Much of the world's culture is orally based and transmitted. Even as millions of people interact with giant communications systems, many are still tuned in to the "genomes" of their particular cultures. When my father, Alan Lomax, retired, I assumed responsibility for his large and complex library of recordings and manuscripts. As ACE began the work of preserving his sound recordings, photographs and videos, films, field journals, correspondence, and research projects with our first grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1997, I realized that, through the (then) new digital technology, we could bring these world-heritage materials straight to the public, dissolving the barriers between people and their music. Preservation—for the purpose of connecting individuals and communities with their core traditions—became our watchword.
Our ultimate objective is to couple preservation and access with cultural development. I believed, as my father had, that the cultural treasures in our custody should reside in permanent national repositories. At the same time, they should be made available directly to their communities, artists, and families of origin. We encourage their full utilization locally, so that they can provide strong and valid links to the past, and be catalysts for present and future creativity and growth.
Over the first ten years, the preservation of the sound recordings, photographs, videos, field journals, and research papers and the simultaneous production of 100 CDs for Rounder Records were mutually supportive activities, financially and technically. Having a steady but restricted flow of funding proved to be a blessing; we could adjust our methods according to changing standards and technologies. The Rockefeller, Rock, and Concordia Foundations, and the National Endowment for the Arts generously supported ACE's preservation work; The Library of Congress gave us guidelines.
The first stage of preservation focused on identifying, organizing and stabilizing physical artifacts: tapes, discs, film, video, photographs, and selected manuscripts. We found remarkably little damage, and almost no loss of information.
In tandem with physical preservation, between 1997 and 2007 ACE built a digital collection that mirrors Lomax's physical archive, following accepted international audiovisual standards. The more analog media is used, the more it deteriorates; proper storage conditions ensure its long-term survival. When analog collections are digitized, the digital versions can then be copied without damage to the original. In combination, physical preservation and digital formatting afford the highest level of protection to originals.
Audio tapes at the Alan Lomax Archive, New York, 2004.
Digital Preservation & Electronic Data Management
As archivist Elizabeth Cohen put it, in the digital world, "distribution is preservation." One cannot shelve electronic media in ideal storage conditions and expect it to remain intact: it requires ongoing use and management. When formats and carriers become obsolete, the data develop high rates of error. The third phase of ACE's preservation strategy focuses on continual technology monitoring as well as forward migration of its digital collections.
Dedicated professionals managed this process: Matthew Barton (now Curator of Recorded Sound at The Library of Congress), working with sound-restoration expert Steve Rosenthal of the Magic Shop, gave us six years. Bertram Lyons (now Digital Assets Manager at the American Folklife Center of The Library of Congress) and sound engineer and archivist Marcos Sueiro Bal (now Senior Archivist at WNYC Radio), finished the job.