The Day The Music Burned: A euology and indictment on our preservation failures
Jun 12th, 2019 by Isaiah Beard

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article that recounts a day the music industry lost a great deal of its history, and yet very people knew or understood the impact. Deemed “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business,” the 2008 Universal Backlot Fire was one in which an estimated 175,00 recordings – master tapes from studio sessions, in various formats from analog to digital – burned and were lost forever.

Of course, “lost” is a relative term. Popular recordings obviously didn’t disappear from our iPhones or CD collections as a result of this fire. However, there is an important point about what we listen to, and what many of us actually never hear, that is lost in the nuance:

It is sonic fidelity, first and foremost, that defines the importance of masters. “A master is the truest capture of a piece of recorded music,” said Adam Block, the former president of Legacy Recordings, Sony Music Entertainment’s catalog arm. “Sonically, masters can be stunning in their capturing of an event in time. Every copy thereafter is a sonic step away.”
This is not an academic point. The recording industry is a business of copies; often as not, it’s a business of copies of copies of copies. A Spotify listener who clicks on a favorite old song may hear a file in a compressed audio format called Ogg Vorbis. That file was probably created by converting an MP3, which may have been ripped years earlier from a CD, which itself may have been created from a suboptimal “safety copy” of the LP master — or even from a dubbed duplicate of that dubbed duplicate. Audiophiles complain that the digital era, with its rampant copy-paste ethos and jumble of old and new formats, is an age of debased sound: lossy audio files created from nth-generation transfers; cheap vinyl reissues, marketed to analog-fetishists but pressed up from sludgy non-analog sources. “It’s the audio equivalent of the game of ‘Telephone,’ ” says Henry Sapoznik, a celebrated producer of historical compilation albums. “Who really would be satisfied with the sixth message in?”


It is the master recordings from which “good” copies of albums for public consumption are created, and now, many of them are lost. So, too, are recordings that the public never heard: outtakes and demos of well known artists who are no longer with us; as well as obscure artists that might not have made it in their time, but could have been rediscovered later had their music survived.

The article is a critique on the state of archival preservation, and how much of it is driven by commercial appeal and monetary gain. At UMG, one of the largest holders of musical recordings in the world, archives have often been seen as a burden, and only when format changes happens that require remastering have management been reminded of the importance of keep and preserving good original masters. So too, is often the case in other fields: Television, Film, and even in libraries where ever-shrinking budgets cause hard choices to be made about what to keep, and what to throw.

Remembering the 75th D-Day Anniversary
Jun 6th, 2019 by Isaiah Beard

From Wikipedia: A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach(Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France) on the morning of June 6, 1944. American soldiers encountered the newly formed German 352nd Division when landing. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties.

As we celebrate the 75th Anniversary of one of the most important events in world history, there is a concern that the true meaning of this day, and the significance it holds, may be lost on future generations. Fortunately, one of the unique aspects of Word War II is that it is the first war fought which had extensive audio and film recordings of the events as they unfolded. It was also the first time radio really shone in the theatre of journalism, reporting the events as they happened.

It’s possible to relive these events. The Internet Archive has a recording of D-Day new broadcasts, starting form the initial reports of the invasion (interestingly, from German news sources reporting the invasion in progress, with allied news sources unable to confirm due to a media blackout from the war department), all the way to journalists on the scene, reporting back on their experiences.

If you’re interested, I invite you have a listen:

Internet archive: D-Day Broadcasts

Sometimes, tech blogs get it all wrong
Aug 3rd, 2017 by Isaiah Beard

Tech blogs are great sometimes for showing people nice “hacks” (or really, just features) that people can use to get the most of the technology they use.  But, they don’t always get their facts correct.

One glaring example is an article I came across last week, explaining how to remove Exif Metadata from photos on your iPhone.  This metadata, the author insists, is the enemy, allegedly gunking up your phone with needless data:

Unless you’re a super professional photographer or are wanting to get a bit more in-depth with your photographs/info for a project of some sort, then EXIF data has little use to you besides weighing down your iPhone with unnecessary metadata.

What they’re suggesting is that 1. Metadata takes up a lot of space, and 2. It “bogs down” your phone. Both of these things are false.

What is EXIF metadata?

