesting to note that the Public Television Archives have ten-year appraisal and reappraisal reviews for long-term value and significance. If material fails the review after ten years it is de-accessioned.

The CBC, Museum of Broadcasting, and American Radio and Television Archives at the Library of Congress are all using and considering methods of selection of broadcast programming. The BBC Sound Archives typically selects and retains only 2% of its yearly output 1. What has been done for broadcasting can be applied in all sound archives.

1. [Note added in 2010] Digital storage now allows the BBC Sound Archives to retain 100% of output.


As sound archivists we should all become more fully aware of what is being created now in our particular countries and areas of collecting interest, and how it is being created. We are so often occupied with collecting what ought to have been selected and preserved in previous years that we ignore and fail to take into account material which is currently being generated. We need that are being created before they are offered for inclusion in our institutional archives. This will help make what is often now a most difficult task, a much simpler one for those archival appraisers who follow in our footsteps.

Leslie Waffen is an archivist in the Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch of the National Archives and Records Service, Washington DC.
This paper was first given at the IASA conference in Washington DC, 1983.


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  • Schellenberg, Theodore R.“ The Selective Retention of Continuing Value”. Unpublished article. Washington: National Archives Library, October 1963.
  • Schellenberg, Theodore R. The Appraisal of Modern Public Records, National Archives Bulletin No.8. Washington: National Archives and Records Service, 1956.
  • Schuursma, Rolf. “Principles of Selection in Sound Archives” Phonographic Bulletin (August 1974) no.9, pp.7-8 and Phonographic Bulletin (May 1975) no.11, pp. 12-19.
  • Schuursma, Rolf. “Problems of Selection in Research Sound Archives. Phonographic Bulletin (November 1981) no.31, pp.17-27.

Appendix A: General Records Schedule 21


Audiovisual Records


This schedule covers audiovisual and related records created by or for agencies of the federal government as well as those acquired in the course of business. Audiovisual records more than 30 years old must be offered to the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) before applying disposition instructions set forth in this schedule.

Audiovisual records include still and motion picture photography, graphic materials, and sound and video recordings. Related documentation includes:

(1) Production files or other files documenting the creation, justification, ownership, and rights to the records and (2) finding aids used to identify or access the records.

This schedule does not cover: (1) cartographic records; (2) remote sensing imagery recorded on film or magnetic tape; (3) microform copies of textual records; or (4) research and development data. Cartographic records and remote sensing imagery recorded on film are covered by GRS 17; digitised or computerized data are covered by GRS 20; microform copies of textual records may be covered by other general records schedules, depending on the informational content of the textual records; and research and development source data are covered by GRS 19.



For each type of audiovisual record, the specific record elements (originals, negatives, prints, dubbings, etc.) required by 41 CFR 101-11.411-4 for preservation, reproduction, and reference are listed. Since audiovisual records covered by this schedule include those produced under contract, by grant, and acquired from outside sources as well as those produced internally, maintenance and control of these record elements for records subject to the disposition “Submit SF 115” are essential, whether the record elements are stored in agency or contractor facilities.



The word “destroy” is used to authorize destruction of data or information. Erasable media such as magnetic tape should be reused whenever practical. Silver-bearing photographic film must be destroyed in accordance with 41 CFR 101-42.3, “Recovery of Precious Metals and Strategic and Critical Materials”.

The instruction “Submit SF 115” requires that the records be included in either an agency’s comprehensive records schedule or a specific request for disposition authority, unless they have been described on an agency records schedule approved by NARS after May 14, 1973. The introduction to the General Records Schedules provides additional information on scheduling records, which have no authorized disposition in this general records schedule. When describing these records in a comprehensive records schedule or a specific request for disposition authority, agencies may be guided by the categorical descriptions in this general records schedule, but these descriptions are not a substitute for specific agency prepared descriptions that are required to schedule the records.

This general records schedule authorizes the disposal of certain records without further concurrence from NARS. Agencies are encouraged to include specific series descriptions for such records in their comprehensive schedules while citing the governing disposition instruction from this general records schedule as the authority for destroying the records.




(a) Conventional mass-produced, multiple copy disc recordings: the master tape, matrix or stamper, and one disc pressing.

(b) Magnetic audio tape recordings (reel-to-reel, cassette or cartridge): the original or earliest generation of each recording, and a dubbing, if one exists.

1 Recordings of meetings made exclusively for note taking or transcription. Destroy immediately after use.
2 Dictation belts or tapes Destroy immediately after use.
3 Pre-mix sound elements created during the course of a motion picture, television or radio production Destroy immediately after use
4 Library sound recordings(e.g. effects, music). Destroy when no longer needed
5 Daily or spot news recordings available to local radio stations on a call-in basis Destroy when six months old or when no longer needed
6 Duplicate dubbings in excess of those elements required for preservation, duplication and reference by 41 CFR 101-11.411-4 Destroy when no longer needed
7 Agency-sponsored radio programs intended for public broadcast Submit SF115
8 Agency-sponsored radio news releases and information programs. Submit SF115
9 Agency-sponsored radio public service (or “spot”) announcements. Submit SF115
10 Internal management news or information programs. Submit SF115
11 Recordings of public meetings or speeches, agency-sponsored conferences, guest speakers, testimony of agency officials before congress and other hearings. Submit SF115.
12 Oral history collections Submit SF115.
13 Recordings or programs produced under grant that are submitted to the agency. Submit SF115. (see also GRS 3, item 18)
14 Recordings or programs acquired from outside sources that document or are used to carry out agency programs Submit SF115
15 Media appearances by top agency officials Submit SF115
16 Documentary recordings made for fact-finding or other studies Submit SF115



1 Production files or similar files that document origin, development, acquisition, use and ownership.(May include scripts, contracts, transcripts, releases, etc.) Dispose of according to instructions covering the related audiovisual records
2 Finding aids for identification, retrieval or use. (May include indexes, catalogues, shelf lists, log books, caption sheets, shot lists, continuities, etc. and may be in text, card, microform or machine readable format.) Dispose of according to instructions covering the related audiovisual records

Appendix B: Guidelines for evaluation of the ABC radio collection

General categories retained by NARS:

  1. Significant activities of the US Government and its officials, including all presidential and vice-presidential activities whether official, partisan, or personal; similar for senators and representatives, supreme court, cabinet-level officials and/or department heads, and other high-ranking officers.
  2. Events, topics and other phenomena with national implications, e.g., labour strikes, union activities, pro-and anti-war activities, political parties, and other significant aspects of American society.
  3. International news events and topics, especially those involving US foreign relations; also wars, conferences, foreign heads of state (royalty, presidents, prime ministers, etc.) and conditions in foreign countries.
  4. Voices of prominent, famous or infamous personalities in all fields of endeavour, e.g. arts, culture, entertainment, politics, technology, radio news, etc. sports and provided for in 6 and 7 below.
  5. Scientific and technological change, advancement or achievement, e.g. in medicine, transportation, conveyance, including discoveries, announcements, experiments, and demonstrations.
  6. Sports recordings are limited to coverage of events such as Olympic Games, and professional championship games or matches and professional all-star games or interviews with famous sports personalities.
  7. Cultural activities as documented in recordings of events or through news and information programs, e.g. government-sponsored or produced programs with entertainers, especially domestic war effort and troop shows, as well as talk, interview, and public affairs shows relating to American life-styles, and the performing arts, but not regularly scheduled entertainment and music programming.
  8. The items to be retained are most likely to be located in the following types of programs:
    • US Government sponsored or produced programs
    • Regularly scheduled news
    • News bulletins, special reports and news inserts
    • News commentaries
    • Public affairs discussions or panels
    • Interviews, talk, forums, and similar programs
    • Actualities of events
    • Speeches, hearings

General categories designated for transfer to the Library of Congress:

  1. Regularly scheduled entertainment programs such as:
    • Musical variety shows
    • Children’s shows
    • Concerts and performances
    • Audience participation shows
    • Quiz and panel shows
    • Religious programs
    • ”Human interest” stories
    • Talent contests
    • Drama
    • Broadway gossip
    • Serial and day time dramas
    • Homemakers’ programs
  2. Sports, including amateur and college sports, non-championship professional games or matches, and regularly scheduled sports programs and commentaries.
  3. All local, regional, or network affiliate programming or coverage unless there are broader implications.
  4. Audio out-take material such as auditions, rehearsals, promotions, voice tests, recorded segments and bands for inserts.
  5. Commercials and advertisements.

Appendix C: Archival Disposal Guidelines

The is a compilation of appraisal/disposal guidelines that have been developing over the past few years as based on the FPMR, GRS 21, and specific criteria from several appraisal projects. Cataloguers should become familiar with the general categories loosely divided into subject matter and physical format approach.

It must be stressed that these lists are only suggested guidelines for cataloguers and other staff members to pinpoint items already accessioned that may have slipped through and require reappraisal. This should lead to recommendations for disposal. Approval and review for disposal must be done by an archivist before any actual disposal is accomplished. Remember the goal is to re-evaluate this material before costly cataloguing and preservation work is performed.

Physical types of audiovisual records that may be destroyed:

  1. Audiovisual records that are extensively damaged. Examples are motion pictures with massive emulsion scratches throughout, or audio discs smashed or broken in more than three pieces. In effect, the audiovisual record is incomplete and unrecoverable.
  2. All nitrate or di-acetate motion pictures, or acetate audiotape recordings once an acceptable preservation copy has been made.
  3. Incomplete sets of audiovisual records such as motion pictures where either the sound track or picture track is missing, or audio recording that is incomplete, missing parts or disc sides etc. This would include motion picture trims, or film/video/audio out-takes and discards that lack proper identification or are so poorly arranged as to be unusable.
  4. Duplicates and other non-record materials. Includes duplication projection prints or audio disc/ tape copies. Includes music and effects tracks and other pre-mix sound elements where necessary preprint elements and copies for preservation are available. Includes magnetic sound tracks that have been transferred to optical, title and other effects mattes, and work prints of completed production.
  5. Audiovisual records that are technically inferior or unusable. Examples would be motion or video footage, which is poorly exposed or focused, or sound recordings that are unintelligible, or inaudible.

General subject-matter categories for audiovisual records that may be disposable:

  1. Audiovisual records whose subject matter is transitory in nature or purely of local interest. For example social gatherings, athletic events, or other activities not directly related to federal agency operations or responsibilities.

    • Sports including amateur and college sports, non-championship professional or matches, and regularly scheduled sports programs and commentaries.
    • All regularly scheduled entertainment or music programs broadcast on network or local radio or television.
    • All local, regional, or radio and television affiliate programming or coverage unless there are broader implications.
    • Coverage of disasters, weather stories, beauty and fashion show and human interest type stories.

  2. Scientific, medical, or engineering research films, videotapes, or sound recordings where similar data or findings are available in another format such as a report or publication.
  3. Audiovisual records documenting low-level administrative staff functions and ceremonial activities showing or recording award presentations and commendations.
  4. Highly technical instructional audiovisual items or managerial or personal training films/videotapes/audio recordings dealing with information or techniques that are widely available from other sources such as text books or technical manuals.
  5. Audio/video recordings of auditions, rehearsals, promotions, voice tests, recorded segments and bands for inserts.
  6. Audiovisual records of public relations or informational press activities of persons who are subordinate to heads of agencies.
  7. Audiovisuals records of interviews and panel discussions, lectures, or other items essentially lacking in pictorial information unless the personages appearing in the audiovisual record are likely to be subjects of pictorial, recorded, or historical research.
  8. Radio or television spots, PSAs, trailers, commercials, or advertisements, which by definition are too short to offer much in the way of research value. Selective items produced by Federal sources may be kept however.
  9. Foreign language versions of motion pictures/videotapes for which English language versions exist unless the foreign language was the original language of production.
  10. All textual finding aids and production case files for disposable audiovisual records.

