Real to Reel – Two Different Approaches to Sound Archiving from Scotland and Norway

There is at Mo I Rana in northern Norway the most extraordinary facility built into the mountainside overlooking this modest, regional town. It looks like something James Bond might break into, only to get caught within two minutes of breaching its impressive exterior. Yet, even 007 could enter freely by appointment and everyone would tell him everything he came to find out.

The National Library of Norway site at Mo I Rana (pop; ca. 18,000) is located just below the Arctic Circle where library storage facilities for printed and audio-visual media are stored in an impenetrable repository. These mountain vaults have been mined out of solid rock, and they comprise four floors containing forty-five kilometres of shelving. It is here that a substantial proportion of Norway’s heritage is conserved in a carefully controlled environment. There is also a second building nearby that contains high bay, high density automated storage with high density stacking systems governed by automated warehouse tracking systems.

The Mo i Rana complex might sound like the lair of a super-villain but it is, in fact, a substantial outpost of the National Library of Norway. Moreover, the staff who work there have more important things to concentrate on than world domination. They have a remit, under Norway’s Legal Deposit Act, to curate all the curatable media produced in the country from the Middle Ages up to the present day, looking forward into Norway’s creative future.

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Nasjonalbiblioteket, Mo i Rana

The preservation of collective identities by librarians and scholars has been an historic and globally definitive feature of civilization from earliest times. From the lost library at Alexandria to the rejuvenated British Library in London, humanity has been recording its own history not only for posterity, but for future reference also.

In the information age, the digitization of fragile and impermanent print documents and images is firmly established around the world and proceeding apace. Yet, we are also acutely aware that a previous age of mass communication has left us with audio memories that are equally as rich and worthy of preservation.

One of the many onerous tasks undertaken at Mo I Rana is the gathering of analogue audio content and convert it into a massive digital resource. The collection, already large, is further expanding with the addition of purchases, gifts and co-operative agreements with producers and owners of historic content.

Audio archives have increased in importance, not least because the spirit of radio has all but been extinguished. The desire to preserve voices from the past in spoken word, song and in music has suddenly become a matter of urgency as the analogue signals are switched off and the collective memory begins to blur.

There is also a creeping awareness that our present will all too quickly become our past. Just ask anyone who was a teenager in the 1970’s who is a bemused as I that David Bowie would ever warrant a stand-alone exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The public’s online relationship with historic audio began in the early days of the net with nostalgics recollections by amateur music historians on clunky home-made websites. They provided the impetus for seeking out obscure, but important landmarks in music that also soundtracked their youth, particularly early jazz, folk and pop. They also revealed an urge to localize the collective memory, something that is keenly felt than in Norway.

I recently spoke to Thomas Bårdsen (ThB) a senior producer heavily in involved in the digitization of audio, and Richard Gjems (RGj), who leads the music department at Mo I Rana about their respective roles. Their answers are naturally illuminating, but they also underscore the scale of the initiative and the resolve behind it.

MSC: The scope of the audio archive is considerable, embracing all genres and digging deep into Norwegian music not just from the past, but from the present as well. How much music content do you hold at present, and how is the music sourced, organised and curated?

RGj: Our collection of recorded music including albums and mastertapes contains around 300,000 units so far, and it’s still growing when it comes to physical as well as digital releases. The music is collected by legal deposit – from Norwegian record companies, managements, aggregators and so on – as well as donations and other acquisitions of historical recordings and archival material. The sound recordings we collect are cataloged and digitized for preservation and dissemination. The National Library digitizes around 5000 sound recordings every year, and many of these are used for digital re-releases and new editions published by commercial record companies. Most cataloged and digitized recordings are available for library users in-house on request, but we are currently working on a future solution for digital dissemination of our sound collection.  

MSC: Are there any especially significant artists, composers or works already included in the audio archive? I’m thinking primarily of those that are considered historically important in Norwegian culture. 

ThB: I guess everyone I can think of, from original phonograph cylinder releases from around 1900, through our oldest mastertapes from 1950, to our first digital production in 1981. I could maybe pick out ‘Fairytales’ a 1982 album by the singer Radka Toneff. https://www.stereophile.com/content/recording-april-2018-fairytales-original-master-edition-mqa . The transfer from tape to digital took place in our studio and released internationally.  

MSC: Is the vision to create the most complete archive possible, perhaps with the aim of empowering historians to construct a comprehensive cultural narrative? I wonder if there will always be knowledge gaps, no matter how great your efforts!

ThB: One of the incentives for the National Library to start collecting production material was really to build knowledge. It is a fact that early popular music did not get the same treatment as ‘serious’ music. To be able to track back and learn from the actual production material is a vital key in rebuilding this knowledge. At the same time, we see that collecting and preserving helps the labels get more of their music available online. This not only helps historians, but it helps all kind of people to connect with their own cultural heritage. There will always be gaps, but I guess even the gaps will tell a bit of the story; what is kept, and what is not.  

