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.