Appendix D: Intrinsic Value in Archival Materials




The term “intrinsic value” has long used by archivists to describe historical materials that should be retained in their original form rather than as copies. In 1979 the term gained particular importance for the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) as it began to consider possible large-scale replacement of paper records with miniaturized or other copies. To meet the challenge of distinguishing between records that need not be retained in their original form after an acceptable copy has been created and those that require preservation in the original, NARS established the committee on Intrinsic Value. The Committee’s work was three-fold:

  • First, to write a comprehensive and broadly applicable definition of intrinsic value,
  • Second to define the qualities and characteristics of records having intrinsic value; and
  • Third, to demonstrate application of the concept of intrinsic value in decision making.

The Committee completed a preliminary report in January 1980 and its final report in September of that year.

The committee intended that its work should be useful for decisions relating to all physical types of records and manuscripts and should be relevant under varying and unforeseen circumstances. The Committee sought, therefore, to first establish the theoretical basis for the concept and then to be as specific as possible in identifying the qualities and characteristics of historical materials having intrinsic value. The Committee recognised that application of the concept of intrinsic value would be subjective and must always be dependent on trained archival judgment and professional debate.

Report of the Committee on Intrinsic Value

Intrinsic Value in Archival Materials

Intrinsic is the archival term that is applied to permanently valuable records that have qualities and characteristics that make the records in their original physical form the only archivally acceptable form for preservation. Although all records in their original physical form have qualities and characteristics that would not be preserved in copies, records with intrinsic value have them to such a significant degree that the originals must be saved.

The qualities or characteristics that determine intrinsic value may be physical or intellectual; that is, they may relate to the physical base of the record and the means by which information is recorded on it or they may relate to the information contained in the record. Records with intrinsic value may be retained for either their evidential or informational value.

The archivist is responsible for determining which records have intrinsic value. Ordinarily this determination is made at the series level. As in all other archival appraisal activities, context is the key to making these determinations and context is normally best preserved by considering the entire series. The archivist, however, also may determine that certain individual record items within a series have intrinsic value, especially those items to be retained because of special physical characteristics.

Qualities and Characteristics of Records with Intrinsic Value

All record materials having intrinsic value possess one or more of the following specific qualities or characteristics. These qualities or characteristics relate to the physical nature of the records, their prospective uses, and the information they contain.

  1. Physical form that may be the subject for study if the records provide meaningful documentation or significant examples of the form.

    Documents may be preserved in their original form as evidence of technological development. For example, a series of early press copies, glass-plate negatives, or wax-cylinder sound recordings may be retained. All records having a particular physical form would not be considered to have intrinsic value because of this characteristic; however, a selection broad enough to provide evidence of technological development would be considered to have some value.

  2. Aesthetic or artistic quality

    Records having aesthetic or artistic quality may include photographs; pencil, ink, or watercolour sketches; maps; architectural drawings; frakturs; and engraved and/or printed forms, such as bounty-land warrants.

  3. Unique or curious physical features

    Physical features that are unique or curious might include quality and texture of paper, colour, wax seals, imprints and watermarks, inks, and unusual bindings. All records having a particular physical feature would not be considered to have intrinsic value because of this feature; however, an exemplary selection of each type would be considered to have such value.

  4. Age that provides a quality of uniqueness

    Age is a relative rather than an absolute quality. Generally, records of earlier date are of more significance than records of later date. This can be because of a historical change in the functions and activities of the creator of the records, the scarcity of earlier records, a change in record keeping practices, or a combination of these. Age can be a factor even with comparatively recent records. The earliest records concerning, for example, the development of the radio industry or of nuclear power could have intrinsic value because of age.

  5. Value for use in exhibits

    Records used frequently for exhibits normally have several qualities and characteristics that give them intrinsic value. Records with exhibit value impressively convey the immediacy of an event, depict a significant issue, or impart a sense of the person who is the subject or originator of the record. In these cases, the impact of the original document cannot be equalled by a copy.

  6. Questionable authenticities, date, author, or other characteristic that is significant and ascertainable by physical examination.

    Some records are of doubtful authenticity or have informational content that is open to question. Although it is impossible to foresee which documents will be questioned in the future, certain types of documents are well known to have the potential for controversy and, if the original records are extant, handwriting and signatures can be examined, paper age can be ascertained, and other physical tests can be performed. In some cases the controversy can be resolved by recourse to the original item (such as by an examination of the handwriting, the age of the paper, or the original negative of the photostatic print), while in other cases the item will not be conclusive but will provide the researcher with the best evidence from which to draw conclusions (original photographs of UFO’s, for example).

  7. General and substantial public interest because of direct association with famous or historically significant people, places, things, issues or events.

    This criterion is not only the most difficult to apply, but also the most important in terms of the volume of records to which it could be applied. It could be used to justify preserving in original form almost all permanently valuable records because of their historical importance. On the other hand, if limited to records of unusual significance, it would be used to justify disposal of almost all original records. Archival judgment is the crucial factor in determining whether there is general and substantial public interest, whether the association is direct, and whether the subject is famous or historically significant. Generally, those series with a high concentration of such information should be preserved.

  8. Significance as documentation of the establishment or continuing legal basis of an agency or institution.

    Agencies or institutions are founded and acquire or lose functions and responsibilities through the actions of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the Government. Records documenting these actions may be found concentrated in series or scattered in various series. They have in common the characteristic of documenting the shifts in function of the agency or institution at the highest level.

  9. Significance as documentation of the formulation of policy at the highest executive levels when the policy has significance and broad effect throughout or beyond the agency or institution. Numerous records reflect policy decisions; however, most policy decisions have a relatively limited impact and reflect a relatively small area of authority. The characteristics that give policy records intrinsic value are the origin of the records at the highest executive levels, breadth of effect, and importance of subject matter.

Application of the Concept of Intrinsic Value

Records that possess any characteristic or quality of intrinsic value should be retained in their original form if possible. The concept of intrinsic value, therefore, is not relative. However, application of the concept of intrinsic value is relative; opinions concerning whether records have intrinsic value may vary from archivist to archivist and from one generation of archivists to another. Professional archival judgment, therefore, must be exercised in all decisions concerning intrinsic value. Co-ordination between units holding records within an archival institution also may be necessary. For example, members of units holding similar records whose form may be the subject for study (quality 1) should consult one another to ensure that an adequate but not duplicative selection of records in that form is preserved. Although the concept of intrinsic value may be easier to apply to older records, decisions concerning intrinsic value can be made for all records determined to have sufficient value to warrant archival retention.

Copies of records having intrinsic value may be made for necessary archival purposes, including use by researchers. In fact, the fragility, rarity, or significance of the records may require that researchers normally work from reproductions.

Records that have intrinsic value should be considered for conservation or restoration; however, the determination that records have intrinsic value is only the first step in a decision-making continuum for preservation activities. Priorities and order of preservation activities should be guided by additional factors such as significance and frequency of use, rate of deterioration, seriousness of potential future preservation problems, and efficacy and expense of available treatments.

Although records with intrinsic value constitute the core of the holdings that archival institutions should maintain in original form, institutions also must retain records for which archivally acceptable copies cannot be made. This report does not attempt to establish comprehensive standards for archivally acceptable copies. At a minimum, however, such copies should have durability and utility for research use and for duplication equivalent to the records in their original form. If adequate copies of such records cannot be made, originals lacking intrinsic value may not be considered for disposition. For example, because, at present, reproductions made from duplicates of audiovisual records normally are of lower quality than reproductions made from the originals, most audiovisual records should be retained in their original form. When copies with equivalent or superior quality can be produced from reproductions, the originals could be considered for disposal.

Some records without intrinsic value must be preserved in original physical form because such preservation is required by law.

Following are three examples of the use of the concept of intrinsic value in the decision-making process as applied to particular series of records in the National Archives. In these examples, archivists first reviewed the series in accordance with the intrinsic value criteria. Second, if the records lacked intrinsic value, archivists then determined whether any statute required retention of the records in their original form. Finally, if the responses to the first two inquiries were negative, archivists examined the archival adequacy of the copies of the records. While archivists may not prepare formal papers such as those that follow, similar questions should be asked and answered for any proposed disposition of original records.

Example 1

RG 33, Records of the Federal Extension Service, Farm Labor Program. Prisoner-of-war-program, 1943-46. 1 ft.

Arranged alphabetically by state.

Correspondence regarding the needs, placements, and status of prisoners of war employed in agriculture. The records reflect the relationship between the use of prisoner-of-war labor and migratory labor from Mexico and the Caribbean.

A . Intrinsic value criteria

  1. Example of physical form? No. These are records in the usual physical forms of mid-20th-century records.
  2. Aesthetic or artistic? No. These records are not visually interesting.
  3. Unique or curious physical features? No. There are no three-dimensional materials or unusual bindings, seals, papers, or inks.
  4. Age? No. These records are not unique in terms of age because there are many records from the World War II period, including records relating to POWs among the permanent holdings.
  5. Exhibit potential? Unlikely.
  6. Authenticity? No. There are no doubts as to the authenticity of the records and no suggestion of forgery or other record tampering. There is no problem of signature or handwriting identification.
  7. General public interest? No. Although the records reflect a significant issue in US history (i.e. the treatment of POWs in World War II) the records are not used frequently, no significant persons are named in the records, and no significant events are records.
  8. Legal basis of an agency or institution? No. These are records of implementation.
  9. Policy at high level of Government? No. These are operating level records.

CONCLUSION: this series of records does not have intrinsic value.


B. Are these records covered by a statute requiring retention in original physical form? No.

C. Can adequate copies be created? Yes. The records do not vary in size, there are no problems of scale or colour coding, and the ease of reference is not impaired by use of a reproduction. There is no privacy problem that would bar reproduction at this time.

CONCLUSION: the custodial unit can duplicate and request disposition of these records.

Example 2

RG 49, Records of the Bureau of Land Management, public Land Disposals. Abandoned Military reservations, 1818-1945, 60 ft.

Arranged chronologically by date of initial disposition or activity on the reservation land. Executive orders, correspondence, title papers, plans, maps, blueprints, tracings, and printed items that document the General Land Office’s role in the creation of military reservations from public lands and its responsibility for the disposal of reservations or portions of reservation abandoned by the War and Navy Departments. The records include information about goods and services available on the posts. Related records are found in other series of records of the General Land office and among the general records of the Department of the Interior, the office of the Chief of Engineers, the office of the Quartermaster General, the Adjutant General’s office, United States Army commands, and the office of the Judge Advocate General (Army).

A. Intrinsic value criteria

  1. Example of physical form? No. These are routine types of records of the Government in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  2. Aesthetic or artistic? Occasionally. The cartographic and architectural items and usually utilitarian, although some have artistic embellishments.
  3. Unique or curious physical features? No. There are no three-dimensional material or unusual bindings, seals, papers, or inks.
  4. Age? Yes. The pre-Civil war records concerning military reservations in the United States are small in quantity in comparison to the records of post-Civil War periods. In these files, pre-and post-Civil War materials are interfiled.
  5. Exhibit potential? Yes. These records could be used for exhibits on military posts, exploration of the West, organization of the frontier, surveying, land disposition, military organization, and even autographs (William Tecumseh Sherman, Joel Poinsett).
  6. Authenticity? No problem.
  7. General public interest? Yes. Many military historians and enthusiasts use these materials; the Council on Abandoned Military Posts is particularly interested.
  8. Legal basis of an agency or institution? No. These are records of the implementation of land acquisition and disposition policy, not the records of the establishment of the basis for the policy.
  9. Policy at high level of Government? No. Although the records do contain significant correspondence from the Secretaries of War and the Interior regarding the implementation of land disposition policy, this correspondence does not document the making of policy.

