Our archivist, Dr. Craig Fees, has been invited to be the guest host for the Archives and Records Association's #ArchiveHour on Twitter on August 30th (2018). He will be online from 8 to 9 pm - posing questions, responding to questions, and taking part (or just standing back in awe at the technology) in the conversation that develops. The #ArchiveHour is a Twitter-based conversation that takes place on the last Thursday of each month from 8-9 pm, with a new theme each time, hosted by one of nine ARA nations/regions/sections and a guest host. It engages archivists and archive enthusiasts from around the globe. Craig will be tweeting on the PETT's Twitter handle @pettconnect.
This edition of #ArchiveHour is hosted by the ARA's Film Sound and Photography Group (@ARAFSPG).
The theme is:
4. Sound, Video, Film, Photography
"As an archivist, and especially as an archivist creating an archive from scratch, you bring your loves to the party"
I love sound. As a child in mid-60s California I had the adventure of cycling into town, entering the Aladdin's den of a pawn shop, and coming away with a reel to reel second hand tape recorder balanced on the handlebars. The terminus ante quem was 1967, when I recorded the amazing Abba Eban's speeches to the UN from the radio during the Six Day War. As for post quem, it was post-assassination of JFK, and I had to be old enough to credibly go into a pawn shop with enough pocket money, so probably 1966 at the latest; or early teenage anyway. And then in college learning to edit and splice, and to run sound as a theatre major.
As an archivist, and especially as an archivist creating an archive from scratch, you bring your loves to the party. So, having set up the PETT Archive and Study Centre, sound has been there from the beginning. As has oral history, continuing on from my PhD work in the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies at the University of Leeds.
Photography was built into the fabric of the Archive, quite literally: When we adapted the current building to become the core of the permanent home for the Archive in 1996-97, we turned an existing bathroom into a dark room. My sister-in-law gave us her old enlarger, carefully brought over from America in luggage. I built a lightbox, and scored a professional copy-stand from the manufacturer at a price so low I had to promise not to tell anyone - they had made a mistake in labelling. We bought close-up lenses and a tripod which opened up fully on one side to enable copying of photographs in the field, copy camera at one end and dummy camera as a counter-weight on the other. To ensure best results we took the exposed reels of film to a specialist photographic studio in Cheltenham which did high precision work, and did not charge us the earth to process it. Life was good.
By the time the Archive came along film was an obsolete medium from a recording point of view, but we were acquiring 8mm, Super8 and 16mm films as part of conventional personal and institutional collections, as well as their owners' projectors and editors. As per the advice in David Lee's "Basic Technical Equipment" on the Archives and Records Association Film Sound and Photography Group resources page, we also tried to make sure we had basic film-winding and passive viewing equipment, so all in all a small museum began to accrue - and the equipment itself actually remained largely unused: Although we have some phenomenal films, and have managed to have some professionally digitised, if starting again I would think carefully about holding film. In a complex collection, films are among the most complex elements.
Video is a slightly different matter, if only because of its use and value as a recording medium in the early years of the Archive. The Archive aims to collect a comprehensive, in-depth and granular record of the people, places, and organisations which have practiced, promoted, and been involved in our area of collection - planned environment therapy, therapeutic community, progressive/ alternative/ democratic education, and cognate therapeutic environments and group settings. As an ethnographic archive, and as with oral history, actively videoing events and individuals and finding ways of disseminating the recording has very much been a part of the Archive's activity. We skipped BetaMax but have moved through VHS, SuperVHS, 8mm, and MiniDV - all cassette-based formats - to born-digital; recording events, creating research resources and sources for digital stories, generating an element of income, and engaging directly with the communities we serve. Oral history and video-history are community-building and Archive-engaging, and for us an important core activity. At the same time, keeping up with the changes in technology not only adds to the accruing museum of obsolete equipment, but is an ongoing challenge to a charity archive budget.
How to meet that challenge? Equipment can be expensive, and as early as 1994 I made a personal investment in an international VHS video player, a highspec machine which could read and therefore translate into and out of the many international VHS video formats - NTSC, PAL-N, PAL-M, SECAM-L, SECAM B/G. Teaming it with a conventional UK PAL video player/recorder donated to the Archive we could make viewing and back-up copies of whatever format, and could translate, for example, a born-PAL video into NTSC and send it to North America. Teamed later with a computer it made digitisation possible. This doesn't account for the other formats we hold, including Umatic; which become at least as complex and problematic a subject as film.
VHS and Audiocassettes are Special.
But VHS video shares with audiocassettes the fact that for a surprisingly long time they were ubiquitous, and virtually throw-away - and they are re-usable. A donor's collection might have dozens or hundreds; and none of them can be taken for granted. Even a commercial recording can have an impromptu interruption for a nursery rhyme by one of the donor's children, or have been re-used in part or entirely for a discussion or lecture. Videotapes in particular can harbour multiple layers of use, partially written over one another. A 120 minute VHS video (or god forbid 240) can be trebled if recorded in Extended Play, and has to be viewed or at least sampled all the way through to be catalogued. And even an audiocassette which appears to be blank for 2/3 of side B can spring into life at the end. The tapes themselves come in grades from cheap and nasty to professional quality; and people often re-used, from the cheap end, special issue short audiocassettes - 5, 12, 15 minute presentation/advertisements stuck to magazines, or distributed by sales people. Not to mention mini-cassettes and micro-cassettes (or DAT, or minidisc, or ...). It is a time-devouring mine-field.
But fascinating, and enriching for a charity archive.
Some of the gems from the collections
1. Four eras of dictation machine.
Top: From the Richard Balbernie Collection.
2. Charity archive economics: A hand-made lightbox, c. 1990
3. Tapes and Labels
|Recording of Maxwell Jones, from the Dennie Briggs Collection|| Box for another recording of Maxwell Jones, also from the Dennie Briggs Collection.
Detail of the annotation on the box is given below.
"Max gets angry".
Tape boxes and labels are often archival documents in their own right, giving information additional to that on the recording. A box from the Elly Jansen Collection, for example, says "COMMENT: PLAY TO STAFF OF R. FELLOWSHIP". Another, from the Cassel Collection (below), needs some interpretation, but tells us something about where the tape was recorded.
Apart from the main annotation, the Maxwell Jones box to the right tells us that the tape was recorded in mono at 3 3/4 ips, that it was transcribed on August 6, 1983 (possibly giving an indication of the date of the recording), and was copied to two audiocassettes - indicating, not least, awareness of the value of the recording, and good practice from a preservation/listening copy point of view, none of which would be evident from the tape alone.
Viewing and editing
|Rank Elektra Super8 film editor||
Agfa Family P 8mm film Viewer
Bell and Howell 16mm
5. "old, old sony": An example of a re-used tape, with sound
A fascinatingly layered object: Cellotape has been stuck over the safety tabs to allow an earlier recording to be recorded over. The typed "Social Innovation Meetings" label has then been placed over that cellotape as well as an earlier label, suggesting that there have been at least three layers of recording in the history of the audiocassette.
In the snippet of the recording given below (click on the "play" icon in the black slab), which is taken from about 40 minutes into Side A, the final session of the Social Innovation meeting (listen for the simultaneous translation in the background) gives way to an earlier, probably off-air recording of an interview with scientist Karl Pribram, which continues on Side B for a full 45 minutes. The typed label on Side B says "blank". (!)
There is no evidence of Brendan Behan's "Borstal Boy".
The silence between the end of conference recording and the interview is a full 12 seconds.