The Coronavirus pandemic has me thinking about labor–as a concept, a social process, a political constituency, and the driving force of our economy–in a way that I haven’t in my lifetime. It’s become alarmingly clear (as if it wasn’t before) that we all need food, supplies, and services to survive past next week, and that there are real human beings out there working to produce and deliver these things. No amount of entrepreneurship, innovation, or financial sleight of hand will help us through the coming months if people are not working to provide the basic requirements for life as we know it.
This blog post draws from images in our digitized library collections to pay tribute to all of the essential workers who are keeping us afloat during these challenging times. As I browsed these photographs and mused on our current situation, a few important and oft-overlooked questions came to mind.
Who grows our food? Where does it come from and how is it processed? How does it get to us?
What kind of physical environment do we work in and how does that affect us?
How do we interact with machines and technology in our work? Can our labor be automated or performed remotely?
What equipment and clothing do we need to work safely and productively?
Are we paid fairly for our work? How do relative wages for different types of work reflect what is valued in our society?
How we think about and respond to these questions will inform how we navigate the aftermath of this ongoing crisis and whether or not we thrive into the future. As we celebrate International Workers’ Day on May 1 and beyond, I hope everyone will take some time to think about what labor means to them and to our society as a whole.
In the audio world, we take our tools seriously, sometimes to an unhealthy and obsessive degree. We give them pet names, endow them with human qualities, and imbue them with magical powers. In this context, it’s not really strange that a manufacturer of professional audio interfaces would call themselves “Mark of the Unicorn.”
Here at the Digital Production Center, we recently upgraded our audio interface to a MOTU 896 mk3 from an ancient (in tech years) Edirol UA-101. The audio interface, which converts analog signals to digital and vice-versa, is the heart of any computer-based audio system. It controls all of the routing from the analog sources (mostly cassette and open reel tape decks in our case) to the computer workstation and the audio recording/editing software. If the audio interface isn’t seamlessly performing analog to digital conversion at archival standards, we have no hope of fulfilling our mission of creating high-quality digital surrogates of library A/V materials.
While the Edirol served us well from the very beginning of the Library’s forays into audio digitization, it had recently begun to cause issues resulting in crashes, restarts, and lost work. Given that the Edirol is over 10 years old and has been discontinued, it is expected that it would eventually fail to keep up with continued OS and software updates. After re-assessing our needs and doing a bit of research, we settled on the MOTU 896 mk3 as its replacement. The 896 had the input, output, and sync options we needed along with plenty of other bells and whistles.
I’ve been using the MOTU for several weeks now, and here are some things that I’m liking about it:
Easy installation of drivers
Designed to fit into standard audio rack
Choice of USB or Firewire connection to PC workstation
Good visual feedback on audio levels, sample rate, etc. via LED meters on front panel
Clarity and definition of sound
I haven’t had a chance to explore all of the additional features of the MOTU yet, but so far it has lived up to expectations and improved our digitization workflow. However, in a production environment such as ours, each piece of equipment needs to be a workhorse that can perform its function day in and day out as we work our way through the vaults. Only time can tell if the Mark of the Unicorn will be elevated to the pantheon of gear that its whimsical name suggests!
In anticipation of next Tuesday’s midterm elections, here is a photo gallery of voting-related images from Duke Digital Collections. Click on a photo to view more images from our collections dealing with political movements, voting rights, propaganda, activism, and more!
If you haven’t already taken advantage of early voting, we at Bitstreams encourage you to exercise your right on November 6!
Last week I had the opportunity to attend the 52nd Association for Recorded Sound Collections Annual Conference in Baltimore, MD. From the ARSC website:
Founded in 1966, the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and study of sound recordings—in all genres of music and speech, in all formats, and from all periods.
ARSC is unique in bringing together private individuals and institutional professionals. Archivists, librarians, and curators representing many of the world’s leading audiovisual repositories participate in ARSC alongside record collectors, record dealers, researchers, historians, discographers, musicians, engineers, producers, reviewers, and broadcasters.
ARSC’s vitality springs from more than 1000 knowledgeable, passionate, helpful members who really care about sound recordings.
ARSC Annual Conferences encourage open sharing of knowledge through informative presentations, workshops, and panel discussions. Tours, receptions, and special local events heighten the camaraderie that makes ARSC conferences lively and enjoyable.
This quote highlights several of the things that have made ARSC resources valuable and educational to me as the Audio Production Specialist at Duke Libraries:
The group’s membership includes both professionals and enthusiasts from a variety of backgrounds and types of institutions.