CONCLUSION: the records have intrinsic value.

Example 3

RG 341, RECORDS OF Headquarters US Air Force, Air Technical Intelligence Centre, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Aerial Phenomena Branch. Three related series of audiovisual records composed of photographs (7,280), sound recordings (23), and motion pictures (20) from “Project Blue Book”, 1950-67. 7,323 items.

Arranged by case number.

Audiovisual records in different formats created, acquired, or collected by the US Air Force during its official investigation into the existence of unidentified flying objects (UFOs). There are photographs (35mm negatives) of 21 alleged sightings of UFOs, including some photos recorded on roll film that show timed radar responses of the observed phenomena. The motion pictures (8mm and 16mm) are composed mainly of original camera footage (unedited) filmed by military personnel and civilians. The sound recordings were recorded or acquired by the Air Force and contain interviews with individuals claiming to have seen UFOs as well as sound recordings made at the time of the alleged sightings. Related textual records are in accompanying series of case files and project files of “Project Blue Book”.

A . Intrinsic Value Criteria

  1. Example of physical form? No. The forms represented are standard, common forms of audiovisual reproductions.
  2. Aesthetic or artistic value? No.
  3. Unique or curious physical features? No.
  4. Age? No.
  5. Exhibit potential? Yes
  6. Authenticity? Yes. The entire phenomenon of the history of UFOs and the controversy surrounding their existence, as well as questions concerning the purpose and function of “Project Blue Book” require that the original records created or acquired by the Air Force and deposited with NARS be preserved and available for research scrutiny, testing and examination, and verification. This is especially a consideration because audiovisual documents are highly susceptible to tampering and manipulation. There is continued speculation and public doubt about the adequacy of the “evidence” and the conduct and conclusions of the official investigation.
  7. General public interest? Yes. The history of UFOs, although a specialized research topic, does have a wide-ranging and emotional interest and fascination to the public.
  8. Legal basis of agency or institution? No.
  9. Policy at high level of Government? No. These are operating level records.

CONCLUSION: the records have intrinsic value.

Selection for Whom? (Ernest J Dick)

Archivists frequently, and quite naturally, develop stalwart loyalties to the particular types of records in their custody. This is perfectly justifiable and, indeed, invigorates the profession and the archivist. What a dull lot we would be if we cared only for shelving systems and conservation techniques and never nurtured affections for personal favourites in the collections within our charge! This loyalty needs to be even firmer and more passionate in the case of sound recordings, which are widely regarded as esoteric archivalia by mainstream professional archivists. Sound archives need us as sound archivists to be their staunch and loyal defenders so that they can take their rightful place in civilization’s heritage and not be relegated to the backrooms of the great and small archival institutions throughout the world. We have a war to fight out there but in order to conduct the battle intelligently we must ensure that we are on firm terrain with sensible aims in view.

On the assumption that this volume is addressed primarily to fellow sound archivists, we should examine these loyalties carefully. Sound Archives, and the author, are relative newcomers to the sound archive universe and thus it would be presumptuous of me to stiffen your loyalties to the sound recording. Perhaps the greater service that can be offered is to formulate some of the questions that one can, and must, ask among friends so that we can develop more useful and defendable sound archives. These questions are not intended to threaten our loyalties but to make justifications of the work more reasoned and more eloquent.

The word “justifications” is not used accidentally. It is not an affront to the profession, or to our enterprise, to have to justify our work to the public audience. Our justifications will be very different, depending on the nature of the institution in which we work, but it is a healthy exercise for us to rehearse and rethink our justifications. We need not only convince ourselves that sound recordings have to be preserved, catalogued, re-recorded and made accessible to the public but we need to be able to make this argument to our masters and to a wider public. Moreover, we need to be able to make these arguments convincing to their “common sense” and “practicality”; not merely their “cultural” sensitivity.

It is necessary to bear in mind the potential researcher who could one day make use of the sound recordings that are being acquired. There must be a reasonable expectation that a recording will be consulted or made use of, rather than simply postulating a conceivable use, to justify acquiring a collection. Leonard Rapport of the National Archives and Records Service in Washington elaborated on this perspective in this article in the American Archivist (vol. 44, 2, Spring 1981) entitled: “No Grandfather Clause: Reappraising Accessioned Records”. He argued that reappraisal of holdings should be carried out periodically and a case should be made for the retention of records rather than having to make the case for the disposal of them.

Obviously, Rapport’s particular perspective of working with records of the government of the United States has to be borne in mind, where some very substantial and inconsequential bodies of records found their way into a new National Archives Building in Washington that was simply begging to be filled up in the first years after its construction. Also Rapport is speaking from within a political atmosphere of severe cutbacks on cultural institutions that none of us would voluntarily choose to duplicate. Nonetheless, there is an important message in his line of argument.

We cannot simply indulge our own egos and amusements in acquisition of material with the self-righteous confidence that some day the treasures, which have been collected, will be properly appreciated. That type of attitude and smugness will not endear us to our publics, or to our masters and will not serve us well when the inevitable budget cuts or program reassessments come upon us. We must have a rationale for what we are acquiring and be prepared to articulate that rationale in regard to potential use. The accumulation of sound recordings merely because they document some aspect of human activity is not sufficient. It has to be admitted that there is always the real danger of tying today’s acquisitions too closely to the present generation of users of sound archives. Tomorrow’s users will be approaching the material differently and will be hoping to find different things. Indeed that is the exciting intellectual challenge of the work of the archivist: to anticipate correctly those future demands and interests. An archivist must have a broad understanding of past, current and potential intellectual fashion and be somewhat detached from contemporary enthusiasms. The archivist must be committed to letting his documents tell their truths, and he must always be wary of selecting and organizing them so that they reveal only “his” personal truth.

Sound recordings pose very particular dilemmas in their selection for archives. While being tremendously evocative, we have to begin to acknowledge that they are difficult to work with. Sound recordings have all the disadvantages of requiring a playback mechanism without the seductiveness of a visual impact. One cannot even hold a magnetic tape or vinyl disc up to the light as one can with a film and gain some notion of the quality and contents of the item. Frankly, it is about time to acknowledge some of the difficulties that our cherished sound recordings present and even, perhaps, allow that we are often disappointed at the level of use of sound recordings. At the Sound Archives at the Public Archives of Canada we have for some 15 years now been telling ourselves that we welcome our relative obscurity in that it allows us to get the house in order in anticipation of the day when the eager public will descend upon us. The notable exceptions to this tale of disappointment are the archives of a radio station or network. Here use is growing above, and beyond, all hopes or expectations and, indeed, one may confess to some envy of those who work in such useful archives.

Sound recordings are exceptionally valuable in re-creating and re-understanding an event or an occasion. Perhaps because they demand that the imagination fills in the visual component they almost appear less discriminating in what we are allowed to perceive. The camera’s boundaries are obvious to the careful observer. A careful choice of camera angle and lighting condition can further limit and manipulate the visual image in convincing manner. By contrast, the microphone almost always captures more ambient or background sound than is intended. Thus the sound recording is admirably suited to acting as an authentic archival document. Nonetheless, we need not feel obliged to acquire sound recordings of all the events which our resources and energies allow. The job of an archivist is to allow the truth, or rather the “truths” to be learned but it is not necessary to include every nuance and breath in order to know and understand the truth.

At the Sound Archives at the Public Archives of Canada, in the first flush of enthusiasm with sound recordings, tape recorders were carried to meetings of all conceivable sorts and microphone levels faithfully adjusted so as to obtain the best recordings possible under the circumstances. I do not know of one use, other than transcribing some of the proceedings, that has ever been made of such recordings nor of one person who has ever listened to such recordings nor imagine one that ever would. Thus our more recent refusal in most cases to function as recording engineers reflects a more professional and serious attitude towards the work rather than a diminishing of enthusiasm. Texts of presentations, and sometimes even transcripts of the meetings themselves, are prepared and preserved in archives and this will suffice. There is an increasing need for archivists to be critical about using sound recordings to further supplement the record of many such meetings. Of course, there are meetings and then there are meetings! The debates for the House of Commons, even where complete transcripts, beautifully indexed and published, are available, obviously should always be welcome at the Public Archives of Canada. Similarly, the recordings of the federal-provincial negotiations in determining an amending formula for the Canada Constitution are most fascinating and the job of the archivists is to ensure that those recordings are made and deposited at the Public Archives of Canada. How fascinating it would be to have sound recordings for the 19th century rounds of similar parliamentary discussions and negotiations. Nonetheless, the contention here is that it is up to the archivist to decide which meetings deserve this type of supplementary documentation and which do not. He will undoubtedly be wrong on occasion but will be doing the future researcher a greater service than by burying him with more evidence than he can ever intelligently use.

Oral history interviews can provide enormously rich archival resources but we have to acknowledge that much material, which may never be consulted, has found its way into archive holdings. Consolation may exist in the thought that the abundance of oral history interviews documents the nuance and use of language; but how much is required to serve that function? Also it has been suggested that future generations may be as curious about the quality of the voices of their great-grandparents and great-great uncles as contemporary genealogists are fascinated with the date on a baptismal certificate. Let us sincerely hope that they are! Nonetheless, the tendency to interview old people because they are likely to die generates a great accumulation of interview material that has a very low potential for being used. The urgency of this type of exercise perhaps reflects more a desire for immortality than it does a legitimate archival need.

The inevitable implication of an uncritical acquisitions policy is to so swamp the archives that the potential researcher can no longer find the real nuggets which are there. This is a particularly pressing problem for sound archives where considerable conservation and intellectual description is necessary to make an item at all accessible to a researcher. One cannot browse among stacks of sound recordings in the same way that one can among books or files. Finding aids have to be detailed and sophisticated before they are of much use to a user. To acquire disproportionate amounts more than our institutions can handle does no one any great benefit. Admittedly archives always will, and always should, amass healthy backlogs but, if too much is accumulated, it may well immobilize the ability to retrieve the valuable and virtually paralyse the archive. In the first years of a Sound Archive it is necessary to concentrate on acquisitions and in developing such a rich collection that the case for cataloguing resources and conservation facilities will be stronger. However, eventually we all have to concede that the cataloguing and conservation support which we believe to be essential may never materialize, and at that point have to bring acquisitions into balance with resources and facilities available.

An important corollary to this suggestion of a more critical selections policy related to potential use is to develop a more critical and discriminating practice in processing the holdings. All documents are not equal and there is no point in being shy about making decisions and discriminating among them. First in the question of intellectual control it is necessary to provide access to a substantial body of sound archives holdings by date, speaker, title, subject, and a variety of other access points, which may be applicable to the particular collection. However, it is irresponsible to relegate everything that has not been indexed in this detail to an unidentified backlog. Accessions control must be established over all holdings and sometimes shelf lists may have to be adequate.

At times collections may arrive with lists or findings aids that will provide access to the collection, even though these are not necessarily compatible with existing systems. Even with high profile collections the temptation to redo the work for the sake of intellectual neatness has to be resisted. Thus, a plethora of finding aids and systems may frustrate the user who wants to quickly come away with the 30 second extract that will highlight his film documentation or broadcast. However, the more serious researcher, prepared to spend a little more time in the archive, will appreciate the wider range of resources that this plethora makes available. Also the work of the archivist becomes more crucial, and interesting, in guiding the users through the abundance of finding aids rather than simply pointing towards a beautifully maintained card index system.

