Archiving Folklore Collections: Who’s in Charge?

It’s been a long time in the works, but last week, the archival collection of the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Folk Arts & Heritage Program was transferred to the Massachusetts State Archives. A little back story is in order.

For many folklorists employed at state arts agencies, humanities councils, museums, and non-profit organizations, fieldwork is an ongoing part of our work. Recording in sound, image, and writing, we document vernacular music, dance, crafts, material culture, and traditional arts associated with annual celebrations and religious belief. Fieldwork is essential to curating exhibitions and producing festivals, publications, and digital media — all ways of sharing our work with the public. Field research helps us recruit grant applicants and evaluate the impact of our grant giving.

The primary sources generated by fieldwork provide a unique and important record of expressive folk culture. But what happens to all these interviews, recordings, and images? My guess is that these materials are handled in a myriad of ways, many of which are not up to the standards of archival best practice.


Although I’ve employed archival preservation methods, including the use of chemically inert plastic sleeves for slides and negatives and acid-free, archival grade folders for print materials, evolving technology has changed the way we collect. Caring responsibly for digitally born materials, which we began collecting in 2008, is more of a challenge. We lack trained staff dedicated to audio preservation, quality analog playback and digital conversion equipment, and large-scale information technology support. We store field-generated audio and images on writable Compact Discs and external hard drives, rather than on redundant file storage devices.

Something needed to be done to safeguard our archival holdings. So a year ago, I reached out to colleagues and archivists around the country with similar collections who specialize in managing folk cultural archival collections. Folklorist/archivists Steve Green and Andy Kolovos were incredibly helpful. With their input, I sought out a mutually beneficial partnership with a repository that has both trained staff and a stated mission supporting preservation and access.

Along the way, I was inspired by news of state arts agencies in Alabama, Maryland, Georgia, and Pennsylvania who were successful in brokering partnerships to guarantee preservation of their folk archival collections.

By the end of the year, two repositories had come forward: The Massachusetts State Archives and the Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. After many emails, phone conversations, and meetings, we are on our way. The two institutions will partner in digitizing, preparing metadata, and producing a multi-media finding aid for the web. I’m pleased to be working with Veronica Martzhal, Digital Archivist at the State Archives and Rob Cox, Head Archivist at U Mass’s Special Collections and University Archives.

Archives_Maggie loading cassettes

In February, I spent a few days boxing up analog and digital audio recordings, color slides, black & white negatives, digital images, and manuscript materials (field notes, transcriptions, release forms, and ephemera). Twenty boxes in all. This hybrid collection dates back to 1999, when the archive was established. The physical transfer is the first tangible step in the process of ensuring that this unique collection of primary source materials will be professionally preserved, digitized, and eventually made accessible via a digital library.

On the day of the transfer, it was Mike Farley who did most of the heavy lifting. Acquisitions Archivist Wallace Dailey oversaw the move.

Archives_Mike Farley loading dolly

Archives_Mike loading truck

Archives_driving away

Next steps will be for State Archive staff to begin the process of digitizing the collection. The priority will be to address deterioration and format obsolescence. I plan on working with archive staff to prepare metadata for the collection in order to create an online catalog. To be continued . . .







Keeping Digital Media Safe

Have you made the move from slides to digital images? Or from audio tapes to compact flash drives? Do you think about how best to ensure the safety of these “born digital” multimedia files? They seem so ephemeral . . .

Until fairly recently, folklorists only had to deal with the preservation of tangible field-recorded materials. Here at the MCC, our traditional arts archive is primarily made up of physical things (negatives and slides, printed photographs, magnetic audiotape, and printed matter) that take up space on shelves or in file cabinet drawers. Best practices for preserving and providing access to these types of materials were established long ago (e.g., acid-free paper, climate and humidity control, archival sleeves for slides and negatives). But standards are still being debated for the preservation of digital objects.

Advances in technology have brought us a whole new generation of affordable field-recording equipment which is smaller, lighter, and simpler to use. We can record an interview using a teensy digital recorder that captures sound on a compact flash card. We come back from the field and transfer images from a digital camera onto a computer or external hard drive, with no wait for developing or processing. The images and recordings are instantly accessible for review, editing, and posting on the web. Storage takes up much less physical space. Yet, when it comes to preserving these digital multimedia files, there is something unsettling about moving away from the physical film or magnetic tape. How do we ensure precious digital materials will be accessible over time?

With issues of this sort on my mind, I was fortunate to attend a workshop on preserving digital multimedia files last week at the Vermont Folklife Center. In fact, folklorists around the country expressed their disappointment in not being able to attend. Andy Kovolos, the center’s archivist, shared tips on the basics of digital preservation, including file formats for storing digital photographs and audio, the challenges presented by digital video, and ways to keep good track of your materials.

So, here are a few takeaways:

Multiple copies of files in varying formats keeps material safe. For example, store a recent field recording or photo shoot in several places: on a server, on two external hard drives, and on a CD.

Don’t write on a CD! The top surface of the CD is susceptible to damage, not just the bottom. If you must, write with a water-based, permanent pen on the inner plastic circle of the CD. Avoid “sharpies” as they might interfere with the top (lacquer) layer of the CD.

Store CDs in regular sized jewel cases, not fiberglass or paper sleeves. Store them vertically, not horizontally. Buy CDs in jewel cases, not in spindles.

Migrate, migrate, migrate. Dale Hecker of Harvard University Libraries reminds us that “Digital materials are surprisingly fragile. They depend for their continued viability upon technologies that undergo rapid and continual change.” This is true for analog as well as digital materials. Afterall, who can use a floppy disc anymore, let alone play a wax cylinder or a 78 recording? If your archive is full of DAT (digital audio tape) recordings, as ours is, make sure you copy them onto the latest technology and back them up on a server. Scan slides and create TIF files as your preservation master files. Then create “use” files for editing, printing, and emailing.

Metadata matters. It is important to include information about the information that has been collected. Describe the context, content, format, and authorship of the material. Who conducted the interview, where, and when? Is this interview part of a project or collection? What kind of camera, microphone, or sound recorder was used? What software? Is the material restricted in any way?