MSC: I wonder if you could explain the relationship between the audio archive and the rights holders, especially larger record labels with worldwide distribution rights? It’s hard to imagine Sony or Universal giving up their content cheaply.

ThB: Well, they do that width a big smile on their face. One thing to keep in mind is that archiving and preservation of audio material is really quite expensive, and private services for transfers are getting more and more scarce. Labels abroad would often need to hunt around to find a transfer service that takes that particular tape. I know this, as we quite often get requests from labels internationally to help them out.

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Tunnel Inside The Mountain at Mo i Rana

MSC: You also mention helping record labels as well as sourcing from them. Is this primarily to encourage and/or enable re-issues of historic music and to create coherent anthologies of an artist’s repertoire? 

ThB: This just became a natural extension. In the contracts with the labels, the National Library was obligated to deliver certain services back. One of these services was to deliver digital copies of their material. Placing the master tapes 1000 kilometres north of the capital would not be a good idea if the tapes would need to be transported back whenever they were needed. To be able to fulfill this obligation we then needed to have all the equipment and the knowledge to play back every audio format in the collections.  

This is really a big challenge – to build a collection of equipment ranging from the earliest days of music production until today. As our transfers are then the ones used for reissues, we would not only need to play them back, we need to play them back perfectly. The rest of the reissuing is really up to the labels, but we see a development where we are more and more involved further into the process.      

MSC: There are plans to publicly broadcast and/or stream selections from the digital audio archive from the library’s own platform, in collaboration with NRK. This will consist initially of news broadcasts. How advanced is that proposition in terms of historic music broadcasts?

RGj: This is currently a matter of negotiations concerning costs and rights management, so I can’t give you a clear answer. But I can say that due to copyright issues, historic music broadcasts are usually more complex and costly than news broadcasts. Our goal is always to give easy access to as much digital content as possible to all library users, so time will tell.  

MSC: I imagine your work is about constantly discovering and re-discovering things about Norway’s musical past. What would you say has surprised you most amongst the musical material you’ve uncovered so far?

ThB: There are fascinating things from all phases of the music production history. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how good a lot of the old productions sound. The balance and the punch; the pure skill of some of the people involved amaze me; and to get really flawed technical equipment to work to perfection. There is a lot of credit given to older productions pointing to the analog recording equipment used as superior to newer and digital equipment. I feel that credit is due to these older productions, but maybe not so much because of the older technology but because of the pure talent and skill of the persons making the productions.

MSC: The only other question that occurs to me is which do you think are the most famous or significant artists whose work is now preserved in the digital and/or physical archive? For instance, are the complete works of Greig in there? Perhaps even jazz artists like Arild Andersen?

RGj: That is a hard question to answer! The significance is often in the eye of the beholder.  Anyway, among some highlights from the collection are a huge variety of recordings of all Grieg’s works, many on different formats; an extensive collection of the first Norwegian shellac recordings from the “acoustic period” 1905-1927; a lot of mastertapes and production material of a-ha’s seminal recordings; a complete collection of Norwegian jazz recordings, an important mastertape collection of the famous jazz label ECM and a huge collection of Norwegian black metal vinyl bootlegs from all around the world.

 

The Norwegian Legal Deposit Act requires that all published content, in all media, to be submitted the National Library of Norway. The collection is also continuously expanding through purchases and gifts. This centralized approach means that the digital collection already contains material dating from the Middle Ages up to the current day, and a massive commitment to non-stop throughput of content.

Each day, terabytes of data flow through the virtual pipeline at Mo I Rana. When you consider that one terabyte equals 1024 gigabytes, it seems like a stroke of genius to confine the server power inside a cold mountain.

The work there includes in-house scanning and digitization, structure analysis to optimize retrieval, and post-processing, which includes generation of metadata, creating databases and distribution.

No item seems too trivial to digitize and the sourcing philosophy amounts to the data banking of Norway’s entire consciousness. It’s perhaps the firmest assertion of national identity since America established the Smithsonian Institute.

The ambition to preserve through digitization written manuscripts, printed documents, images, audio, film and even Norwegian parliamentary reports is admirable and, of course, expensive. Yet, it seems justified when, as the library’s own introduction to digitization declares, The collection represents the Norwegian nation’s collective memory. Digitizing will help to safeguard the collection for future generations.”

In the course of writing about Mo i Rana, I increasingly thought about the considerable commitment there is in my home country of Scotland to holistic archiving. I was acutely aware that the National Library of Scotland (NLS) had taken a different route, with contrasting objectives and outcomes.

