The 21st Century Digital Challenge


1986 National Heritage Fellow John Jackson – Photo by Tom Pich

by Matthew Gibson

The Challenge

In 1992, the Virginia Folklife Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities brought together the Commonwealth’s finest living Piedmont blues guitarists and singers to perform at ten sites across the state. The tour featured National Heritage Fellowship recipients John Jackson and John Cephas, along with Phil Wiggins, Daniel Womack, and the Foddrell Brothers. VFH recorded their live performances and accompanying interviews using what were then state-of-the-art technologies: Digital Audio Tape (DAT) and Hi-8 backed up on U-matic and VHS tapes.

If you took all of this footage in all of these once state-of-the-art formats and dumped them on my office floor today, I wouldn’t even be able to pick out a DAT, let alone a Hi-8. And I only know VHS tapes because I’ve got a dozen or so boxed up in my attic. Even if my VCR didn’t now eat tapes, I wouldn’t watch them. The movies look and sound better on DVD, and streaming them is more convenient. If I weren’t lazy, I’d throw those old tapes in the trash.

That’s not an option for VFH, of course. In this case, the content that lives on DAT and Hi-8 doesn’t just one day appear in an updated format. It’s our job to update it and, in so doing, act as good stewards of the invaluable material we create every day. After all, unlike my personal tape library, the Virginia Folklife Program’s twenty-two-year-old documentation of Piedmont blues legends is a unique record of the Commonwealth’s cultural heritage and history. And yet in their current state only the person in possession of these tapes can see and hear the musicians’ performances, stories, and interviews. What is more, unlike the small VHS library in my attic, if my old VCR ate these tapes, that would be it—the stories and music captured on this tour would be lost, a loss almost as poignant as the fact that nearly all of the musicians themselves have passed away.

The mission of each VFH program encompasses some aspect of Virginia’s past with an eye toward how that past informs the present and is relevant to our future. The Folklife Program, for instance, strives to document diverse folk traditions to advance our understanding and appreciation of the state’s traditional cultures and to help Virginia communities strengthen their own cultural traditions. In documenting these ways of life we also recognize that we have an implicit duty to preserve what has been captured so that others can use and learn from it. Otherwise, what is the point of documentation?

Charlie McClendon
Charlie McClendon holding one of his reel-to-reel recordings. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

Jon Lohman, the program’s director, certainly recognizes that duty, and has worked hard to create, preserve, and deliver his content through new media. “You’d be amazed at the things we have recorded over the last twenty years,” Lohman says. With his recent efforts to resurrect some of this material, Lohman points to the work of the great R&B musician Charlie McClendon. “Hailing from the Hampton Roads area, McClendon was just so important to the vibrant R&B scene that was happening there in the 1960s. This was a time and place of great music and great struggle. You had schools being closed under Massive Resistance to fight off desegregation and then you had this strong message of vitality and hope coming out of music. With generous private support we’ve been able to create an online exhibit of recent and archival material that allows users to get into the depths of McClendon’s work and to see it in the context of Virginia’s civil rights struggles.”

“To allow these kinds of materials to go unpreserved and inaccessible,” continues Lohman, “would be a horrendous loss not just to Virginia’s cultural memory but to the nation’s.” (If you haven’t gone to the Folklife website and explored the audio and video footage in “Magnificent: The Charlie McClendon Story,” you are missing something special.)

In choosing state-of-the-art formats and standards to record and create content twenty-two years ago, we were responsible stewards of our mission; however, like all technologies, these were subject to the slings and arrows of planned (sometimes unplanned) obsolescence. (Sony, the developer of DAT, for example, stopped making DAT machines in 2005, officially making that format obsolete.) While the content on these old media can still be moved to newer, web-accessible, and, at least for now, more stable platforms, the task is easier said than done.