EXIF is a standard for technical metadata that is embedded intro most photos.  Some of it if fairly routine: information about the editing software used, the make and model of camera, and editing history.  But there is also some relatively useful information just as date and time stamping and location data often contained in EXIF, especially for photographs taken by smartphones.  The data is necessary for your photo software to organize your photos by time and place… very useful if you have thousands of photos and want to quickly search for a specific one.

The authors of the above article recommend that you “strip” you photos of all the metadata to solve some problem that doesn’t really exist. This isn’t such a great idea, because metadata is how your phone (and your tablet, and your computer) organize your memories. When you say, “Hey Siri/Google/Alexa/Cortana, show me those photos I took last year from Timbuktu,” your assistant needs to have location and time data matched up with the photo. That’s metadata. And metadata is how it knows the difference between the photos you took last year at Timbuktu, from the photos you took last night at Olive Garden.

If you remove all that, it would be like someone taking a few thousand physical photos out of their boxes/envelopes/albums, erasing anything written on the back of them, and then scattering them all on the floor, many of them face-down. Then saying “quick! Find that photo of Aunt Agnes on the third night of her first honeymoon!”

You’d go nuts trying to find that picture, and you’ll probably give up before you actually stumble on it. Likewise, if you wipe all your photo metadata on your phone, your smartphone will suddenly act a lot dumber, and will suddenly be unable to find a lot of things it used to just magically know.

Does metadata take up a lot of space? No. At work, we have a small repository with 11.46 Terabytes of data… enough to fill about 359 iPhone 7+s to the brim. Of all that data, 0.01% of that is metadata. And we are VERY detailed about our metadata, more so than what the average smartphone records.

Metadata doesn’t “bog down” your phone. It actually makes your phone do a lot of the things you expect it to do.

That said, there ARE some cases where you might want to make a copy of a picture or a video, and then wipe its metadata. Sharing a picture with someone else but wanting to remain anonymous, for example. Or, posting a video but preserving your privacy on social media. For reasons like that, yes, this is useful tool. Just not something you want to do on your whole collection of media, “just because.”

ALCTS Presentation: Preserving Your Digital Life
Jul 13th, 2016 by Isaiah Beard

So much of our personal histories are now being recorded digitally, a point I make quite often in this blog.  In particular, smartphone sand social media have made it so that chances are good that the past several years of your life, and the foreseeable future, will be documented in some way by you, in the form of photos, videos, text messages, and even live streaming social media posts.  With that being the case, the ability to document them the right way, and make those memories last, is becoming a necessary life skill.  And so, Personal Digital Archiving is now the emerging buzzphrase among the digital preservation community.

Preservationists like myself are certainly recognizing this need, and we’re starting to lend some of our expertise to the public. As part of this effort, myself and Krista White, Digital Humanities Librarian at Rutgers Libraries, gave a seminar both in-person and on the web that describes some of the terminology and technical issues that people need to be aware of when recording something for posterity. The session, titled “Preserving Your Digital Life” was sponsored by the Association for Library Collections & Technical Services.

The video of the webinar is available on YouTube, and can be seen below.  I hope it helps people who have personal media and need to know what the first steps are to keeping it around for years to come.



Floppy disks and modern gadgets: Keeping a safe distance
Mar 25th, 2016 by Isaiah Beard

iPhone and 3.5" floppy

Never do this: smartphones can be deadly to magnetically stored data in some circumstances.

In my dealings with preserving older, born-digital documents and data, I’ve run into this situation quite often: Someone comes into the DCRC with a 3.5″ floppy disk or other magnetic media and asks if we can help them migrate the data to more modern storage, such as a USB flash drive.  We do maintain a couple of floppy drives for this purpose, so normally we can help.  However, we sometimes cringe and express a bit of concern at how they’re holding the floppy disk(s) being brought in, or rather, what people commonly hold those old disks against.

What’s the problem?  Smartphones, and sometimes tablets or even modern laptops. With mobile devices being nearly ubiquitous in the US and particularly among college students and faculty, it’s a normal occurrence to see them being carried around in one’s hand. It’s also not uncommon to stack a smartphone against some other object a person might be carrying… like a book, or a laptop, or, unfortunately, that floppy disk you might want to recover data from.

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