Members’ interests and specialties span a broad array of musical genres, media types, and time periods.
The organization serves as a repository of knowledge on obscure and obsolete sound recording media and technology.
This year’s conference offered a number of presentations that were directly relevant to our work here in Digital Collections and Curation Services, highlighting audio collections that have been digitized and the challenges encountered along the way. Here’s a quick recap of some that stood out to me:
“Uncovering the Indian Neck Folk Festival Collection” by Maya Lerman (Folklife Center, Library of Congress). This presentation showcased a collection of recordings and related documentation from a small invitation-only folk festival that ran from 1961-2014 and included early performances from Reverend Gary Davis, Dave Van Ronk, and Bob Dylan. It touched on some of the difficulties in archiving optical and born-digital media (lack of metadata, deterioration of CD-Rs) as well as the benefits of educating prospective donors on best practices for media and documentation.
“A Garage in South Philly: The Vernacular Music Research Archive of Thornton Hagert” by David Sager and Anne Stanfield-Hagert. This presentation paid tribute to the massive jazz archive of the late Mr. Hagert, comprising over 125,000 items of printed music, 75,000 recordings, 5,500 books, and 2,000 periodicals. It spoke to the difficulties of selling or donating a private collection of this magnitude without splitting it up and undoing the careful, but idiosyncratic organizational structure as envisioned by the collector.
“Freedom is a Constant Struggle: The Golden State Mutual Sound Recordings” by Kelly Besser, Yasmin Dessem and Shanni Miller (UCLA Library). This presentation covered the audio material from the archive of an African American-owned insurance company founded in 1925 in the Bay Area. While audio was only a small part of this larger collection, the speakers demonstrated how it added additional context and depth to photographs, video, and written documents. They also showed how this kind of archival audio can be an important tool in telling the stories of previously suppressed or unheard voices.
“Sounds, Sights and Sites of Activism in ’68” by Guha Shankar (Library of Congress). This presentation examined a collection of recordings from “Resurrection City” in Washington, DC. This was an encampment that was part of the Poor People’s Campaign, a demonstration for human rights organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. prior to his assassination in 1968. The talk showed how these archival documents are being accessed and used to inform new forms of social and political activism and wider circulation via podcasts, websites, public lecture and exhibitions.
The ARSC Conference also touched on my personal interests in American traditional and vernacular music, especially folk and blues from the early 20th Century. Presentations on the bluegrass scene in Baltimore, blues guitarist Johnny Shines, education outreach by the creators of PBS’s “American Epic” documentaries, and Hickory, NC’s own Blue Sky Boys provided a welcome break from favorite archivist topics such as metadata, workflows, and quality control. Other fun parts of the conference included an impromptu jam session, a silent auction of books & records, and posters documenting the musical history of Baltimore. True to the city’s nickname, I was charmed by my time in Baltimore and inspired by the amazingly diverse and dedicated work towards collecting and preserving our audio heritage by the ARSC community.
Snow is a major event here in North Carolina, and the University and Library were operating accordingly under a “severe weather policy” last week due to 6-12 inches of frozen precipitation. While essential services continued undeterred, most of the Library’s staff and patrons were asked to stay home until conditions had improved enough to safely commute to and navigate the campus. In celebration of last week’s storm, here are some handy tips for surviving and enjoying the winter weather–illustrated entirely with images from Duke Digital Collections!
Stock up on your favorite vices and indulgences before the storm hits.
2. Be sure to bundle and layer up your clothing to stay warm in the frigid outdoor temperatures.
3. Plan some fun outdoor activities to keep malaise and torpor from settling in.
4. Never underestimate the importance of a good winter hat.
5. While snowed in, don’t let your personal hygiene slip too far.
6. Despite the inconveniences brought on by the weather, don’t forget to see the beauty and uniquity around you.
In the spirit of Friday fun (and to keep with my running theme of obsolete, obscure, and endangered audio equipment,) I present this gallery of anthropomorphic electronics from Rubenstein Library’s Ad*Access digital collection. Enjoy!
In past posts, I’ve paid homage to the audio ancestors with riffs on such endangered–some might say extinct–formats as DAT and Minidisc. This week we turn our attention to the smallest (and perhaps the cutest) tape format of them all: the Microcassette.