Similarly there should be a decision-making process to determine which recordings in the collection can be re-recorded to protect the originals and to make reference copies available to researchers. Sound archives have a well-founded reluctance to make original and unique recordings available to a user. We all have tales of irreparable losses to justify this reluctance. However, does every recording in the collection deserve this degree of protection? That portion of holdings, which we have determined will rarely, if ever, be consulted hardly, deserves full protection before the potential user arrives on the doorstep. Even when he does arrive, he may be the only person ever to consult the particular recording and thus it is reasonable to make it available, if it is in reasonable condition, and under reasonable supervision.

An example from the collections of the Public Archives of Canada might better serve to illustrate this point. There are literally hundreds of hours of debates of the Canadian House of Commons since 1969. They exist on good quality 1.5 mil quarter-inch tapes but on a unique 8-track slow speed format that required the original recording equipment for playback. Because a complete, well-indexed, transcript of these debates exists, the recordings will be consulted and used very rarely and we can safely predict that 99% of them will never be consulted. However, it is impossible to know which 1% will be of interest and obviously we want to keep the complete record. Thus the policy has been developed to allow the first user who requests a specific recording access to the original and, if the same item is ever consulted a second time, then it is re-recorded for further protection. The premise is that any item consulted twice is likely to be consulted a good many more times. Admittedly this procedure puts originals at some risk, but it is a calculated risk which is necessary to avoid needlessly frustrating users with unwarranted delays and to avoid choking conservation resources with work no one may ever need.

Selection criteria are discussed and formulated elsewhere in this publication. This paper offers a self-critical way of thinking about selection and provides one approach to the problem. Whether meaningful and practical selection criteria are ever possible may be doubtful but a continuing discussion in their pursuit could profit all sound archivists.

Ernest Dick is a sound archivist with the National Film, Television and Sound archives of the Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa.
This is a version of the paper first delivered to the IASA Conference in Brussels, 1982.

Selection in theory and practice at the Public Archives of Canada (Jacques Gagné)

When one considers the ravages inflicted upon the archives of all societies by natural and human disasters such as fire, earthquakes, war, poverty and perhaps the most insidious and destructive of all - neglect, selection appears as but another means to thin out the historical record. Most archivists tend to view selection policies with reticence, suspicion even: why should we, of all people, wilfully partake in the universal devastation?

On the other hand all documents were certainly not created equal and one may wonder whether blind accumulation is not, in the end, more destructive than careful and systematic selection. The archivist’s job is to reconcile the immensity of the task with the meagreness of the resources. This paper examines the numerous factors and circumstances that have shaped the selection policies at the Sound Archives Selection of the Public Archives of Canada; it relates how and why choices were made as the issue grew more and more in complexity and urgency.

The Public Archives of Canada (PAC) was established in 1872 by the Federal Government to document the history and culture of Canada. To fulfil this very broad, all-encompassing mandate, the PAC acquires and preserves all types of historical documents: manuscripts, photographs, maps, paintings, films, computer tapes, and other materials. These documents are acquired on the one hand from the various departments, corporations and commissions of the federal government and on the other hand from the individuals, companies and organizations of the private sector.

The Sound Archives Section was created in 1967 and is now part of the larger Film, Television and Sound Archives Division, one of eight media-orientated divisions. The section’s holdings have increased considerably from literally, a handful of recordings to roughly twenty-five thousand transcription discs and forty thousand magnetic tapes. Initially the guiding selection principle was to concentrate on the spoken-word and unique recordings as opposed to the musical and commercial ones. Actually the criteria were quite traditional and restrictive: speeches by public figures and recordings of official events were considered much more valuable than other types of recordings such as radio or advertisement productions, which were often ignored or discarded. But under the leadership of Leo LaClare, the Section grew in staff, resources and experience; by 1974-1975 the strengths and gaps of the collection were becoming apparent and the time was ripe to broaden the horizons. To capture the essence of the sounds of Canadian history, a more comprehensive approach had to develop, and it did.

At the same time the difficult search for old recordings came as a useful lesson for the present: lest all be irretrievably lost, selection had to be prompt, and almost immediate. It is not necessary to dwell on the Section’s involvement with oral history interviews except to mention that it was and still is actively involved in fostering the oral history movement through the Canadian Oral History Association, in acquiring collections of interviews and in offering financial and technical assistance to several projects.

The main field to be explored was the radio industry. The problems in that area were and remain formidable: it is a most diversified industry with over 750 AM and FM radio stations spread out across the vast expanses of our land in a mixed system of public and private ownership. How were we to record the numerous voices that were speaking to Canadians day and night only to disappear into the ether? For private radio the answer was sampling; for the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation or Radio-Canada, as it is known in French, it was co-operation. Let us deal with the private broadcasters first. It is a rare private station that will keep its own archives: radio is a very dynamic business with all the energy turned towards the future leaving the past behind, where broadcasters think it belongs. This is not to say that all the production has been lost: collections turn up in the most unlikely locations and some are very important, especially for the 1940s and 1950s when private radio produced more original programming than it now does.

For contemporary programming the Canadian Association of Broadcasters fortunately operates a programme exchange service to which various stations contribute original productions. From this collection we select twenty or thirty percent. The industry also holds annual awards; winning entries are now deposited with the Archives as a matter of routine. In 1981 a monitoring project of contemporary private radio was established: fifteen stations from different regions and programming formats were recorded for a full day on the same date. This project will continue on a yearly basis and eventually a faithful portrait of the industry’s nature and evolution should form.

Finally, in the field of radio journalism other initiatives have been taken. For example, the daily news bulletins prepared by the two private radio news agencies Newsradio and Broadcast News have been recorded, in turns, over the last six years. The purpose was to create a sound newspaper of the only medium that can spread information almost simultaneously. In another instance, all press conferences held at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa where the major federal political decisions are announced are also recorded over a telephone line.

Such are the various ways in which private radio is now being preserved; they remain modest in scope but we are reasonably confident that they are adequate.

The archival situation in public radio is much different and brighter than that in the private sector. With four national radio networks (one each on the AM and FM bands in French and English) that broadcast several hundred hours of original programs each week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produces the most important body of historical recordings in the country. In the 1960s the CBC established two archives in the production centres of Montreal and Toronto where approximately one hundred and sixty hours of original and varied programming are selected each week for archival preservation. For the past seven years the PAC and the CBC have developed a complex and close relationship based on co-operation. It is quite a unique, symbiotic arrangement in many ways.

At first the PAC took a very practical role. There were in the CBC program archives roughly twenty thousand transcription discs from the 1940s to the 1960s that had not been identified. The PAC offered to acquire and catalogue this material which it would then make available to the CBC. Much of the work has now been completed and the relationship has taken on new dimensions as the two organizations defined their role ever more precisely.

The CBC is still building up its collection as a production resource while the PAC can select from the older programmes those it wishes to acquire for its own collection. More importantly the PAC is now providing public access to this rich collection, a collection which had until now been confined to the use of CBC production personnel.

There are many other aspects to the co-operation. Information, sound recordings and other types of archives constantly flow between the two organizations. Oral history interviews with pioneers of the CBC have been launched in co-operation with Carleton University in Ottawa. We are also encouraging other provincial or university archives to participate in the conservation of CBC material that is produced in the different regions of the country where it should remain, close to the potential users.

The selection criteria for the productions of the CBC are much more comprehensive than those applied to private radio. The sampling is more thorough and rightly so. The purpose of the agreement between the Public Archives and the CBC, and eventually with provincial partners, is to make sure that what is theoretically desirable is effectively achieved.

All in all our work is concentrated mostly in these three areas of oral history and public and private radio. But I should also point out that a large proportion of our holdings, between fifteen and twenty percent, consists of recordings that are part of larger collections acquired by other divisions of the PAC. Their origins and nature vary considerably from political parties to photographers, cultural organizations to companies. From the government records there are documentaries, proceedings of royal commissions and, since 1969, the debates of the House of Commons. Thus our selection is not only determined internally; the contribution of other media-archivists, each with their own orientation, is substantial. And it is welcome.

Another consideration that is of paramount importance is that the PAC’s sound archives was never built or evaluated in isolation from other Canadian archives. There are other very specialized collections in university and provincial archives. Laval University in Quebec City and Memorial University in St John’s house large collections of folklore recordings. So does the Museum of Man in Ottawa. Consequently, folklore never was a high priority in our minds since the field was being explored by other institutions. Similarly with music which is the province of libraries and universities such as the National Library in Ottawa. Certain provincial archives, Nova Scotia and British Columbia for instance, have established audiovisual divisions in the last few years. The main concern is to avoid duplication and to maintain a constant flow of information and documents between the various institutions.

Finally and most importantly, selection is not a question that can ever be solved once and for all. The variables by which it is presently defined - Canadian, spoken-word, unique, comprehensive, immediate, complementary, flexible - bespeak our fundamental generalistic attitude. To be serious and effective, a generalist must also be willing to make precise and narrow - one could say specialized - choices. To use a biblical image, archivists are spiritual descendants of Noah, torn between the desire to save as much as possible from the wrath of Time and the inevitable constraints of the frail ark they have been able to build.

Noah had a bit of an edge though: his ark had been completed before the flood occurred. Selection has ultimately to do with the flood from within...

Jacques Gagne is with the National film, Television and Sound Archives of the Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa.
Paper first delivered at the IASA conference in Brussels, 1981.

Selection in practice (Mark Jones)

Generally broadcasting archives exist, not in an academic or research vacuum, but to provide in-house programme makers with sound recordings for use in future programmes. This has the advantage of giving the archivist a clear user profile and the considerable satisfaction of tangible and consistent use of his or her collection, luxuries that can be denied to other sound archivists. However, this seeming advantage can lead to a tendency to be both complacent and defensive about their working methods.

Broadcasting organisations obviously have an interest in claiming that they make high quality programmes. However, they can easily assume a defensive pose when questioned about what they preserve and what they throw away or recycle. Given the vast quantities of transmitted programme output, some kind of selection process is inevitable. But an organisation that prides itself on the quality of its programmes must answer its critics when it declines to preserve that material. I hope that within the BBC, the Sound Archive does its best to avoid complacency and a siege-mentality but it remains a familiar and perennial problem.

Recordings have been selected and preserved by the BBC since the early 1930s on a systematic basis1. In the first ten years of BBC radio, from its beginning in 1922, there had been a strong feeling, shared by broadcaster and audience alike, that the essence of the new medium was the simultaneous transmission and reception of a signal - live broadcasting. In fact, the BBC’s first Director General, John Reith, expressed the view that to transmit previously recorded material was tantamount to a fraud on the listening public. Given this atmosphere, an understanding of the potential value of collecting recorded broadcasts was slow to develop. The advent of the Empire Service and advances in recording techniques in the early 1930s made the formation of a permanent collection both desirable and practically possible.

Today, some 200,000 recordings later, the practical problems of selecting for the BBC Sound Archives are extensive. Essentially the problems tend to focus on one factor; the sheer size and scope of the Corporation’s broadcasting output. To put this output into perspective consider the extent of the BBC’s broadcasting operation. In strictly radio terms it is:

4 National Networks Radio 1,2,3 and 4
3 National Regions Radio Wales, Ulster and Scotland
8 Local Regions Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Plymouth, Norwich, Southampton and Bristol
28 Local Radio Stations  
World Service 24 hour English Language Service
40 Language Services  

The BBC transmits, through all broadcasting outlets, in excess of 150,000 hours of radio a year, roughly 3,000 hours a week. From this large and highly complex output the Sound Archives selection team, split into different subject areas, aims to make a series of realistic judgements based on a set of established criteria.

