Exercising Sound Judgement? – Philip Milnes-Smith

It is perhaps not uncommon to enter the profession as a qualified archivist feeling unprepared for i) the identification of past, analogue file formats for sound recording, ii) the digitisation of these media and iii) the cataloguing of both the original and the digital preservation and playback files. As an oral historian and a digital archivist for a performing arts collection, I found that the recent free workshop at the London Metropolitan Archives (hosted by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project and the ARA Section for Film, Sound and Photography) offered delegates food for thought in all these areas. This blog is an attempt to pass on what I found to be invaluable lessons for my current practice.

© London Met Archives UOSH_ARA Sound 2019-001
Will Prentice presenting at the event. Image courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives.


Will Prentice, from the British Library, brought his ‘petting zoo’ of past formats so that delegates could handle and recognise the main types of past recording media from the ‘wax cylinder’ to the MiniDisc. One key message was that the age of the material is not necessarily related to its state of preservation and, more particularly, that early digital material (particularly if backed up onto a burned CD) is probably more vulnerable than magnetic formats like cassettes and DATs. This clearly has implications for prioritising digitisation projects.


Archivists must also consider whether they are equipped to handle digitisation in-house or should incur the expense of outsourcing it. In the case of quarter inch magnetic tape for use in reel to reel players, with which many new professionals are unlikely to be familiar, Will recommends that repositories outsource it to specialists who handle the material all the time. This is partly because the equipment is now very expensive, with parts no longer made and few experienced technicians still around to troubleshoot them. In addition, however, whether the recording was full track, half track or quarter track, recording speed and even the direction of the recording may not be obvious to the novice. That does not mean that a new professional need not know about these things: indeed, the more you know about the processes required, the tighter any tendering specification will be.

Will recommended developing a spreadsheet inventory as a tool aiding prioritisation. With analogue formats, a column for carrier condition will be helpful, and with all formats you are also likely to want to consider associated rights issues. It could also include a risk assessment considering both the likelihood of loss and its impact. Having already begun a scoping project for uncatalogued items, I was already trying to get more granular than counting boxes of CDs, but am now better equipped to evolve a more useful iteration of the spreadsheet, informing decisions about what to digitise first and what can wait.


Helen Busby and Jonathan Draper from the Norfolk Record Office presented a cataloguing conundrum based on a real example of three interrelated cassettes where the intellectual group did not coincide with the physical items.

Side B of Cassette 3 is part one of an interview, continued on Side B of Cassette 1.

Side A of Cassette 3 is part three of an interview occupying both sides of Cassette 2.

Side A of Cassette 1 is a separate interview by the same oral historian.

© London Met Archives UOSH_ARA Sound 2019-004
Jonathan Draper presenting at the event. Image courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives.

My past experience would lead me to want to catalogue the physical items and link the intellectual content but, clearly, I could not use Alt_Ref_No to supply the filename of the digitised sound file (as I currently do in the workplace) because there are two distinct recordings on Cassettes 1 and 3. If I prioritised the intellectual order, how could I relate that to the unique identifiers needed for the cassettes? Helen explained that they catalogue separately the physical objects and the digitised files and link them, so that both the physical relationships and the intellectual relationships remain available to the future researcher.

The success of the June event means further training over the next couple of years is now being planned. I thoroughly recommend new professionals working with sound collections keep an ear open, and book early.

You can read more about the Unlocking London’s Sound Heritage project at LMA here and here.

Philip Milnes-Smith, Training Officer for ARA Section for Learning and Education

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s