Wednesday, June 3, 2015

the crumbling analogue archive

Quietus piece by Robert Barry on an impending crisis for the archiving of sound with "much of the recorded recent history of humanity currently disintegrating"

"The British Library Sound Archive, housed on the ground floor of the annex to the Library's main building on Euston Road, London, is like a museum of dead media. The corridors are clogged up with Soundmirror tape machines from the late 1940s and military-grade wire-recorders from even earlier. Cupboards are crammed with dat players and ADAT machines. "The difference between us, in sound, and the guys in books and manuscripts, is that we have always required technology to access the content," Will Prentice, the Library's head of technical services in sound and vision, told me. "We've always needed a machine." Therein lies the problem. The machines keep dying.

"The Archive holds over a million-and-a-half discs and tapes containing some seven million recordings. That's about a hundred years of continuous listening, day and night. Even with their five engineers and support staff, with studios containing multiple machines running simultaneously, Prentice estimates it would take another 48 years to digitise the whole collection.

"Unfortunately they don't have 48 years. Their best guess is maybe 15."

"About five years ago Prentice was in Holland where he heard the head of Vienna's Phonogrammarchiv, the oldest sound archive in the world, mention casually, "we've got about 20 years in which to digitise all this stuff. After that, the equipment will be gone. It will have degraded." Alarm bells started going off in Prentice's head at that point. When he got home he initiated a year-long study to work out the size of the holdings at the British Library. That led in turn to the current 15-year plan."

"You can still buy a turntable," Prentice explains. "You can still buy styli for them. You can still buy circuit diagrams to repair them. Should you need a manual to tell you how to use them, that's all present and correct. For quarter-inch tape machines – or even cassette machines – that's not the case. 
You cannot buy a professional quarter-inch tape machine. There's sort of one cassette machine that's kind of professional available. That's it. Nobody's making the heads to replace them, really. There's one guy, near retirement, in Belgium, making quarter-inch tape heads. Possibly someone in the States. But that's really it."

"It's a finite system. The expertise required is dwindling. When people retire, you can never really pass on the completeness of what they know and the younger generation will never get their hands dirty with analogue media in the same way that the old guys did, because there just isn't the ecosystem around anymore."

They are betting the house on digital permanence:

"Eternity is now guaranteed by saving everything on Wav, a file format so basic, Prentice tells me, that you could print it out and read it off the page. They keep four back-up copies of each file: one on the library's servers in London, one in Edinburgh, one in Yorkshire, and one in Wales (presumably this is just in case someone decides to bomb London or wave a massive magnet over Scotland). Automatic systems are constantly checking for the tiniest fault in any one of these copies and if one is detected it is immediately back-up from the other three. "

Stop Press: must be something in the air making folks fretful about this issue - for here's another piece this very week on the digital archiving of sound, from Ann Powers at NPR - "Who Will Make Sure The Internet's Vast Musical Archive Doesn't Disappear?".

Much of the piece concerns the disorderly, unreliable nature of the internet's archives - un-annotated, full of redundancy, variable quality, incomplete ...  liable to vanish any minute

- what I call the anarchive -

... and the challenges this presents the music scholar

"A complex ecosystem is evolving that links the National Jukebox of the Library of Congress with clearly commercial services like Spotify and fan community-compiled sites like Each fills in the gaps of the other. "Official" archives — those within public libraries, museums, or universities — are better organized, but have been slow to digitize. Spotify has complete albums, but no commentary. YouTube seems to have everything, but because anyone can contribute to it, it can't be trusted as a source. What is a scholar — or a regular enthusiast, trying to learn how certain music styles or cultures really evolved — to do? It's a far cry from the experience of entering a physical library, where the rules of cataloging and the guiding hands of archivists determine one's experience."


  1. Don't these guys realise that digital media is even more ephemeral than the analogue equivalent?

    In 50 years' time there won't be any old guys around who know how to make integrated circuits, because they are impersonally built by machines in the first place.

    All machine-based and electronic media is inherently impermanent. The fact is that no cultural artifacts dependent on machines or electronics are going to survive over even the medium term, let alone the long term.

    Our only hope is extremely faithful tribute bands.

  2. I actually intended to post a link and some quotes from another quite recent piece saying exactly that - that everything being digitized was a disaster waiting to happen, that we should go back to books and paper hard copies of everything - but the author and location eluded me.

    Perhaps the equivalent of tribute bands are those bibliophiles in Fahrenheit 451 who commit an entire book to memory and henceforth are not known as Derek or Susan but as Dombey & Son or The Mayor of Casterbridge.

  3. Ah, it's come to me - this fellow Bret Victor who wrote this riff titled The Web of Alexandria -!/TheWebOfAlexandria

    playing obviously on what happened to the Library of Alexandria

    the gist of his argument - with books there are numerous copies existing in the world, geographically dispersed, increasing the odds that one or more will survive any given calamity

    but with the internet and digital databases:

    "when we summon a volume, we are granted a transient and ephemeral peek at its sole instance, out there somewhere in the world, typically secured within a large institution"

    his closing peroration:

    "We, as a species, are currently putting together a universal repository of knowledge and ideas, unprecedented in scope and scale. Which information-handling technology should we model it on? The one that's worked for 4 billion years and is responsible for our existence? Or the one that's led to the greatest intellectual tragedies in history?"

  4. of course, digital, paper, stone tablets .... it's all ephemeral in the long run, the cosmic run

  5. Our experiences are being imprinted on the cosmic ether as they occur. When we eventually sublime beyond the physical realm, we'll be able to sample them at will.
    So your C90s and Mp3s of those old Stranglers bootlegs are safe after all.

  6. The only thing I'm really worried about is the early 90s pirate tapes

  7. Great article and comments. I have a Soundcloud page which focuses on 90s rave/jungle dj sets, and my profile encourages listeners to download, not just stream the dj sets... in the hope that when I disappear from Soundcloud as I inevitably will, at least the music resides on someone's hard drive for possible future reuploading. I have developed a real phobia of depending on streaming / cloud services for music and video, often using services like offliberty. But it's just a personal peace of mind thing, partly due to my vintage, and doesn't solve the problem detailed here, which I first encountered 15 years ago and seems to have worsened exponentially

    1. where i can find your Soundcloud page, Daze? sounds like a service to raverkind.

      been putting up pirate radio bits on YouTube myself ... got a backlog of tapes that have been digitized but waiting to be turned into clumsily illustrated Windows Movie Maker slideshows...