The British Library Sound Archive on preserving the past, archiving the future

The British Library Sound Archive on preserving the past, archiving the future

The British Library is one of the largest sound archives in the world, and to draw attention to the issues around archiving it organised “Keeping Tracks” a one day conference to discuss the issues currently facing the space.

Andy Linehan, Curator of the Popular Music collection at the British Library introduced the day talking - appropriately - about numbers. The British Library’s sound collection is huge with over 250k LPs, 250k CDs and hundreds of thousands of singles and is always looking to acquire more, in fact Linehan mentioned that that anyone in the room from labels that were interested in donating should get in touch.

Linehan said: "We’ve had to adapt our methods and practices over the years to cope in the changes in the consumption of music. We’ve seen many formats come and go over the years and the advent of the digital era meant that the british library has made a firm commitment to digitise the collection.” […] "We’ve been collecting a labelling physical items for years, but now we are collecting digital files from various sources with a varying amount of metadata."

Adam Tovell, who manages the preservation process for the sound collections at British Library took to the stage next. He stated: “What defines our digital age is the way we interact with recorded media. There’s a distinct separation of physical media with digital content and this separation makes us reconsider the purpose and fragility of physical media. In light of today’s technology we are forced to question how long our physical collections will last and how long we’ll be able to go on providing access to them. Secondly it makes us realise the benefits of the new digital era which enables instant access, but that most importantly allows us to preserve our heritage. What can we do to prevent its loss?"

This process has been ongoing for many decades at the British Library as formats have come and gone, and they have always strived to migrate the catalogue to more stable, reliable formats. Tovell commented: "While we’ve been very diligent with out work it is by no means complete. We have digitised between two and three percent of the british library sound collection."

But there’s hope yet for a more extensive digitisation of assets: "Today the technologies that support audio preservation are such that audio preservation can be done more cheaply, efficiently and at a better quality than ever before."

The library is at the end of a 12 months scoping study looking at its approach to audio-visual preservation. The outcome will be a series of recommendation to ensure the best preservation of the British Library’s assets in the next 15 years. Tovell pointed out that there is a consensus internationally that we have 15 years to migrate our sound collections on physical formats to stable digital files. After that time the migration may become either impossible or too expensive. Going back to the numbers, he elaborated that British Library’s sound archives contain 5 million unique sound recordings, 1.7 million different physical carriers across more than 40 formats.

Tovell then illustrated to the audience the drivers behind the preservation of the collection: "First of all physical degradation, for example acetate disks/lacquer disks are composed of a substrate of metal coated in a thin layer of lacquer which is prone to shrinking over time, while the metal substrate isn’t. So over time the lacquer will shrink and flake and we’ll eventually lose the recording. This is a prime example of the fragility of physical formats. Because of their fragility they are considered a high priority for preservation.
The second factor we’re looking at is technical obsolescence. Even CD-Rs are a format that is becoming threatened by obsolescence. Sales of optical media are declining and with that decline in sales comes a decline in the availability of compatible hardware. The obsolescence of a format leads to the inaccessibility of the content and that leads to a loss. Of course physical degradation and obsolescence are not mutually exclusive factors so we have to balance the impact of both for each format."

So here's the Library's 6-step plan to preserve sound recordings: 
1) Select : if they have 2 identical copies do they both need to be preserved? What if there are 2 copies on different formats?
2) Describe: ensuring the physical carrier is adequately described. Metadata enables the library to catalogue the item but also for the public to access the catalogue digitally.
3) Migrate: transferring the physical media to digital in the best possible way. The British Library has 10 transfer studios which are kept busy full time digitising sound recordings.
4) Describe: describing how the migration process happened, adding detailed detailed metadata about the provenance of the digital copy.
4) Check: the files and the metadata need to be suitable for preservation, a very important quality check of the transfer and of the data.
5) Ingest: ingestion into a suitable, trusted digital repository. For the British Library that’s the DLS digital library system. It’s in London but it’s mirrored in three other locations in case of a catastrophic loss.
6) Store: for future generation. Preservation doesn’t have an end point and the library needs to make sure that the digital files remain “healthy" and accessible, as well as be prepared to migrate them as and when necessary.

Faced with a question for the public on whether the Library is on track to digitise all its assets in 15 years, Tovell replied that at the current rate it will take them 48 years to digitise everything and that the study is looking at how they could accelerate that process - which would inevitably require more funding.

Next on stage was Alex Wilson, digital music curator at the British Library who is particularly concerned with the collection of new assets and digital files. Wilson was also the main driver behind the “Keeping Tracks” event.

He talked about the "Digital Sound in Music" project, set up with funds made available to help develop the British Library’s transition to acquiring digital material. Currently, physical and digital UK sound recordings are collected under voluntary arrangements because legal deposit doesn’t cover recordings. This needs content attention chasing exhausting suppliers and identifying new ones, it also currently lacks the necessary technical infrastructure to engage with labels and partners.

And so enter Metable@BL - a project set up in partnership with Metadata back-bone company Metable - providing a bespoke interface between the rights holders and the British Library. It will take deliveries via FTP from specified partners. Suppliers will where possible submit in DDEX standard and Metable@BL will provide an interface for the British Library curators to check and edit the assets, convert file types and create deliverable formats to ingest into the systems, augmenting the metadata with integration of third party APIs like those provided by MusicBrainz and Decibel.

Wilson was very aware that for this to work the library needs to build relationships with the industry.

In the Pop category for example the British Library has already partnered with the Beggars group, its assets will be delivered through digital provider CI then normalised by the Metable@BL software: finally the data will be exported to the Sound Archive Catalogue. Wilson stated that they are negotiating with a number of independent labels for this initial pilot scheme. When asked about the lack of major label support, Wilson stated that they are currently not cooperating with the library - aside form Universal that provides a constant feed of physical CDs to be archived - and so they decided to start building support form the independent sector.

Another interesting scope for the British Library and this “Digital Sound in Music” project is to find ways to work with services like Band Camp, SoundCloud and free MP3 blogs as well as connecting with other digital services.

The Library now plans to develop Metable to a fully functional platform whilst continuing to encourage labels to interact with the sound archive. It will also continue engaging with tech and metadata partners and explore the potential of connection on high level DCMS-backed schemes like the BBC, BFI and academia.

Overall, it sounds like the British Library’s sound archive has a tough road ahead and is in a race against time. On the one side it is battling the past, wrestling to get enough funds to be able to preserve and digitise the physical assets is already owns. On the other side it needs to fight to remain relevant and truly be the repository of reference, this can only be done by partnering with labels and services that can provide the library with the very latest sound output. Given the increased musical output worldwide this is going to be a very steep hill to climb, but hopefully occasions like “Keeping Tracks” will raise awareness of the issues that need to be tackled both from a music industry perspective and at government level, warranting better funding for the institution’s work.

(Andrea Leonelli)