Put simply these criteria are:

  1. Is the recording likely to be of use in future broadcasts as primary source material? Does it illustrate a particular person, event, social attitude or change in speech or music?
  2. Does the recording possess significance in sound, over and above the information and/or style of the script?
  3. Does the library possess similar material and, if so, does the new recording increase the value of the existing collection by providing additional examples, improved performances, or better technical quality?
  4. Is the recording technically suitable for preservation? (Here a balance has to be made between the intrinsic value of the content and the technical quality of the recording.)
  5. Are there copyright, contractual or other restrictions on the use of the recording? If so, is the material of sufficient importance to merit preservation despite the difficulties limiting or preventing use, which may be temporary and removable at a later date?
  6. Should the recording be selected in whole or in part?

The material selected on this basis tends to fall into the following general broadcasting categories:

(a) Events (political, economic, social, sport, etc.)
(b) Voices and reminiscences of prominent contemporaries in all fields
(c) Social history (social conditions, work, leisure, folklore, etc.)
(d) Miscellaneous material for documentary, reminiscent and general interest programmes
(e) Linguistic (dialect and accent)
(f) Drama and entertainment programmes
(g) Music (works unlikely to be issued on commercial records, authentic folk and national music, outstanding performances and occasions)
(h) Sound effects, natural history and authentic documentary sound.

To cope with this range of output, selectors essentially use three methods to take in programme material; they are selection, sampling and acquisition.

Selection, in the first instance, is carried out by the daily scrutiny of the various scripts, publicity information, copyright and performance details, cast lists and credits of all kinds that are an essential part of the production process. In this way a large and amorphous output can be broken down into subject or programme areas and made more manageable. At this stage, listening to programmes on playback becomes a realistic possibility. Additionally, live news or current affairs programmes can be scrutinised after transmission from running orders and scripts, while the programmes themselves are recorded off transmission. Sampling is an appropriate way of dealing with the regular, day-to-day and essentially ephemeral range of broadcast programmes. The very familiarity of these programmes in the weekly pattern is the problem: they are easily overlooked and under-valued. As major programming, such as drama, features and live music, becomes more and more expensive, a formula of regular sampling has to be worked out if this output is to be regularly reflected in the archive.

Acquisition is an important third way of adding material to the collection. It is an ever-open-door policy of encouraging production staff to offer material of all kinds, often uncut tape of which, perhaps, only part has been transmitted. Similarly material is constantly offered by freelance broadcasters, ex-staff, external organisations and other sources. Often recordings can be acquired in this way thirty or forty years after their transmission date. This open door policy to material is a vital part of the whole process of encouraging contact and liaison between selection and other areas of programme production.

Of the three methods of adding to the BBC Sound Archives, selection remains the most demanding. Successful selection requires a constantly changing balance of judgement, a mixture of perspective and immediacy. Additionally, it is important to continually re-evaluate basic selection criteria and to re-examine user needs at the same time.

However, there remain a number of practical problems in the selection process, which are common to all broadcasting organisations. A major problem is one of providing information to accompany selected recordings. The more information that can be provided the more likely the recording will be re-used. Broadcasting recordings tend to be made in a hurry; under-researched, under-documented at the time they are made; and difficult to validate after the event. News and current affairs material is notoriously a problem area in this respect. With certain contractual conditions adding to the need for this kind of information, time-consuming research is a constant part of the selection process.

A selection policy can only work in practice if there is close contact between the programme-producing departments and the selection team. This contact is essential in providing pre-production information, post-production assessment and a whole range of discussion on common needs and aims. Without this kind of exchange, on both a formal and informal basis, archiving and production will always be dangerously apart. Within the BBC, archive material is re-used so often - on average 40,000 recordings are issued to programme makers each year - that producers must be involved in both the theory and practice of selection.

While any kind of selection process will always have its critics, a number of factors help to make the BBC’s radio selection policy a workable one:

i) 3,000 hours a week is a daunting and unmanageable total to cope with in terms of storage and information retrieval;
ii) Almost 50% of all BBC programme output on radio consists of commercial recordings of music, i.e. recordings that already exist in an easily accessible form;
iii) Programme output is repetitive. For example, on an average day BBC radio services probably transmit more than 1,000 news bulletins. These bulletins may differ in length and style, but the basic news components remain much the same. The selection role here is to take out of bulletins the core material - the actuality, eyewitness or statement for re-use;
iv) Broadcasting tends to feed on itself. Up to 15% of output may have been previously transmitted, repeated or recycled in some form or another;
v) As well as the central BBC Sound Archive there are a number of regional and local collections of sound recordings, which are available for use.
vi) New developments in information technology and in recording media mean that more recordings can be better preserved and more quickly accessed by existing members of staff. Developments of this kind have helped increase the BBC’s annual preservation figure by over 300% in three years, since 1981.

By and large, broadcasting archives tend to attract criticism because of their very fidelity to the broadcasting output they both use as source and cater for. Producers and researchers looking through the BBC’s archives for the authentic sound of ordinary people in the 1930s talking about their daily lives will be disappointed for this kind of material was not recorded or broadcast at the time. Similarly, in terms of current affairs and the coverage of certain events, it is inevitable that some are treated in greater depth than others. The archivist may regret the imbalance this inevitably causes, but it would surely be inappropriate to try and redress the situation and lose the sense of context that is finally the real strength and value of a broadcasting archive.

A programme archive must reflect the output of its broadcasting organisation, its tastes, styles and its content. In doing so it will be providing its future users, both from within and outside the organisation, with a faithful and valuable record of the past .

Mark Jones is the Sound Archives Librarian of the BBC, London.
This paper is a revised version of the one given to the IASA conference in Brussels, 1982.

1 [Note added in 2010] Digital storage now allows the BBC Sound Archives to retain 100% of all BBC TV and radio output.

Selection in radio sound archives: a problem of documentation (Ulf Scharlau)

The main purpose of sound archives is the collection, recording and documentation of archive material. In opposition to this, the demands of radio archives are defined by the more extensive commission of a broadcasting station. This is formulated in general terms in the broadcasting act of Süddeutscher Rundfunk: the proposition of broadcasting is “the arrangement and transmission of performances of all kinds by using electric vibrations in word, sound and picture as far as they address the public”. Two essential aspects of radio archives’ work are highlighted in this proposition. Firstly the variety of the collecting field which includes the variety of archive material, and secondly the audience - millions of broadcast listeners who originate from very different social levels and who have various interests and expectations from radio programmes. The Süddeutscher Rundfunk has, therefore, established four types of programme which differ considerably from each other. A broadcasting archive must cater for all these different requirements with its material.

The sound archives are mainly archives for production and have to provide the material, which is necessary for everyday broadcasting use. Hence for many years the policy was to keep only those sound carriers of music or spoken word which would be repeated in other programmes. The main criterion for keeping a record was the possibility of repetition; in other words, its repertoire value. Only when the archive material grew old, an increasing sense of historical phenomena caused a slow change in the evaluation of archive material, especially when after one or two decades from the production day of a record, a more objective view of form and subject became possible.

Function and Contents

Today the archives have a double function. Firstly they have to supply the daily programme, and secondly to prepare their material so that science, arts and research can all make use of it. The radio archivist has to collect the records and make them fit for use when they are needed of programme making. In addition he needs to determine whether the record is a document in itself and of value in the future because of its contents, which could be characteristic of the feeling and thinking of the time in which it was produced. Examples of the different types of recording which have to be examined and analysed would include: news, news analysis, parliamentary debates, public shows, news reports, interviews, statements, sports news, lectures, readings, poetry readings, radio plays, light entertainment programmes, school radio, programmes for special audience groups, and in the field of music recordings, all types of music including serious music, light music, pop and jazz.

The main problem in carrying out this work of appraisal lies in the great number of recordings, which enter into German radio sound archives every year. The figures for the Süddeutscher Rundfunk archive in 1980 were:

5000 commercial records of light music containing 33,000 individual titles
800 commercial records of serious music
4430 music tapes (commercial and radio recordings)
4200 tapes of spoken word.

How can master or even come to terms with such a flood of material? Shortly after broadcasting every production (commercial and radio production) comes into the sound archives where it is documented and catalogued by specially trained staff. In our case selection does not mean a decision to keep or to erase, for as a rule we keep nearly everything. Selection in relation to our daily work means making decisions as to how intensive the cataloguing must be, because with the intensity of documentation the quality of information and research about a recording increases.

This paper deals with the cataloguing of music recordings. For a description of the documentation of spoken word recordings, the reader is referred to the paper published by Hansjörg Xylander of Radio Munich, “Documentation of spoken word soundtracks in broadcasting”, Phonographic Bulletin no. 30 July 1981.


Music recordings of light music are primarily a commodity of every day broadcasting. Here it would seem sufficient to register the basics data such as composer, title, artists and licence rights. In every day practice it is the music title or the musicians, which are the usual search terms. Süddeutscher Rundfunk recently began using electronic data processing and we are now able to combine different data elements with each other and achieve more precise selection than by a conventional cataloguing system. This means, however, that we have to enlarge the input to cope with the various possibilities of combining formal, special musical, technical or artistic problems. We can now for example ask a computer to look for a recording of “Yesterday”, not sung by the Beatles, in an instrumental version, with a small group and no longer than three minutes. Such detailed questions may seem curious, but are quite common in the daily work of a radio archive.

In the field of serious music we started years ago to intensify the conventional working methods of cataloguing. Now we have a very efficient cataloguing system at our Disposal, which demands not only the documentation of formal dates, but also the contents of the work and certain aspects of music history, and musicology. When cataloguing of instrumental music the musical genre and musicians are also registered. Choral music, for example, is divided into sacred and secular music and, within the different types, into forms like oratorio, mass, madrigal and solo items. Important historical dates to be noted are the years of composition, dedication, literary or other subjects for the music and so on. For example, questions may arise about a piece of music which has been dedicated to the Emperor Napoleon, or about works which have been written between 1780 and 1800 outside the German musical world, or about a musical profile of works which were published in 1900, or a catalogue of works by women composers. All those questions are difficult even for an archivist with special training, and he will normally not be able to answer such questions from memory, but will need special catalogues, which are dependent upon the detail of documentation, put on to the database.

To put the issues in general terms: in radio archives selecting, collecting, cataloguing and erasing are directed by the needs of the radio station and its main purpose, namely the preparation and realization of daily programmes of all kinds. The process of planning which takes place before broadcasting and is often carried out by the programme maker and not the archivist, who may not even be concerned at this stage. The programme maker has to ask the questions: which available record has to be bought, which new productions should be made by the radio itself, or which artists should be asked to perform? The archivist will be confronted later with the result of this planning process. He has to decide whether a recording has documentary worth or not, considering the internal radio point of view as well as the artistic and scientific one.

Criteria of Documentation

There are quite a number of criteria of documentation that we have to keep in mind when looking at a recording. The worth of a recording may lie in its singular and unrepeatable character (for instance a concert with a famous artist, the speech of a public personality in a special situation, or a live recording from the first landing on the moon). Or it may lie in the content, which characterizes a special problem or situation (for example, an interview about the problems of the unemployed). In this case the topic of the recording is of importance. At the same time the structural criteria have to be taken into consideration, for example, the formal and artistic quality of a recording itself (the new recording techniques like quadrophonic or artificial head stereo sound, artificial recording techniques - like a radio play production using the collage technique, or certain pieces of contemporary music, which sometimes can only be performed through the technical means of the radio for which they were composed). These two fields-content and form-can easily overlap. An example might be the BBC radio speeches of Thomas Mann during the war, addressed to German listeners, or a concert with famous artists, which is broadcast on United Nations Day. Generally we can say that the more of these criteria which are to be found on a recording, the more this recording is worth documenting.