 

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Photograph by Kim Traynor

 

I wondered too whether this approach was different, not simply because of limited budgets, but because NLS sees sound archives as primarily a repository for audio content relevant to Scotland’s political, economic and social history. There seems, in Scotland at least, to be a focus on capturing Scots voices talking about identity, locality, history and relationships.

Alistair Bell (AB) at Scotland’s Sounds kindly provided the following insights in response to the questions uppermost in my mind.

MSC: Firstly, Alistair, can you clarify the Scotland’s Sounds strategy going forward? The difference between the NLS approach and the Norwegian one is that our national library seems to favour a network based on shared resources across various sites, rather than a ‘massive digital resource’ at a repository site.

AB: The Scotland’s Sounds network has developed from long-term discussion and planning to address the need to improve the care and access to Scotland’s heritage sound collections.  This Distributed Archive is a model that is a pragmatic solution to funding challenges, but it is also a model for the 21st century, where collections can be connected without the need to be stored and processed in a central repository. 

Although there will continue to be challenges in preserving the content across a distributed network, there are real advantages in connecting and collecting material, where sound recordings can remain part of hybrid collections and can remain close to the context that make the stories they tell meaningful to communities and individuals.  

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MSC: Following on from that, are there any plans to create a separate site for a comprehensive audio archive in Scotland? 

There is currently no plan to have a central physical or digital repository for sound collections in Scotland. Although we aim that “no collection is left behind”, meaning that no sound recordings will be lost as a consequence of inaction or lack of technical capabilities.  In these situations we will support an active or larger organisation within our network to step in and take responsibility for the long-term preservation of a collection. 

We are planning to create a new strategy for Scotland’s Sounds, starting this year, setting aims to turn our current project based activities into a sustainable core-funded offering to the museums, libraries and archives sector, and to the general public. 

The sharp contrast between the Norwegian approach and that of NLS is their active pursuit of representative Norwegian music that includes everything from traditional music to pop, rock, jazz, and even ‘Norwegian black metal bootlegs’. I wondered, however, about the ability of NLS to create a similar archive, given Scotland’s rich, diverse and influential musical output.

MSC: Is NLS in a position to be proactive in this the collection and curation of a comprehensive Scottish music archive too? 

AB: The difference highlighted here is largely related to existing legislation in these countries.  The National Library of Scotland is one of six legal deposit libraries in the UK, which means we have the right to request copies of all published material in the UK, in print and digital. However, in the UK, this legislation does not extend to audio-visual formats (moving image and sound).  This means that all deposits and donations to the National Library of Scotland’s sound collections (and the British Library’s for that matter) are on a voluntary basis. 

Norway does have legal deposit legislation that includes the right to acquire a copy (physical or digital) of sound recordings and moving images produced in Norway.  Although the National Library does not currently comprehensively collect the musical output of Scotland, through Scotland’s Sounds we would like to work more closely with Scottish Music Centre and the British Library (amongst others) to ensure that more Scottish music is being collected and preserved for current and future generations.   

The relationship between the Norwegian library and NRK, the country’s national broadcaster is very close. A lot of historical NRK broadcasts have been digitally archived and deposited at Mo i Rana. The BBC badges a lot of things, including Scotland’s Sounds, without necessarily making a visible contribution.  It begged a final, albeit rather obvious question.

MSC: Is there an agreement with BBC Scotland, for example, to deposit copies of their historical physical and digital audio with NLS?  

AB: There is no formal agreement between BBC Scotland and Scotland’s Sounds or the National Library of Scotland at present.  But it is worth saying that Scotland’s Sounds is an informal network with no current membership or partnership agreements to be a member.  BBC Scotland manages its own archive, one of the largest in our network.

Although not publically accessible, we are continuing to explore ways in which partnership will provide public access to BBC Scotland content, but BBC Scotland are more than capable or resourced to manage their own archive, so there would be no need for the National Library to archive the material as well.

The impetus behind holistic archiving is easy to understand, but dissemination is, arguably, a much more problematic task when it comes managing to a super-abundance of diverse media. Information is useless if it’s unavailable due to copyright conflicts and limited resources. Don’t be surprised if podcasting comes into its own and libraries embrace internet radio as a curatorial platform. The British Library has already signposted this with their admirable podcasting initiatives, although I’d rather see it distributed in-house rather than through SoundCloud. Streaming radio is still evolving and institutions, I believe, have an opportunity to profoundly influence the way the public uses its myriad gadgets and apps; devices now deemed so essential that even James Bond wouldn’t be seen dead without one.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: My thanks to Thomas Bårdsen (Production Manager Audio Preservations, National Library of Norway) and Richard Gjems (Head of Music Section, National Library of Norway for participating in online Q and A sessions. Thanks also to Alistair Bell at Scotland’s Sounds.

Links:

https://www.nb.no/en/digitizing-at-the-national-library/

http://scotlands-sounds.nls.uk

 

© Michael Stephen Clark 2018