Digitization Diary: Speaking of American Art

By Jennifer Snyder
June 9, 2010
Removal notices shown within folders
Yellow copies of removal notices stick up out of the folders in the box. This is an alert to staff that the originals are no longer located here.

Oral histories are a cornerstone of the the collections at the Archives of American Art. Our Oral History Program, which began in 1958, now includes over 2,000 interviews, seventy-nine of which were conducted last year alone! Late in 2009, the Archives received a Save America’s Treasures matching grant to help us continue the preservation and digitization of our entire oral history collection. We are very excited about this major undertaking, in which over 1,000 interviews will be digitized.

The oral history collection is at risk from deterioration, damage, and format obsolescence. The media on which most interviews were conducted are reaching the end of their lifespans. We are seeing degradation of the reel-to-reel audio tapes, some of which have vinegar syndrome or mold. Even some of the MiniDiscs we recorded a few years ago are unable to be played.

Audio reel and removal notice packed up for shipment
The Lawrence Kupferman interview reel is prepared for shipment. The reel and the white copy of the removal notice are placed into an archival folder.
Back of interview reel box


The back of the Kupferman interview reel box. This information will be captured through scanning upon its return to the Archives after digitization.

Digitization is key to preserving sound media, and the Archives has used the recommendations from Sound Directions at the University of Indiana and Harvard University for sound file quality specifications, and the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative for metadata specifications.

This is a great jumping off point for me to show the process for how I prepare a typical oral history tape for digitization. We are using an outside vendor, Safe Sound Archive in Philadelphia, PA, for the digitization of our materials.

My first step is to complete a removal notice for the original material. This notice tells someone that the item they are looking for has been removed from the storage box, the reason why, and lets them know where they can now find it. Two copies of the removal notice are made: a yellow copy replaces the interview tape(s) in the storage box; a white copy stays with the original item when it is sent to the vendor, is returned to us, and is sent to offsite storage.

Step two is to place the reel(s) and removal notices into an archival folder for the remainder of its journey. The folder is labeled with the name of the interviewee(s), the date(s) of the interview, and the number of original pieces found in in the folder.

It is fairly common for the reel boxes to have important information written on them, as seen with the Kupferman interview pictured here. When the reel is returned to us, the box will be scanned, preserving this information for whoever may need it.

The third step is to pack the materials carefully in boxes to ship for digitization.

In addition to the tapes, the vendor receives a spreadsheet that lists the interviews included in the shipment, along with lots of metadata (data about data) for the sound engineers. But this process, and more information about the captured metadata and returned sound files, I will have to save for another post!

Jennifer Snyder works with oral history interviews at the Archives American Art. When she is not sending interviews out for digitization, she is writing about extraordinary examples of facial hair for this blog. All photos in this post by Jennifer Snyder, 2010.





Digitization is most definitely the key to preserving media. I like the idea of digitizing it not only in the form of digital audio, but also digital photos or scans, by physically scanning the original items and packing, etc, as mentioned. Digital audio and facial hair, lol, what an odd but intriguing mix!
On last note - obviously it's important that digitization be done as soon as possible, before further breakdown of the media occurs, result in a further loss of data or quality, but far too many people but this on their "to do list", and then put it off until it's too late, so it's great to see someone taking action here! I've spent hours and hours converting analog home video to digital formats, and it's quite tedious, but I knew that if I didn't do it soon, my family footage would be lost forever. I like to archive all of my digital media on both optical media discs, as well as a a RAID HDD system (so the only way the data could be lost, would be if both HDDs failed at the same time, and I used different brand HDDs for this, so that's highly unlikely), while storing the discs in a separate location than the HDD system.
Thanks for the great post, hopefully more people will take action after reading this, and digitize the value media, be it audio or video, before it's too late!

The model you have shown here is looks really beautiful and stunning in terms of arts.
I am crazy collector of this kind of things
Thanks for post and appreciate your work hard

Great Article thanks for sharing

I'm so glad you are taking the time and effort to perserve these valuable peices of history. I have audio tape of my great-grandmother sharing her stories that I worry about degradation and really need to get converted to digital. Unfortunately part of the challenges of technology is that it eventually becomes out of date and inaccessible. But these stories and oral historys need to be perserved for our children and others. Thank you for the work you do.

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