Selection and documentation in a radio archive needs a strategy and working method, which differs greatly from those of other archives where documentation is an end in itself. In a radio station the archive has to provide the daily programmes with repertoire material and therefore has to be prepared to offer a wide spectrum of recordings. The selection decision of the archivist is less a decision of whether or not to keep or to erase, than one of whether or not to increase the depth of the documentation. Radio documentation and selection are composed of three functions: the formal registration, the recording of the contents and the presentation of different forms and branches of programmes. Included are those records, which reveal that they can be used for programme purposes as well as for arts, science, culture and education outside the radio. It is the duty of the archivist to keep both these sides in mind, help and advice for the programme makers and adequate documentation of the actualities of the day. The radio sound archivist must try to avoid mistakes in his selection, a demand that possibly can never be fulfilled totally, but this is one, which he has in common with every other archivist.

Ulf Scharlau is Head of Archives, Süddeutscher Rundfunk, Stuttgart.
This paper was first presented to the IASA conference in Budapest, 1981.

Criteria for Selection and classification in the BBC Gramophone Library (Derek Lewis)

The BBC Gramophone Library concerns itself with the entire output of the commercial record industry - we exist to serve the needs of all BBC production departments wherever they may be situated, and so it inevitably follows that our holdings must span the entire range of material produced. As a matter of interest it is estimated that some 4,000 records per week are loaned from the central record library and at any given moment we expect to have 16,000 records out on loan (give or take a hundred or two!). This inevitably causes considerable problems with stock control, and although computerisation is imminent, for the present we continue with our manual system. However, this is not intended as a piece about the overall working methods, more specifically how the BBC Gramophone Library deals with the vast morass of material broadly classified as “popular” or, as Leslie Wilson may prefer to call it, “light” music.

In this category we acquire each month approximately 250 “singles”. This is not the entire output of the British record industry by any means considering the amount of material being issued; especially by the small independent companies, and in taking this limited number we are exercising a natural selection policy. Part of the problem arises from finding out just what the smaller companies are releasing. We ensure that we always have the current Top 70 and by using staff “know how” hope to acquire the best of the up and coming groups or soloists as well. A close eye is also kept on what is actually broadcast - for many of the programmes on the BBC “popular” channel, Radio 1, use demonstration or promotion copies - and the library endeavours to see that if such a record is played copies are also acquired for library stock.

Of course this system is not infallible. A future generation of producers may well criticise us for not having spotted a particular record, recognised its merits and got it for the library. But it must be admitted that the present rather haphazard way in which records are marketed, sometimes only available for a few weeks in a small number of copies goes counter to the requirements of the well-run library.

However, with “singles” the library prefers to have examples of current pop trends in Europe, as the Industry still maintains a somewhat insular attitude, and very few non-British language records ever seem to circulate widely in the UK. An obvious example here would be the entrants for the annual Eurovision Song Contest, and every so often the library stocks up on the number one product. Many of these recordings are reflected in a BBC programme presented in conjunction with other European countries called “Pop over Europe”.

The same goes for LPs: in the “popular” category, the total acquired per month - and this covers the single title, not extra stock - is around 450 per month. Many of these are imported albums, either direct from the country of origin or through one of the many import outlets in London, and they will account for the major input of jazz and country and western from the USA as well as a bit of “new wave” groups from Europe.


Having acquired the records, the next process contends with the matter of making them available to programme production staff. Some know exactly what they want, as they work in a particular field of entertainment and are thoroughly versed in the latest trends, groups and forthcoming recordings. Others, working in a more generalised form of programming will need help, suggestions and guidance.

In both circumstances, the onus is thrown upon the effectiveness of the cataloguing system. Take the case of the “specialist” producer who is working in the field of the big bands of the 30s and 40s. He wants a version of Charlie Barnet’s “Skyliner” recorded many times, but he wants one of Barnet’s own recordings.

The catalogue must tell him that besides having the original August 1944 “78” both in its original format and subsequent LP transfers, the library can also offer him a choice of the following: a “live” performance in Hollywood, also in 1944, and others recorded at various locations in March 1951, August 1958, a broadcast in December 1945 and so on. He knows that he wants a performance featuring Barney Kessel on guitar, and the catalogue must also inform him which of the recordings in stock feature Kessel. He can then make his choice. Mind you, there may well be yet another version, circulating on some small label in the US which has never been acquired – but, with luck, he will locate his record and ensure that the right version is broadcast. There are several ways in which this can be done: by identifying the recording date, location, band line-up and also the record release date. Some may claim that this information is more discographical than cataloguing, but from the point of view of the record library it is essential to have this information, which is after all fairly basic, when it is available, aligned to, and part and parcel of the main title entry.

It has been noticed that, particularly in the field of “popular” music, the title entry is the one to which most users go first. This may well confound some of the principles of AACR2 - but it is the main entry for the bulk of information in the Gramophone Record Library. Additional entries are made in sections devoted to performers, composers, lyric-writers, musical instruments, giving either the immediate information required to identify the record filing number, or at least a cross-reference to the main entry.

Another type of user is the producer who (nearly always at short notice) wants a snatch of music to supplement other items in a programme. This is usually in the field of news and current affairs, documentary features or drama productions, when the subject matter or content of the recorded item is of primary interest. A very useful aid here is the subject classification section devised by the library especially to meet this need. It has been developing over the last ten years or so, and the format is fluid. Attempts are being made to impose a precise and final form upon it, but every so often the headings and groupings have to be revised.

It cannot be a static scheme. At present the entire catalogue exists in the form of typed cards stored in filing cabinets, pending computerisation. When this computerisation being the library will be forced to commit the systems to a definite and rigid format.

The classification ranges widely and aims to cater for the myriad requests received. To take a few examples: recordings of songs about food and drink are grouped together as are recordings about sport. This latter section is subdivided into different sporting activities and then again into groups such as songs celebrating the sport, team songs, and recordings by individual players - it is amazing how many star footballers have made at least one record as a budding pop star - and, incidentally, in another category, the same applies to politicians. There are groups of songs about animals, industrial and work songs, and another section uneasily called - because no one could think of anything better – “Social Comment”. Here there are songs about many topics - race-relations, environmental problems, economics, old age, and inevitably the old favourites, drugs, sex and alcohol, either for or against.

Another section relates music to a particular period, and another attempts to deal with the various styles of popular music that have acquired labels - such as collections of recordings or significant performers associated with types like “Heavy Metal”. Sometimes it is hard to be too precise about some of these genres as so much overlapping takes place. It is probably easier to re-make such sections with the benefit of hindsight and some reclassification will be necessary. Film soundtrack recordings are listed under the year the film was released, and entries for the aforementioned Eurovision Song Contest year by year, noting the winning entry and the runners-up.

The composer section lists, in addition to a composer’s output indicated alphabetically and annotated, a useful sub-section devoted to collections on LP of that composer’s work. Under Lennon and McCartney one can find not only Cathy Berberian’s unique realisation of the Beatles’ songs, but a variety of other arrangements played by everything from the Boston Pops under Arthur Fiedler, by way of the Grenadier Guards Band to a Moog Synthesizer. The Beatles themselves also rate an entry in the Subject Classification catalogue as several songs have been written about them.

The library has on hand a number of reference books, especially those covering performers recording careers. The Gramophone Library is fortunate in being able to call upon the Popular Music Library for other reference material when required rather than keep permanent duplicates. The two libraries try to keep a balance and not duplicate information unnecessarily in the catalogues if it is readily available in printed form near at hand. However, in the case of recording data for instance, it is much better and also time-saving to have the information incorporated in the catalogue.

The form of cataloguing now pursued has been developed specifically to meet the needs of a broadcasting station, but its gestation has been a little haphazard. It has rough edges, is by no means complete, and is certainly selective. It is not proposed as a standard format for dealing with all such recorded material, but it has elements that could usefully serve as a basis for the kind of classification most sound recordings libraries, as well as many others, are finding more necessary. One has to be wary of “classification” becoming an end in itself, and certainly different libraries, having different needs, would be advised to consider very carefully their own needs for such cataloguing. However, it should not be too difficult to agree at least a basic level of desirable headings – and perhaps this might form a useful subject for a working party at some future session.

Derek Lewis is the Gramophone Librarian of the BBC.
This paper was first given at the IASA conference in Washington DC 1983. It formed part of the session given by the IAML/IASA Committee on Music and Sound Archives.

Selection and classification in the BBC Popular Music Library (Leslie Wilson)

Definition of Popular Music

The term popular music is extremely vague, covers a wide field of musical endeavour and ranges over a long period of time; there has been “popular music” ever since man made music for his own pleasure. The difficulty is to draw a distinction between serious or, less accurately, classical music and the other forms in existence, especially as much of the material in the popular field is taken quite seriously by many people. It might be preferable to call this type of music, light music. This term would effectively cover music of a more transient nature, which would not be expected to have a lasting appeal except to the most diehard adherents of a particular style or form. This is not to denigrate such music or to detract from its worth, for it is certainly as valuable in its own way as any other sphere of musical creativity. The area covered by the term light music is enormous, ranging as it does from folk music to heavy metal rock, operetta to jazz, country and western to big band dance music and film and Broadway musicals to current chart pops. It is difficult to place all these varying styles and numerous forms into any sort of comprehensible collection, and one that is retrievable and makes any sort of sense to library staff, researchers or users of any kind.

Current Stock of BBC Popular Music Library

The BBC Popular Music Library is one of the largest of its kind in the world and has a system just like the one described. The library has well over a quarter of a million pieces of sheet music in a collection which has been built up since before the 2nd World War. The stock held by the library covers many forms: arrangements and orchestrations (there is a distinct difference) and which can be found in manuscript and printed form; song copies, vocal scores of musicals, operettas, and musical films; song albums featuring the collections of popular singers; bands, musical styles, or musical periods; instrumental pieces existing as solos or collections and a small collection of reference books. As you can see the cataloguing possibilities are almost endless and will present a myriad of problems. Arrangements and orchestrations alone arrive in many forms dependent on the size and style of band and orchestra. The BBC Popular Music Library systems are in fact tailor made, do not correspond with formal library cataloguing schemes and have in the past caused deep shock to visiting library students who have come to inspect us as part of their studies.

