Listening facilities

If a sound archive can accomplish nothing else, it must provide access to its holdings for individual researchers through some type of listening facility. Normally this will involve establishing a research room or area dedicated to user access and consultation. The research room usually is a supervised area where archive visitors are registered, use finding aids, consult with sound archive staff about holdings and listen to copies of recordings at carrels or tables equipped with playback equipment and headphones. It is often helpful to have listening room procedures and policies spelled out on a standard form to be read and signed by visitors. Written procedures and guidelines for the research room are also valuable in providing guidance and on-the-job training for the sound archive staff. This saves their time and speeds their response to inquiries. It may also be necessary to require listening appointments in advance and to limit the quantity of recordings requested in a single day by anyone researcher. The guideline here should be to provide a reference service on a daily basis limited only by the number of playback units or by the trained staff available to handle the requests. A balance between providing staff time for other archival functions, such as cataloguing, description and arrangement, should be strived for but reference service should have the highest priority, second only to the preservation of the collection.

It is important to recognize that setting up a listening facility will necessitate that the sound archive establishes an access policy that coincides with and will not compromise its preservation policies. Ideally, therefore, original sound recordings must not be handled or played by or for researchers. Proper preservation of archival sound recordings must take precedence over the needs of research. This policy may in some instances delay immediate user access to recordings but playing an original recording, such as a fragile unique disc, for one individual could destroy or damage the item forever.1

Several procedures are available and in use at various sound archives which will allow free access to researchers for listening purposes but still provide for the preservation of the original archival recordings. For most sound archives~ this requires that a listening or study copy of original recordings be prepared. Ideally the listening copy should be generated at the same time as the original recording is duplicated and a preservation tape is made. (Some sound archives now prepare the listening copy on inexpensive audio cassettes which are convenient for researcher use and take up little storage space.) Where listening copies do not exist then gradually, over a period of time and based upon preservation needs and researcher requests, a collection of original recordings can be duplicated both for preservation and research use.

For other sound archives, a less than ideal compromise is reached by original recordings being played for the researcher by sound archives staff. This is accomplished by having listening points separate from playback equipment. Researchers request recordings and listen through earphones while playback is controlled in another area by archive staff.

The ideal reference situation and the recommended procedure is to allow the user to listen to a tape copy of original recordings and control the tape playback equipment. In this way, researchers in using the equipment itself or by using remote control capabilities available on virtually all semi-professional and professional tape decks, can determine exactly which segment of the recording they wish to hear. The researcher can stop, reverse, repeat, and in general is able to work through recordings. There are many obvious advantages for a sound archive to adopt this method of providing access. Not only does it benefit the user and save archive staff time, but it preserves the original which is not subjected to repeated playings and possible abuse through handling by researchers or staff. Providing listening copies also prevents theft and allows for maximum security of the archival recordings, which should be stored in a different location from the listening facility.

Regarding the type of listening and playback equipment to be used, the basic guideline is that the research equipment be durable, reliable and able to reproduce recordings faithfully. Compromises on the quality of playback equipment used in a listening facility may be necessary. However, a sound archive should not concentrate all of its financial resources and technical staff on recording or copying original material on professional equipment and producing high-quality listening copies, then to discover it can only provide its researchers with inferior grade, poorly maintained playback equipment and headphones.

Such poor planning and disregard for the archive users actually does a disservice to the recordings being preserved which cannot then be heard as they were meant to be.

  1. The only time access to and actual handling of original recordings may be allowed, and then only under supervision, is for the researcher who is studying the physical object and its composition, or who needs to examine the different types of recordings for identification and authentication.