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Guest Post: Archiving the Music Gallery

Published on: December 13, 2017

One of the pillars of our strategic plan is to re-examine our archives and legacy. York University’s archives contain our audio archives and images prior to 1999 but everything since then has been a bit more haphazardly collected in binders, CDRs and, lately, through archived links.

University of Toronto grad student Mairead Murphy has been working diligently over the last few months to archive our audio. She is also assisting us as we set up a presence on Bandcamp. It’s a race against time – CDRs have never been the most robust technology. Fortunately, things are going well. We asked her to write a guest post to update us and the public in general. Thanks for all your work, Mairead!

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Working with audio archives is a unique challenge. Essentially, it’s a race against time to save precious data before formats become obsolete and playback machines become unusable. In the analog world, a book is a book—even if it was written 500 years ago, you can still pick it up today, read it, and get all the information you need. Archived audio, on the other hand, doesn’t have this advantage. Think about how many ways there have been to record and listen to music even in the last 20 years. For lots of music recorded only on heritage media (e.g., cassette, CD-R, etc.), the window of playability is closing—and fast.

Luckily, preservation efforts are still possible. At the Music Gallery, I have been fortunate enough to be part of a mass digitization effort to help preserve the Gallery’s archive of live music. Here is a quick (and simplified) run-through of the process:

  • A CD-R (or a series of CD-Rs) is retrieved from archival storage for digitization.
  • The CD-R is “ripped”, meaning the music on the CD-R is digitally extracted.
  • The performance is researched and the digitized files are checked for quality.
  • Important metadata (e.g., the year of the recording, song titles, etc.) is embedded into the digital files using specialized software.
  • The final files, complete with metadata, are placed in a digital repository.
  • The CD-R is returned to archival storage.

So far, 206 distinct performances have been preserved using this method. Overall, that’s included 2798 audio files recorded across 383 CD-Rs.

Although most of the time this process goes smoothly, glitches do happen. On rare occasions, CD-Rs refuse to rip or the digitized audio is scrambled beyond recognition. An unfortunate fact about CD-Rs is that their longevity is famously difficult to predict. In fact, the Canadian Conservation Institute estimates a CD-R can last anywhere from 2 to 200 years, which is hardly helpful when creating a preservation strategy.

However, despite these hiccups—and the host of issues that come with running a digital archive—the Gallery’s digitization efforts have been a success. Because of this project, years of Gallery music performances have been placed into digital safekeeping where they are protected from physical damage and deterioration. Thankfully, these integral parts of Toronto’s musical history will be around for future listeners.

 

 

 

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