The Scope of Our Challenge

Increasingly, VFH programs require more resources to produce and manage content on the web or in other Internet-accessible applications for their audiences. The Virginia Indian Programs, in collaboration with Encyclopedia Virginia (EV), recently created a repository of images and oral histories from various Virginia Indian communities, the Virginia Indian Archive, that will continue to grow over the next few years to support the exploration and understanding of Virginia Indian history and culture. With content such as the McClendon recordings, the Folklife Program wants to build an archive that will require multiple terabytes of storage and many hours to transport, refresh, and back up.

With Good Reason host Sarah McConnell interviewing Toni Morrison. Photo by Michael Kiernan.
With Good Reason host Sarah McConnell interviewing Toni Morrison. Photo by Michael Kiernan.

The radio program With Good Reason also sees the need to create a digital archive of its past and current shows. According to Sarah McConnell, the show’s director, With Good Reason consistently receives appeals from teachers who want to use interviews in the classroom. “Wouldn’t it be great,” McConnell says, “to give them easy access to this treasure trove of sound? For instance, we have a series of interviews with great African American poets like Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, and Frank X. Walker. With a searchable archive containing this wealth of material a teacher from anywhere at anytime could quickly find and play the whole series. With over twenty years of features and interviews it is imperative that we find a way not just to preserve and maintain this material but also to provide access to it—to give these rare conversations of the past new life!”

VFH has identified similar needs with the partners we support through our grants. We recently sent a survey to more than thirty Virginia cultural organizations that are current or past grantees to get a sense of their digital environments, future needs, and content management strategies. When asked if they created and saved their digital collections using archival standards and with sufficient storage and backup policies in place in case of hard drive failures or other catastrophe, 75 percent of VFH grantees and education partners responded in the negative. The challenges they face are cost, insufficient staff time, and training. While solutions exist for archiving this community’s paper-based publications—— VFH currently gives its paper archives to the Library of Virginia——there is no such sustainable plan in place to preserve and manage all of the digital content that our grantees and we create.

With all of these “”archive”” and collection- based demands, it only makes sense to think about how VFH can construct a more sustainable framework for content preservation, management, and discovery that benefits the Commonwealth in a more systematic and efficient way. Two VFH programs, EV and Documents Compass, can serve as models or at least guide how we can manage the needs and lifecycle of content from distributed sources and partners. Over the past six years EV has developed extensive expertise in aggregating text, audio, and still and moving images and giving users access to this material. The EV team has migrated content and databases to different platforms and confronted and successfully handled the costs and complexities of running machines and systems to ensure the publication’s durability through the years. Documents Compass has collaborated with numerous organizations to produce projects such as Founders Online and People of the Founding Era. From these collaborations, the Documents Compass team has learned to create coherent and cohesive publications from sources with divergent information architectures and workflows.

Wayne Henderson
Wayne Henderson in his Grayson County workshop. Photo by Tom Pich.

VFH wants to ensure that users can access tomorrow the content that our partners and we create today. Because of cost and time, VFH recognizes that priorities will have to be established, hard questions will have to be asked, and difficult decisions made about what we can and should preserve and what we should not. Currently we are looking at how research libraries—— where best practices for digital content creation and preservation are tested and implemented——are trying to solve these challenges through the development of institutional repositories. Like many organizations, we recognize that to create content today requires us to behave and think like a library; that we need to invest in the machine and human resources to make what we created yesterday and what we produce today available tomorrow and for years to come.

If the 1992 Piedmont Guitarist Tour was the only thing VFH had to worry about preserving and making more accessible, I wouldn’t be writing this article. The Folklife Program has collected more than twenty years of audio and video field recordings. The Piedmont Guitarist Tour is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What is more, VFH has almost a dozen other programs and a multitude of grant partners that have similar content management needs. Those materials range from digital images and photographs to radio interviews and oral histories related to African American and Virginia Indian history, from “”unpublished”” interview material for With Good Reason radio shows to raw footage for a never completed documentary film on artists in and around the Galax region in the mid-1990s. Preserving and managing all of these assets efficiently and bringing them together, so that they can be discovered in a single environment is an enormous challenge that requires expertise, planning, and, of course, money——a lot of money. But VFH recognizes that if we defer this effort or, worse, never act, then the cost will be much greater and the loss will be immeasurable.