Introduced by the Olympus Corporation in 1969, the Microcassette used the same width tape (3.81 mm) as the more common Philips Compact Cassette but housed it in a much smaller and less robust plastic shell. The Microcassette also spooled from right to left (opposite from the compact cassette) as well as using slower recording speeds of 2.4 and 1.2 cm/s. The speed adjustment, allowing for longer uninterrupted recording times, could be toggled on the recorder itself. For instance, the original MC60 Microcassette allowed for 30 minutes of recorded content per “side” at standard speed and 60 minutes per side at low speed.
The microcassette was mostly used for recording voice–e.g. lectures, interviews, and memos. The thin tape (prone to stretching) and slow recording speeds made for a low-fidelity result that was perfectly adequate for the aforementioned applications, but not up to the task of capturing the wide dynamic and frequency range of music. As a result, the microcassette was the go-to format for cheap, portable, hand-held recording in the days before the smartphone and digital recording. It was standard to see a cluster of these around the lectern in a college classroom as late as the mid-1990s. Many of the recorders featured voice-activated recording (to prevent capturing “dead air”) and continuously variable playback speed to make transcription easier.
The tiny tapes were also commonly used in telephone answering machines and dictation machines.
As you may have guessed, the rise of digital recording, handheld devices, and cheap data storage quickly relegated the microcassette to a museum piece by the early 21st century. While the compact cassette has enjoyed a resurgence as a hip medium for underground music, the poor audio quality and durability of the microcassette have largely doomed it to oblivion except among the most willful obscurantists. Still, many Rubenstein Library collections contain these little guys as carriers of valuable primary source material. That means we’re holding onto our Microcassette player for the long haul in all of its atavistic glory.
Noise is an inescapable part of our sonic environment. As I sit at my quiet library desk writing this, I can hear the undercurrent of the building’s pipes and HVAC systems, the click-clack of the Scribe overhead book scanner, footsteps from the floor above, doors opening and closing in the hallway, and the various rustlings of my own fidgeting. In our daily lives, our brains tune out much of this extraneous noise to help us focus on the task at hand and be alert to sounds conveying immediately useful information: a colleagues’s voice, a cell-phone buzz, a fire alarm.
When sound is recorded electronically, however, this tuned-out noise is often pushed to the foreground. This may be due to the recording conditions (e.g. a field recording done on budget equipment in someone’s home or outdoors) or inherent in the recording technology itself (electrical interference, mechanical surface noise). Noise is always present in the audio materials we digitize and archive, many of which are interviews, oral histories, and events recorded to cassette or open reel tape by amateurs in the field. Our first goal is to make the cleanest and most direct analog-to-digital transfer possible, and then save this as our archival master .wav file with no alterations. Once this is accomplished, we have some leeway to work with the digital audio and try to create a more easily listenable and intelligible access copy.
I recently started experimenting with Steinberg WaveLab software to clean up digitized recordings from the Larry Rubin Papers. This collection contains some amazing documentation of Rubin’s work as a civil rights organizer in the 1960s, but the ever-present hum & hiss often threaten to obscure the content. I worked with two plug-ins in WaveLab to try to mitigate the noise while leaving the bulk of the audio information intact.
Even if you don’t know it by name, anyone who has used electronic audio equipment has probably heard the dreaded 60 Cycle Hum. This is a fixed low-frequency tone that is related to our main electric power grid operating at 120 volts AC in the United States. Due to improper grounding and electromagnetic interference from nearby wires and appliances, this current can leak into our audio signals and appear as the ubiquitous 60 Hz hum (disclaimer–you may not be able to hear this as well on tiny laptop speakers or earbuds). Wavelab’s De-Buzzer plug-in allowed me to isolate this troublesome frequency and reduce its volume level drastically in relation to the interview material. Starting from a recommended preset, I adjusted the sensitivity of the noise reduction by ear to cut unwanted hum without introducing any obvious digital artifacts in the sound.
Similarly omnipresent in analog audio is High-Frequency Hiss. This wash of noise is native to any electrical system (see Noise Floor) and is especially problematic in tape-based media where the contact of the recording and playback heads against the tape introduces another level of “surface noise.” I used the De-Noiser plug-in to reduce hiss while being careful not to cut into the high-frequency content too much. Applying this effect too heavily could make the voices in the recording sound dull and muddy, which would be counterproductive to improving overall intelligibility.
Listen to the before & after audio snippets below. While the audio is still far from perfect due to the original recording conditions, conservative application of the noise reduction tools has significantly cleaned up the sound. It’s possible to cut the noise even further with more aggressive use of the effects, but I felt that would do more harm than good to the overall sound quality.
I was fairly pleased with these results and plan to keep working with these and other software tools in the future to create digital audio files that meet the needs of archivists and researchers. We can’t eliminate all of the noise from our media-saturated lives, but we can always keep striving to keep the signal-to-noise ratio at manageable and healthy levels.
