Preserving the Past in the Digital Age Still a HeadacheHistorians in the News
tags: historic preservation, archives, primary sources, digital media
When the greatest archive of the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria, was destroyed, all it’s precious resources disappeared.
That’s certainly the way most people think of the vandalization that ravaged the world-renowned collection in 391 A.D. The truth, however, is more complicated with echoes that reverberate from the days when “data storage” was on papyrus scrolls to the multiterabyte cosmos of the cloud.
See if this sounds familiar. By the time the Alexandria library was set ablaze the institution had been in decline for centuries, victimized by anti-intellectual purges, administrative infighting and resignations, lack of funding, falling membership, and the need for more secure storage space. As a result, by the time the fatal fire was lit, the majority of the Alexandria Library collection had already been dispersed (probably sold off) to other institutions around the Mediterranean.
Technology has not made the problem any easier. Modern digital storage is still expensive and data and audio/video can be lost when older websites are no longer technologically supported, when links become corrupted, when budgets run out, when new technology renders older storage systems obsolete, and much more. Our information and cultural history may not be as secure as we believe it to be.
To understand the issues facing archivists today, I spoke with several experts on the subject: Charles Amirkhanian, long-time producer for Pacifica Radio station KPFA and co-founder (with Jim Newman), in 1993, of the new and experimental music organization Other Minds; Indian music scholar and performer Jody Cormack, archive assistant for the World Music Archives at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut; and Robert Chehoski, manager of the Media Management Archive for Bay Area educational television station KQED and KQED FM.
Their stories, victories, and laments proved amazingly similar as they face the challenge of storing, editing, and cataloging vast collections of recorded material on disintegrating reel-to-reel magnetic audio and video tape, vinyl records, audio cassettes, VHS and Betamax video, and reels and reels of 16 mm film. And even as their efforts to preserve these materials makes progress, the state-of-the-art data storage program they are using today could be out of date in a month. Remember the days when 10K of RAM was considered a wonder? They also face the dilemma of determining what should be saved or lost; how to maintain funding and secure storage while weathering administrative changes.
When I was employed at KQED (from 1969–1974), the station believed it was more cost-effective to reuse tape than store and catalog it. I personally watched reel after reel of 2-inch videotape, filled with culturally significant programs, placed on a massive magnet and erased. Decades of music, dance, opera, art, and cultural criticism programs were consigned to oblivion.
The loyal opposition at the station, the producers, resorted to clandestine midnight raids to rescue their programs. One such mission resulted in the liberation of the master reels for the 1970 music special, An Hour with Pink Floyd (which I co-produced with John Coney). Recently remastered, the show is now part of the archive at the Getty Research Institute Library in Los Angeles. It is also safely stored at KQED, and appears on Pink Floyd’s The Early Years 1968–1972 legacy box-set.
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