5. Processing and accessioning of archival material

Sound recordings rarely come in such a form that they can immediately be stored in the recommended fashion, and so the production of archival or security copies lies at the heart of the work of archival processing. While this work is being done recordings can also be re-examined to establish whether the whole of the raw material or just a selection should be kept. The watchword in this process should always be to alter the actual recording as little as possible. Recordings should retain their original length; for instance, if several songs were performed and recorded one after another, then the whole recording should be kept as an integral unit. Comments and reactions at the beginning and end of a recording can often be very revealing and, therefore, should also be copied. One should always avoid any element of aesthetic filtering when transferring a recording although, of course, a written note should be kept of any of the technical shortcomings of the original.

The best method of keeping tapes (an important point for retrieval purposes) has proved to be that of copying the recordings onto reasonably sized spools (minimum 18 cm diameter) in the sequence in which they were recorded or accessioned and to use signals on the tape to distinguish individual recordings from one another (see also the technical chapter of this publication). Accessioning should follow a single numerical sequence, because even small institutions will find it difficult in the long run to continue classifying recordings according to regions, groups, informants or content. This method also mixes up recordings of different technical origins, making technical quality control impossible. What is more, if one classifies material according to cultural theories, these arrangements may often become obsolete.

In contrast to libraries, where catalogues are just used to locate fairly standard and well described published items, academic research archives are obliged to employ more complex methods of registering the contents of their holdings. For this the best method to use is a form resembling a questionnaire, giving details of the production of the recording, its content, what textual and musical transcriptions have been made and what illustrative or photographic documentation accompanies it. In multi-disciplinary archives these forms need to be relatively open-ended but, in institutions bound by limits of subject matter and region, very detailed lists of headings can be worked out.

The question of what form indices should take is something which has to be decided according to the scope and content of the archive. In the field of ethnomusicology, it is the performing musician who normally takes on the role of composer in Western classical music and so he will be the focal point of any finding aid. Performers should be classified according to ethnic groups, but cross-references should always be made according to neutral geographical and political headings. In regional archives, specializing in traditional music, the range of such indices should go down to the level of individual villages and parts of villages. There is also every sense in indexing collections according to musical instruments, musical styles and genres, and perhaps titles in the case of instrumental pieces and songs. Difficulties arise when attempts are made to index collections on the basis of the socio-cultural context of the music, because the categories in each case will be determined by the culture in question and the outlook of the researcher, both of which factors may change with time. The best index, therefore, will be one which does not over-emphasise detail and, in the absence of an anthropological thesaurus, one whose content is not too closely bound to one school of research.

A standardized system of classification along the lines of that used by librarians for indexing books is probably a long way off yet, and for the moment the problems of cataloguing edited source material (such as musical records) alongside books, using the same standard scheme for both, are enormous. Ethnographic acoustic material, which in part calls for completely different classification criteria, is likely to resist any binding form of standardization for a long time to come. Of course, as far as the user is concerned, the most convenient form of access to information is likely to remain the computer. Computers, however, only really serve any purpose if they are to be used for dealing with a massive complex of subject matter and if rapid information retrieval is genuinely necessary, in which circumstances utility and expense are balanced against each other.