The State Library has several collections of recorded sound which are predominantly held on obsolete, time-based, magnetic media, you know…. tapes.
Tapes can be great and many people “dig that analog sound, man” but the reality is that they are becoming obsolete in a digital age. Even if the tape is in good condition, and trust me, many are not, the equipment to replay tapes to an appropriate standard is disappearing, along with the skills and knowledge to make the most of what’s left.
For example, no-one manufactures 'professional grade' cassette decks any more. The challenge of digitisation is a race against the clock as highlighted in a recent report by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, 'Deadline 2025: collections at risk'.
Until a couple of years ago, the Library had very limited capability in this area with a scattering of cassette decks and hand-held micro-cassette recorders around the buildings that were used to provide on-site playback for librarians and researchers accessing the tapes.
Over the last few years, the Library has increased its focus on the transfer of audio content held on Compact Cassette, ¼” Open Reel Tape, Digital Audio Tape and Micro-cassette to a point where we can now say we have copied 90% of our currently known holdings of these formats to digital files. That’s 11,500 hours worth of audio files or 1.3 years of continuous listening.
The Library forms partnerships with specialists in the industry to undertake the digital transfer but still require the in-house expertise in cataloguing, repair, physical preparation, insurance, shipping, tracking, contract management... you get the idea.
From an audio perspective, the main challenge is ensuring that we are getting quality work. When we copy tapes, or have tapes copied, we do so for a variety of reasons that all point to one basic premise, to ensure the viability of the content held on the tapes in perpetuity. In order to do that, we apply preservation principles that the resulting sound files must be a true, complete and accurate representation that is suitable for all reasonable purposes of the original. We document what that means through technical specifications and requirements which communicate our expectations to those doing the copying and provide us with the measures which we assess their work against. These standards reflect a very high quality but need to be realistic. Expecting a studio to have a gold standard micro-cassette player in this day and age is like expecting the zoo to have a dinosaur.
To support the quality assurance and in-house capability to meet ad-hoc client demands, the Library has pooled its existing audio resources and filled some gaps, including engaging a full time specialist (me). We now have quite a high standard audio set-up to support quality assurance and is capable of transferring from compact cassette, micro-cassette, ¼” open reel and DAT. We have a variety of audio software for tasks such as automated quality assessment, extracting and merging of metadata, creation of derivative files (e.g. MP3 copies) and validated file movements. We also have high quality audio editing, restoration, signal processing and analysis software to support the Library's programs.
These days, the majority of our newly commissioned or acquired recorded sound collections are ‘born digital’ which come with their own sets of challenges and opportunities. For starters, there are sooo many different file formats, it’s ridiculous. We are developing innovative policies, processes and platforms to manage and share these rich cultural resources in the digital environment. Audio and moving image has a big role to play at the Library and you’ll be seeing more and more of it over the coming years.
- Written by Damien Cassidy, State Library NSW
Damien Cassidy joined the State Library of NSW as a Digital Media Technical Analyst in March 2015 to provide expertise to the Library’s oral history digitisation projects. He brings over two decades experience in audio-visual archives and libraries including the National Film & Sound Archive, The National Archives of Australia and ABC Radio Archives along with stints in commercial studios and as a musician. Some say he has too many guitars but he’d say he doesn’t have enough.