In addition to the previously mentioned stock, there is an extensive file collection which again has been tailor made over the years, catalogued in its own way and covering many aspects of the popular music field in an analytical way. Some examples of the subjects found in this collection and the ways in which they are put to use in programme making may clarify the points at issue. The file collection, incidentally, has been built almost entirely from newspaper and magazine cuttings taken from the fifteen or more periodicals received by the Popular Music Library each week over a period many years.

a) Biographies
There is an extensive biographic collection covering many personalities in the popular music field, ranging from musical actors to conductors, from singers to jazz musicians. These collections cover every kind of personality to be found in this sphere of musical activity.

b) Obituaries
The obituaries cover the same area as that of the biographies and are invaluable for determining the age of personalities when creating a programme about them. One is often asked how the radio networks manage to broadcast a complete programme on somebody immediately after they have died, having very little time to prepare it. The answer is that the basis of the programme was prepared before they died. There is a researcher employed in preparing programmes on eminent people who are approaching old age and these programmes are filed waiting for the inevitable to happen. Naturally the people in question are not told about this!

c) Musical and film reviews
These are culled from the various periodicals, which are taken by the library; however it is quite difficult to get satisfactory reviews of shows. Many of these are written in a flippant, uninformative manner even in the most serious of papers and contain little or no information on the item in question. Probably the best publication of all is the American trade paper “Variety”. Unfortunately, it does not cover the shows in Great Britain and Europe to any great extent; and London does appear to be one of the two great centres of theatrical activity, the other being New York. These files are subdivided to cover American and British productions and can also be found by year of premiere.

d) Analytical
This file collection divides songs by their subject matter. For example songs will be listed covering drinking or eating, songs about World War I or II, songs about horses or other animals, songs about London, about New York etc., songs about girls’ or boys’ names, songs about motoring or sailing; the list is endless. These files are invaluable when a producer wishes to build a programme with a specialist subject as its theme. Educational broadcasting is a good customer when it comes to this type of subject matter.

e) Song Histories
In certain circumstances the histories of the better-known standard songs are kept on file. Details list by whom they were written and when, what they were written for, perhaps a film theme or radio show, who sang them and so on. This kind of information is used for notes for a presenter to have something to say about the items in a specific programme.

There are other more obscure files in addition to those mentioned but this is a sample of the most widely used files.


With only two exceptions the Popular Music Library has catalogued everything in stock by title. This may seem a radical way of arranging things but in a large comprehensive collection such as this with its specialist use, the system is designed to suit the work patterns. Two main indexes are being introduced which cover the bulk of the stock plus a vast collection of song copies which are arranged alphabetically; thus creating their own index. The first main index covers the complete collection of arrangements and orchestrations in manuscript and printed form for various orchestras. This covers approximately 115,000 items which are all available and in current use. The material is arranged numerically on the shelves in bags as it is catalogued, the manuscript arrangements in one section and the printed ones in another. Because they cover a wide range of orchestral and band styles the only possible way to catalogue these items is by title. Naturally, most titles will have more than one arrangement and, therefore, in the index each individual title is arranged numerically.

There have been various collections of arrangements donated to the Popular Music Library from various sources, for example, eminent orchestra and bandleaders now retired or BBC regional orchestras and bands now non-operative. These collections have been catalogued and integrated into the main collection with information that these items are from alternative sources although absorbed into the main collection.

The other index includes song albums, vocal scores, piano and instrumental solos and selections and a separate indexed song collection. All the items listed in this catalogue itself are comprehensively annotated enabling the staff to pinpoint the location of each item.

The cards in both our main indexes contain selected information, which may include composer and publisher details, the orchestra for which a piece of music has been arranged, the date of composition, the copyright date, the key and the range of a vocal item, and any subsequent adaptations of the pieces.

Apart from these file collections the other sections of the library, which carry their own catalogue systems, are the reference books and the composer file section. This latter collection is based on eminent composers of popular music and contains completely indexed files of these composers’ works. This is a difficult collection to continue in as much as the problem exists of deciding which composers merit inclusion in what is essentially an archive. The obvious people such as Rogers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Lennon and McCartney, are easy to administer, their music is readily available and well documented. The lesser-known composers, especially those who are currently writing can be more problematic when deciding to create a file on their works. To decide on their inclusion, to obtain a list of their complete works, and then to obtain those works is quite an arduous task. The safest rule of thumb when in doubt about the merit of a composer is to include him in your collection.

Acquisition Criteria

The question of choosing or selecting the material to go into the library creates problems given the amount of popular music that is continuously published. The following section deals with the particular stock of the BBC Popular Music Library and indicates the criteria involved in acquisition of this material.

Arrangements: The collection of these depends entirely on the requirements of the broadcasting production departments. Production departments decide how much of their budget is available for new arrangements and then commission these through an orchestrations department. In this process the library receives the finished product and catalogues it. Library staffs are, therefore, not involved in an acquisition policy as far as this material is concerned, only to advise on material already in existence and avoid duplication.

Publishers’ Printed Orchestrations: The Library receives lists from publishers who issue this material, the bulk of which is now published in the USA, and decisions are made as to which of the titles would be useful for BBC radio bearing in mind the output of radio and the style of the arrangers or composers involved. Occasionally specific pieces are requested by production departments and ordered for library stock.

Song Copies: The top twenty songs from the British Charts are normally ordered as a matter of course although they are not always available in print. In addition, orders are made for any new songs which are thought suitable or have become popular by one means or another. Much of this material is supplied free of charge, although payments can also be made.

Song Albums and Vocal Scores: With these items, selection is made on the basis of what is considered to be suitable for the likely users of the library. This is not primarily an archive, and does not attempt to acquire everything in print. It is also very easy to duplicate such material, as publishers are very good at re-issuing the same material dressed up in different packages. Vocal scores from every successful musical play and operetta that has been in London from the turn of the century are collected but nowadays publishers tend to issue only selections from new works as opposed to the whole score. This can be a problem when an entire score is called for.

Instrumental Items: There are far fewer of these in the popular music area than in serious music, and most of them are issued as piano items. Unless a piece has become popular we only acquire instrumental pieces on demand by users.

Reference Books: The Library administers its own small budget for these items, which is just adequate for our needs. Although this budget is small, the amount of books brought out on the subject per year, including biographies, is also quite small and many of the new publications will duplicate in one form or another material already in stock.

Use of Material

With very few exceptions the use of all the BBC Popular Music Library’s material is confined to BBC staff for programme production and broadcasting. The bulk of the material is still in copyright. The BBC has various agreements with various interested bodies such as the Music Publishers Association by which it agrees not to supply any material to persons or organisations outside of the corporation. Manuscript commissioned arrangements are hired to known individuals or to broadcasting organisations and official bodies provided the agreement of the arrangers involved has been obtained.

The main users of the bulk of the stock are BBC programme makers and the demand for material will vary according to the programme. The stock of arrangements is used by the various BBC orchestras on an ongoing basis by which the usual modern musical tastes are catered for. Sometimes a special programme is created in which a particular musical style or are may be required. It is necessary to be able to identify the required music in stock and retrieve it with the minimum effort: hence the usefulness of file collections and analytical indexes pertaining to specialised subjects. This also applies to research enquiries where information on songs of a particular era or year, artist or band or any other specialised case may have to be pinpointed. Information is often sought on chart success for a particular month or year and all this information must be readily to hand.


A particular type of staff is required in Popular Music Library of radio corporations. Primarily the staffs have to be qualified musically as one would expect the members of staff in any music library to be. However, an academic music training, which would be suitable for a normal music library, is in itself, not sufficient. Over and above musical knowledge and knowledge of library systems, specialists are needed in the subject of popular music. The library requires subject specialists who are able to identify the music, can advise on the idiom and have a more than superficial knowledge. The subject is vast and it is unlikely that anyone will be schooled in more than two or three aspects of it, but taking all staff together it is possible to provide a fairly comprehensive advisory service to potential users.


Popular music in all its forms is a relatively new exercise compared with other archival endeavours and up to this point in time has not been taken too seriously, certainly in academic circles. It has been left to individuals or other interested parties such as broadcasting organisations or publishers to create any workable collections, normally for their own use. But it can be argued that this is an art form which has as much credibility as any other; which appeals to and involves a greater amount of people than most others, and which has a great influence on the entertainment world and the leisure activities of most of the general public. To ignore this mass of material because it may not live up to individuals’ intellectual expectations is a sterile attitude and to a great extent burying one’s head in the sand.

It is up to people such as librarians and archivists to reverse this trend and to preserve what in effect is a wealth of musical experience for posterity. A quotation from Noel Coward, one of the most prolific of English songwriters whose contribution to the field of popular song was enormous will provide an apt conclusion:

“In my early 20s and 30s it was from America that I gained my greatest impetus. In New York, they have always taken light music seriously. There, it is, as it should be, saluted as a specialised form of creative art, and is secure in its own right… Here in England there are few to write the music and fewer still to recognise when it is written”.

Happily nowadays recognition of popular music is no problem. However, those of us who are interested and involved are still fighting a battle to make academic and educational establishments give the recognition to popular or light music that it so richly deserves.

Leslie Wilson is the Librarian of the BBC Popular Music Library in England.
The paper was given as part of a session on the Selection of popular music at the IASA conference in Washington, 1983.

Selection policy in the Imperial War Museum sound department (Peter Hart)

Why a Selection Policy

It is desirable that all sound archives, which make up the national collection, should publish their selection policies:

  1. to allow discussion of relative role to proceed from a clearly defined base so that we can co-ordinate with other sound archives either in a hierarchy of dependence or division of responsibility between equals;
  2. to allow rationalisation of resources by deciding priorities and preventing duplication;
  3. a good service cannot be provided within the oral history field by simply reacting to public demand as there must be a positive endeavour to build collections which will anticipate needs and give an orderly expression of priorities over a period of time;
  4. to facilitate understanding of the operation of the sound archives selection policy.
    1. Users can see the principles used and thus better judge the areas covered by the collection. Donors can also make a pre-judgment of whether their material will be selected for archival preservation.
    2. Staff can work to clearly defined rules guaranteeing stability and consistency untroubled by staff changes.
  5. Evaluation of performance is facilitated.

Statement of Purpose

The purpose of the Imperial War Museum is to collect, preserve and display material and information bearing upon the two World Wars and other military operations since 1914 in which Great Britain or other members of the Commonwealth have been involved. Other museums, both national and provincial exist, but the Imperial War Museum, alone in the country, is solely concerned with all aspects of war, military and civil, allied and enemy in this, the age of the two greatest wars in history.

This statement is the most concise statement of purpose which the Museum possesses. The Department of sound Records has no separate brief other than its responsibility as a national sound archive.

However, further amplification of the particular responsibilities of the Department of Sound Records can be gleaned from study of the original intentions of the General Committee appointed by the War Cabinet to consider a scheme for a National War Museum in 1915 which reported to the Cabinet in 1917. Documents issued by the Committee bearing the names of Sir Martin Conday the first Director General and Sir Alfred Monk the Chairmen state the following:

“The Imperial War Museum should have a more intimate personal interest for the individual than any museum that has ever been contemplated, for it is proposed to show not only the work of the fighting forces, but also the manner in which the whole Empire responded to the call in munitions work, women’s substitution, and work in the land, in fact it is proposed to record the whole life of the Empire as changed and revolutionised by the war.

The individual will find the work of himself and his family exhibited for all time.

Much that would have been of great value to the National Collection is already, destroyed, more is in imminent peril of destruction. A general co-operation is needed to preserve everything that can be saved.”

Consideration of the points raised in these statements lead to the conclusions that:

The Sound Records Department must collect, preserve and display all recordings and transcripts (when available) bearing upon the two world wars and other military operations since 1914 in which Great Britain or other members of the Commonwealth have been involved.

The department has a particular responsibility to preserve the individual viewpoint of the events, which form the brief of the Museum. The recording medium is particularly effective in preserving this viewpoint both accurately and evocatively.

The department has a particular responsibility to record those elements of the Museum’s brief which by their nature are less fully documented but which are of equal importance in understanding how the whole life of the country was changed and revolutionised by war.

The department has a responsibility to preserve everything that can be saved.

Restrictions on Acquisitions

Although the brief quite clearly indicates that there should be a universal selection policy there are restrictive problems.

Lack of space. Although technology promises to minimise this problem with digital recordings there is no commitment for re-equipment with this expensive equipment. The existing collection would have to be re-recorded in any event.

