Music Matters: Preserving Music History

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum Library and Archives is the most comprehensive repository of materials relating to the history of rock and roll. Our mission is to collect, preserve, and provide access to these resources in order to broaden awareness and understanding of the music, its roots, and its impact on our society.

As the archives’ audiovisual archivist, I am responsible for preserving and digitizing analog audio and video materials, creating metadata for digitized video and audio, developing finding aids for and facilitating donations of AV archival collections, and providing reference assistance to researchers both on- and off-site. The focus of the job is the preservation and digitization of analog materials in the collections. Not everything can be digitized at once, so we maintain a priority list. An item’s position on the list is determined by its physical condition as well as the likely demand for it.

The digitizing process

In general, the process for digitizing audio and video files is very similar; we’ll home in here on video, which is the more complex of the two, mainly owing to the size of the files. Analog video materials are turned into digital files through a process commonly referred to as conversion, which is accomplished by running the signal from an analog playback machine into a computer and capturing the signal with video editing software. Once the signal is captured, it can be manipulated and reproduced without the generational loss that happens when copying analog recordings, and the digitized files can be accessed on a computer.

The original analog recording is then stored in a climate-controlled environment that is customized for its format. It is very important to maintain the original recordings under the best conditions possible in case they need to be accessed again to produce a new digital object. The item may need to be digitized again if the archival digital object file is corrupted or if advances in technology render the digital file unplayable or obsolete.

Running the numbers

When we were deciding on the specifications for our archival masters, our goals were to maximize the quality of the files and use a file type that doesn’t require expensive proprietary software to read them, since we couldn’t count on such software and support to be available in the long term, and we didn’t want to risk the files becoming unreadable.

Our preservation-quality video are ten-bit uncompressed QuickTime .mov files. Uncompressed archival master files of high-definition video average 596 ­gigabytes an hour, while uncompressed ­standard definition video averages 100 ­gigabytes an hour. Preserving video files at such large rates demands a great deal of storage space, which is one of the most expensive aspects of digitizing video ­recordings.

For the purpose of access, we also devise a compressed file using H264 compression and save it as an .mp4 file. The size of these access files average 2.25 gigabytes per hour. These compressed files shouldn’t be used for archival masters because the process of compression causes data loss, the digital equivalent of the generational loss that occurs in copying analog videotape.

Once the files have been created, they are uploaded to our digital asset management (DAM) system. Metadata about the asset is added through the interface on the DAM to the specifications laid out by our catalog and metadata librarian, Amanda Raab. Once the files have been tagged as public, the public catalog pulls the video and metadata from the DAM for display, and the files can be viewed in the catalog here within the library and archives. We have not yet made any video available over the Internet, but that may be coming soon, so stay tuned.

Amazing content

My job provides me with the opportunity to hear and see some incredible and historic recordings. You never know what you are going to find on the next tape or reel: video of the last interview with Roy Orbison before his death in 1988, a 16mm home movie taken at Woodstock in 1969 with colors so rich it looks like it was filmed yesterday, or a cassette recording of the Ramones live at CBGB in 1977—all of which have crossed my desk in the last year.

Yet one of the most memorable items for me was part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Oral History Project. This effort generates extensive filmed interviews with performers, songwriters, producers, and record executives who have shaped rock and roll. The content of the oral histories includes issues key to the interviewee’s place in music history. The project kicked off in 2011 with four of the founding fathers of rock and roll: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. To watch this historic footage, containing both candid and touching moments, was quite simply one of the highlights of my career as an archivist.

The best part is that not only do I get to hear and see these amazing recordings, but I am responsible for preserving them for the future. What else can I say, my job rocks!

Dianna Ford is Audiovisual Archivist, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame/Museum Library & Archives, Cleveland