This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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The Radio Preservation Task Force: A Review
by Martin Grams, Jr. © 2016
(From Radio Recall, June, 2016)
Something of a milestone occurred on the weekend of February 26 and 27, 2016. A national conference with one agenda: to gather together some of the most important and influential people involved with radio preservation and discuss the direction of archival holdings. The Radio Preservation Task Force was created early in 2014 and grew out of the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan (December 2012). According to the RPTF, and I am quoting them verbatim, the organization seeks to (1) support collaboration between faculty researchers and archivists toward the preservation of radio history, (2) develop an online inventory of extant American radio archival collections, focusing on recorded sound holdings, including research aids, (3) identify and save endangered collections, (4) develop pedagogical guides for utilizing radio and sound archives, and (5) act as a clearing house to encourage and expand academic study on the cultural history of radio through the location of grants, the creation of research caucuses, and development of metadata on extant materials. (To emphasize the importance: C-Span and CBS Sunday Morning covered the event.)
The conference was held on at the Library of Congress and at the University of MD, and was open to the public. There was an estimated 200 to 250 people in attendance the this was a virtual who's who among the field. While sitting in the audience I discovered I was rubbing elbows with museum curators, archivists at university libraries, and well ... the most influential people in the country who are involved with the management of audio preservation at vast archives.
They say the first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that there is one. For both librarians and museum curators, handicapped with red tape, legal concerns, lack of necessary equipment, staffing issues and budgetary limitations, the two day-conference gave those individuals an opportunity to address those concerns and - with sincere intentions - explore potential solutions. The event could best be described as a "meeting of the minds."
Among the 20 individual panels were such topics as "Radio Preservation: The State of the Nation," "Surprising Archives/Archival Surprises," "Material Practices in Archives," "Metadata and Digital Archiving," among the others. (For future reference, metadata is data that describes other data, an underlying definition or description, which summarizes basic information about data. In other words, a recording of a radio broadcast is data, the title of the program and broadcast date which is used to name that file is metadata.)
Because multiple panels were held at the same time, no one person could possibly attend them all. Friends of mine worked out a scheme whereupon we would each attend a different panel and collaborate notes and exchange recordings made on our iPhones. While these panels were diverse in subject matter, with each of the panelists representing a different library/ organization, the best of them were those that essentially involved (1) a brief five-to-ten-minute summary or slide show sample of an archive housed at said library by each of the panelists and (2) a question posed by each panelist that would aid them in their research with the hopes that the "minds" in the room could propose solutions. This would be the equivalent of detectives from various metropolitans getting together, each briefly explaining a crime they have been unable to solve, and hoping another detective in the room could suggest a solution.
Of the panels I attended, one librarian posed a question about intra-archival discovery. While researching Subject A for his project, he came across another collection in the same archive that contained what might be valuable information for another historian. But how does how does he make it known that Subject B is available for another researcher?
Another question posed at a panel: "How do we bring attention that our facility would gladly accept collections for preservation?" One challenging question plaguing researchers: "If there are virtually little or no recordings in existence, should radio scripts be taken as the gospel? And if both exist, which is more reliable?"
One concern addressed was the subject of sensitive materials. A historian discovered that a specific producer of radio programs in the 1940s was deeply involved in homosexual relations. Would there be legal ramifications if she disclosed this in her published findings? Would the family of that radio producer approve? How exactly do you define the moral ground when history is history and facts are facts? Publish or not to publish, that was the question.
One librarian questioned whether it was essential to transfer thousands of hours of Arthur Godfrey radio broadcasts, or would it be better to transfer one for each calendar month to best represent the progress of his radio delivery over the years. The library does not have the time or staff to transfer all of them. Some joked that there was no necessity; after all, this is Arthur Godfrey we are talking about. But wouldn't recordings of Grandma Jones, a local radio host in Chicago, less known to radio historians, be just as important as a national figure? And who is to judge what recordings are more culturally significant than others?
These were among the hundred or so challenges and concerns that librarians hoped solutions have been found at other institutions, so they can return home, report and either influence the powers-that-be to initiate revised policies, or 4 at the very least be motivated to take the first steps in removing the barriers of red tape.
The Definition of a Collector
The fact that librarians and curators were gathered in one place to discuss and address their concerns, shared by mutual interest, is a public confession that the preservation, access and education of radio broadcasts of our past is endangered. For the most part, all of the libraries represented are suffering from the same problems. For most, the transfer of recordings needs to be done in-house and cannot be staffed by external volunteers - only interns. The reason for this is not just library policy but libraries have to maintain integrity and out-sourcing removes complete control of where the recordings go after they leave library policy. Most volunteers are sincere but the hidden motives of a few tarnished mutual understanding.
If I may add commentary here: If policies are preventing or handicapping preservation methods, then policies need to be revised. Almost everyone was in agreement of what needs to be done, only questioning the methods by which it can be done. But archivists are hired and contracted staff, not policy or lawmakers. No policy is constructive or advantageous if that very policy is the center of the problem. A few librarians confessed that they found ways to break past the barriers by establishing exceptions to library policy and most of those acknowledged their solutions applied the adage: "the ends justifies the means." No policy is carved so deep in granite that an exception cannot be made.