Lack of oral history interviewers. The recording programme of acquisitions is restricted by the low number of staff and freelance oral history interviewers. This forces a careful choice as to who can be interviewed and on what subjects.

Lack of staff and equipment for preservation work. The archival copying and preservation is extremely time consuming and staff are also required for monitoring air-conditioning and checking the stability of recordings in storage.

Lack of staff for cataloguing. Sound recordings are not readily accessible without clear effective cataloguing. This is extremely costly in staff time due to the requirement to prepare synopses of tape content.

Lack of resources. Although the previous three points are consequent upon this, the general point can be made that the archival preservation of recordings involves a commitment to prepare copies of the material and there is a limited budget for tape purchase.

To ensure a balanced collection. If we simply respond to the material offered to us the collection may easily become unbalanced and not reflective of the institution’s brief.

Current State of the Collection

The following table represents in summary form the current state of the collection. The grades are designed to facilitate judgements on the scope of the collection in a particular subject field and are as follows:

A- Comprehensive = Research level on most topics within the subject area defined
B - Research = Research level within the subject area defined
C - Study = Study level within the subject area defined
D – Basic = Basic material within the subject area defined
E – Minimal = Minimal material within the subject area defined
F – None = No relevant materia

OHP – Oral History Project

Date and Subject Relevant Collection Grade Notes
1898-1901 Boer War Pakenham B Outside Museum’s brief
1901-1914 General Miscellaneous D Outside Museum’s brief
1914-1918 Home Front • OHP War Work
• OHP Anti-War Movement
• BBC Great War
• BBC Women at War Lyn Macdonald Collection
• Chris Howell Collection
• Wolverton at War
• Miscellaneous
B Weak on male involvement on Home Front throughout
Western Front • OHP Western Front
• BBC Great War
• Lyn Macdonald Collection
• Chris Howell Collection
• Wolverton at War
• Miscellaneous
B Weak on 1914/15 e.g. Christmas Truce at Mons, Loos, Neuve Chappelle
Gallipoli • BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous
Salonika • BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous
Mesopotamia • BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous
Palestine • BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous
Italy • BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous
Ireland • BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous
East Africa • Miscellaneous E/F  
Naval Campaigns • OHP Lower Deck
• BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous
C Poor on campaigns outside North Sea
1914-18 British Army • OHP Western Front
• Lyn Macdonald Collection
• Chris Howell Collection
• Wolverton at War
• Miscellaneous
Air Force (RFC, RNAS, RAF)  • OHP Military & Naval
• BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous
Royal Navy • OHP Lower Deck
• BBC Great War
• Miscellaneous

1919 - 1939    
Attacks on USSR, 1919-1921 • Miscellaneous E  
Invergordon Mutiny, 1931 • Alan Breira Collection
• Tony Carew Collection
• Miscellaneous
Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 • OHP British Involvement in Spanish Civil War
• Miscellaneous
C Very poor on fascist side
Home Front  • OHP Britain and the Refugee Crisis
• OHP Anti War 2
• Miscellaneous
D Often this subject is outside Museum’s Brief. Absence of rise of Fascism
Africa • OHP British Army in Africa
• BBC Tales from the Dark Continent
• Miscellaneous
Ireland • Miscellaneous E  
India • OHP British Army in India
• BBC Plain Tales from the Raj
• Miscellaneous
Middle East  • OHP Middle East; British Military Personnel
• Miscellaneous
Far East • OHP British Servicemen in the Far East
• Miscellaneous
British Army • OHP Mechanisation of the British Army
• OHP British Army in Africa
• OHP British Army in India
• OHP Middle East; British Military Personnel
• OHP British Servicemen in the Far East
• Miscellaneous
A Poor on home station service
Royal Air Force • OHP The RAF and the Development of Air Power
• OHP Duxford
• Miscellaneous
Royal Navy • Alan Ereira Collection
• Tony Carew Collection
• Miscellaneous
1939-1945 • OHP Evacuation
• OHP Anti War 2
• OHP British and the Refugee Crisis
• OHP Duxford
• BBC Second World War
• BBC Personalities
• Thames TV World at War
• Capital Radio Blitz
• Political Warfare Executive Collection
• Miscellaneous
Overseas • OHP Gort’s Army
• OHP Far East POWs
• OHP European POWs
• OHP Enemy Internment of British Civilians
• OHP British Service Cameramen
• BBC Second World War
• Thames TV World at War
• Philippine Collection
• Salerno Collection
• Miscellaneous
1945-1983 Korea • Miscellaneous E/F  
Colonial Warfare • BBC Plain Tales from the Raj.
• BBC Tales from the Dark
• Continent Miscellaneous
Ireland • Miscellaneous E/F  
British Army • Miscellaneous E/F  
Royal Air Force • Miscellaneous E/F  
Royal Navy • Miscellaneous E/F  
  1900 - 1983    
Political • BBC Personalities
• US National Archives
• IWM Nazi Leaders
• Deutsches Rundfunk
• Nuremberg War Trials
• Political War Executive
• OHP Anti War Movement
• OHP Anti War 2
• OHP Spanish Civil War
C Weak on France/USSR/Japan/pre 1938 USA/pre 1930 UK/ Fascism in UK in 1930s/The post 1945 situation
Cultural • OHP Artists in an Age of Conflict
• OHP British Service Cameramen
• War Poets Collection
• ENSA Collection
• Miscellaneous (including music)
Technical • OHP Mechanisation of the British Army
• RUSI Collection
• Miscellaneous
E Weak on weapons development and construction
Sound Effects • Army and RAF Film Sound Effects C Very weak on all but Second World War

Subject Priorities

The implications of the negative factors which prevent the adoption of a universal selection policy means that the department should examine how to construct a list of subject priorities and then apply them to the construction of such a list, based on the current state of the collection as detailed in the previous section.

Identification of Subject Priorities

  1. Relevance of subject to Museum’s brief.
  2. Demand for material relating to subject.
  3. Success of collection as currently stated to meet that demand both now and in the future.
  4. Number of people involved in the events which taken together form the subject matter. This is of relevance if the number is large and thus represents a subject, which we should make efforts to collect, as it is a common central experience. It can also be of relevance if the number is small and the subject represents a rare but significant experience.
  5. Number of people involved in the events which together form the subject matter who are still available to relate their experience and the length of time for which they will continue to be available. This is of relevance as it can raise the priority of a topic if the source of recollections is about to disappear for any reason.

Suggested Priorities

  1. 1914-1918 The First World War
    Gallipoli; Mesopotamia; Italy; Palestine; East Africa; Ireland; Salonika
    Western Front Operations 1914-15
    Naval Campaigns: Coronel & Falklands; Hunt for Raiders, convoy & Anti-Submarine; Dover Patrol; Zeebrugge Raid
    Male work on home front: farming; mines; heavy armaments
  2. 1919-1939 Inter War
    Attacks on USSR 1919-21
    Spanish Civil War and particularly Fascist side
    Royal Navy (excepting Invergordon)
    Rise of fascism in Britain
  3. 1939-1945 Second World War
    Home Front – Industry; Farming; Women’s role; Home Guard; Political Warfare; Politicians; Press & Media; Espionage; Battle of Britain; Blitz
    Overseas - all major campaigns especially those involving limited numbers. Special attention must be taken to avoid minimizing the attention given to the RN and RAF.
  4. 1945-1983 Post War
    Colonial Warfare: African campaigns; Aden; Cyprus; Falklands; Vietnam (Australian); India Independence; Ireland
  5. 1900-1983
    Political: Recordings related to France; pre 1938 USA/; Japan; Rise of fascism in UK in 1930s and 80s; post 1945 situation.
    Technical: Weapon development and construction
    Sound Effects: pre 1939 and post 1945.

General Selection Criteria

The existence of subject priorities thus identified does not alter the fact that all new acquisitions should be examined with the guide of selection criteria, which include not only an expansion of subject considerations but also others of equal relevance to a sound archive. The starting point of such selection criteria would be the following general statement: a recording warrants preservation if there is any reason that the loss of the recording would be regretted in the future by researchers into those fields of study covered be the Imperial War Museum. The points below should be considered a checklist of criteria in selection:

Relationship of subject matter to collection

  • Relevance of topic to Imperial War Museum’s brief. Is it correctly defined within our terms of reference or would it be better deposited at a more relevant institution. Is there an existing demand for the topic from the public and what is the nature of that demand.
  • Is the topic of lasting importance or is interest of a temporary nature. Will there be a future demand for the topic. Is the topic already covered by the collection to such a degree that all future demands made in that area can be satisfied. Is the topic in a designated priority area as in (5).

Relevance of sound medium

  • Would the subject matter be better or more securely preserved in another medium.

Rarity of Recording

  • How rare is the recording or the information contained within it. Could it be easily duplicated or reacquired at a later date or would there be a risk of permanent loss.

Secondary characteristics of the recording

  • Are the personalities heard on the recording of interest in their own right and are there available recordings of their voices of a comparative origin and background. Are social attitudes revealed in the recording, which may be of more interest than the original subject matter. What is the reputation of the author/producer of the recordings and are the recordings central as a primary source to some publication of permanent interest.

Role as a national archive

  • Is the material although outside the brief within the Imperial War Museum worthy of archival preservation until a permanent home can be found.

Minimum technical standards

  • Does the recording conform to the minimum technical standards laid down by the Imperial War Museum sound technician. (See Appendix A)

Limitations on use

  • Does copyright provision place unacceptable restrictions on the use of the material.

Selection procedures

  • Members of staff shall make every effort to secure collections of relevance to identified subject priorities.
  • When a collection is offered to the Museum a report should be prepared by the member of staff concerned reflecting an analysis of the collection using our selection criteria.
  • This report should be discussed with senior archive staff and a decision taken on whether to acquire the collection; recommend it for preservation elsewhere; or reject the collection outright. The decision should be unanimous for the third option to be taken or selection staff should almost inevitably be in breach of the general selection statement.

Appendix A

Archive Material Selection-Technical Considerations

Although there is no difficulty in stating preferred minimum technical specifications for recording quality regarding the usual parameters of frequency response, signal to noise ratio, wow and flutter and distortion, there is considerable difficulty in measuring them on a suspect piece of material. This is because to make such measurements it is necessary to have test tones on the tape, recorded by the machine on which the recording proper has been made. By definition a doubtful recording will not have this. Therefore a decision concerning technical suitability will usually be made on a subjective basis.

The basic requirement of any recording is that it be intelligible to a person with average hearing ability. There are a number of techniques available to enhance the performance of a “borderline” case to bring it closer to an acceptable performance. By using conventional “mid” tone controls or a graphic or parametric equaliser, it is possible to accentuate the 1 to 3 KHz frequency range to which the ear is most sensitive. Tape hiss can have its annoyance value reduced by careful setting of a gentle treble “roll-off” using a graphic equaliser. This, or a parametric or notch filter can also be used to reduce hum and associated harmonic frequencies provided they are not too wideband (it can be difficult to filter out large amplitude harmonics that extend across the whole audio band). Unwanted low-frequency rumble can be reduced by using a high-pass filter with either a 6dB or 12dB per octave slope with a switchable range of say 50 to 160Hz - most modern mixing desks incorporate this feature.

It should also be borne in mind that improvements in signal processing techniques are almost inevitable in years to come. For this reason it is probably advisable to either copy poor material “flat”, noting details of necessary filtering to be carried out on any subsequent copies, or for the minimum of filtering to be used for acceptable results on a master tape1.

1. Note (added in 2010): modern practice is not to “improve” the original recording when copying for archival purposes but only when making access copies.