While most of my Bitstreams posts have focused on my work preserving and archiving audio collections, my job responsibilities also include digitizing materials for display in Duke University Libraries Exhibits. The recent renovation and expansion of the Perkins Library entrance and the Rubenstein Library have opened up significantly more gallery space, meaning more exhibits being rotated through at a faster pace.
Working with such a variety of media spanning different library collections presents a number of challenges and necessitates working closely with our Exhibits and Conservation departments. First, we have to make sure that we have all of the items listed in the inventory provided by the exhibit curator. Secondly, we have to make sure we have all of the relevant information about how each item should be digitally captured (e.g. What image resolution and file specifications? Which pages from a larger volume? What section of a larger map or print?) Next we have to consider handling for items that are in fragile condition and need special attention. Finally, we use all of this information to determine which scanner, camera, or A/V deck is appropriate for each item and what the most efficient order to capture them in is.
All of this planning and preliminary work helps to ensure that the digitization process goes smoothly and that most questions and irregularities have already been addressed. Even so, there are always issues that come up forcing us to improvise creative solutions. For instance: how to level and stabilize a large, fragile folded map that is tipped into a volume with tight binding? How to assemble a seamless composite image of an extremely large poster that has to be photographed in multiple sections? How to minimize glare and reflection from glossy photos that are cupped from age? I won’t give away all of our secrets here, but I’ll provide a couple examples from the Duke Chapel exhibit that is currently on display in the Jerry and Bruce Chappell Family gallery.
This facsimile of a drawing for one of the Chapel’s carved angels was reproduced from an original architectural blueprint. It came to us as a large and tightly rolled blueprint–so large, in fact, that we had to add a piece of plywood to our usual camera work surface to accommodate it. We then strategically placed weights around the blueprint to keep it flattened while not obscuring the section with the drawing. The paper was still slightly wrinkled and buckled in places (which can lead to uneven color and lighting in the resulting digital image) but fortunately the already mottled complexion of the blueprint material made it impossible to notice these imperfections.
These projected images of the Chapel’s stained glass were reproduced from slides taken by a student in 1983 and currently housed in the University Archives. After the first run through our slide scanner, the digital images looked okay on screen, but were noticeably blurry when enlarged. Further investigation of the slides revealed an additional clear plastic protective housing which we were able to carefully remove. Without this extra refractive layer, the digital images were noticeably sharper and more vibrant.
Despite the digitization challenges, it is satisfying to see these otherwise hidden treasures being displayed and enjoyed in places that students, staff, and visitors pass through everyday–and knowing that we played a small part in contributing to the finished product!
Duke Libraries’ Digital Collections offer a wealth of primary source material, opening unique windows to cultural moments both long past and quickly closing. In my work as an audio digitization specialist, I take a particular interest in current and historical audio technology and also how it is depicted in other media. The digitized Duke Chronicle newspaper issues from the 1980’s provide a look at how students of the time were consuming and using ever-smaller audio devices in the early days of portable technology.
Sony introduced the Walkman in the U.S. in 1980. Roughly pocket-sized (actually somewhere around the size of a sandwich or small brick), it allowed the user to take their music on the go, listening to cassette tapes on lightweight headphones while walking, jogging, or travelling. The product was wildly successful and ubiquitous in its time, so much so that “walkman” became a generic term for any portable audio device.
The success of the Walkman was probably bolstered by the jogging/fitness craze that began in the late 1970s. Health-conscious consumers could get in shape while listening to their favorite tunes. This points to two of the main concepts that Sony highlighted in their marketing of the Walkman: personalization and privatization.
Previously, the only widely available portable audio devices were transistor radios, meaning that the listener was at the mercy of the DJ or station manager’s musical tastes. However, the Walkman user could choose from their own collection of commercially available albums, or take it a step further, and make custom mixtapes of their favorite songs.
The Walkman also allowed the user to “tune out” surrounding distractions and be immersed in their own private sonic environment. In an increasingly noisy and urbanized world, the listener was able to carve out a small space in the cacophony and confusion. Some models had two headphone jacks so you could even share this space with a friend.
One can see that these guiding concepts behind the Walkman and its successful marketing have only continued to proliferate and accelerate in the world today. We now expect unlimited on-demand media on our handheld devices 24 hours a day. Students of the 1980’s had to make do with a boombox and backpack full of cassette tapes.
Notes from the Duke University Libraries Digital Projects Team