By the end of the two-day conference, a number of concerns were uniformly accepted by all. Oral recorded history entertains the collector but for historians, while they fill in gaps, interviews and recollections are still suspect and unreliable. Also concluded was that every institution believes they are under-staffed and not well-funded. And these were decided unanimously, and are now considered uniformly standard.
It was generally agreed that scholars and historians are needed for preservation and libraries should collaborate with historians and scholars. (Most libraries do, by the way. I am merely pointing out what was uniformly accepted and approved.) One woman, working on a biography about Jack Benny, having never written a book before, now questions the motives of half the collectors she talked to and the reliability and accuracy of information provided to her by collectors…and this she picked up from experience. She admitted that the Internet led her down the wrong road too many times, found hundreds of errors on multiple web sites, and the only true accuracy and major discoveries originate from archives across the country.
Established more than once was the fact that research of old-time radio contributes as a genealogical resource. This includes someone seeking the exact date of broadcast when her grandmother was a contestant on a radio quiz program in the forties, or someone seeking the extant audio of their father who was a guest on radio interview program such as Vox Pop.
At the close of the two-day seminar a number of questions remained unanswered. For some of these concerns, technological or theoretical, there is no black and white; only grey. Transferring recordings from archival masters offers archivists the opportunity to improve the sound quality better than the medium used throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But is that an alteration or a restoration, and is that a good thing? If an archive has more recordings than they have both expense and staff at their disposal, what is considered historically and culturally important, and who determines which recordings to salvage first? Are local voices just as important as national voices?
There were six different archivists over the weekend providing brief ten-minute slide shows about subjects they were presently working on. Each of them were seeking sources of information and leads to further their investigations. None of them were aware of the first four essentials all researchers of old-time radio use as a starting point when beginning any project. This came as a surprise when I began observing this until a colleague, over dinner that evening, who also devotes 40 plus hours a week researching old-time radio, clarified what I had difficulty describing myself. His observation: "Archivists are not researchers." This is not to downgrade archivists in any way…remember, they were there to ask for leads and take notes. But I wish those who research old-time radio for a living (literally) that were in the audience had more of an opportunity to provide the leads instead of being cut short by the panelists - everyone else in the room could have learned something new to go home with and benefited greatly from those time slots.
Historians and researchers during the weekend clarified the difference between a web search and an archival search, local newspapers vs. trade papers, and recording ownership vs. rights ownership. It was mentioned by one panelist that the average public citizen finds themselves with little access to scholarly resources. Sadly, he was mistaken. What services are provided today by local libraries is not only staggering but beyond anyone's expectations if they know what specifically to ask for.
Also clarified was the undisputed agreement that the Internet should never be used as reference, but rather as a tool for reference. No serious scholar, researcher or historian uses Wikipedia as an encyclopedia, but they will explore the links at the bottom to learn the whereabouts of archives, gather contact information and discover titles of published reference works they did not know existed. The Internet both compliments and challenges the scholar/historian. The Internet has added confusion and spread myths. This was agreed unanimously.
One concept revisited during the weekend included the "Black Hole Factor," where libraries (thankfully only a few of them) sit on vast collections for a lengthy period of time and do practically nothing but debate when and how they are going process the collection. One solution proposed by a library that boasts a successful track record was "a ten-year window policy" from the date of donation to the completion of archival and cataloging. It would seem private individuals who hoard collections follow this advice.
For the most part everyone spoke with respect and proactively throughout the weekend. Though collectors in the hobby were practically non-existent, this may have been a blessing. The RPTF was neither the time or place to gripe about "hoarders" or brag about the size of their - ahem, collections. There were no egos here. Challenges and concerns were explained both clear and concise, and suggested resolutions were proposed from both experience and from a "meeting of the minds."
I can name two other examples that occurred in the past two years where, everyone agreed a digitization process was essential for preservation, and volunteers donated both time and money to accomplish the task that decades old policies and red tape prevented. From experience, obstacles are overcome when exceptions are made and volunteers - and outsourcing - is embraced with open arms. And what better public relations could an institution ask for than a national magazine reports how decision makers formulated a plan to temporarily cut red tape and allow private donations and volunteers do the job that everyone agrees, "the ends justifies the means." Would this not be inspirational, trend-setting and set precedence for others to follow their lead?
If anything was accomplished through the seminar that weekend it was the general acceptance and acknowledgement that libraries housing archives need to do better. And they want to do better. And these archivists acknowledge the challenges they need to overcome to find immediate solutions. No one was pointing fingers; no one was blame-shifting. There was a positive outlook throughout the entire weekend. Challenges were defined: digitizing, inventory records, costs and funding, targeting and inclusion, metadata, and the suggestion of establishing intern programs to resolve staffing issues. And everyone was taking notes on notepads, iPads and laptops throughout the weekend, hoping to return with possible solutions to such challenges. But I guess the only way to judge whether the weekend was truly a success is whether progress reports are delivered at next year's conference.