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KEXP digitization
(KEXP Image / Casey Doherty)

Long before streaming came along and planted a song in your head digitally, music memories were collected on cassette tapes and other formats. Remember using VHS tapes to record MTV’s “120 Minutes” every Sunday? I do.

KEXP, the nonprofit Seattle radio station, is planning a new event to ensure that listeners’ cherished recordings aren’t lost to time. Along with the University of Washington Ethnomusicology Archives, the station is partnering with Seattle Public Library, Washington State University and Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound to host Pop Up Music Memory Digitization Labs on July 28 at the KEXP Gathering Space at Seattle Center.

Archivists and librarians will assist the public in creating digital copies of recordings from VHS tapes, reel-to-reel recordings, digital audio tape and more at the special one-day event.

Labs will be available to transfer video, audio, photos and small posters over to digital file-based formats and folks can learn about best practices for future preservation. A limited number of spots will also be available for attendees to venture into KEXP recording booths to record a short session about the stories behind some materials. Online registration is required for the day’s activities.

To learn more about the event, the inspiration behind it and what to expect, GeekWire chatted with KEXP’s Dylan Flesch, the station’s media asset librarian.

Dylan Flesch KEXP
Dylan Flesch of KEXP in Seattle has previously worked on the digitization of the longtime radio station’s analog archives. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

GeekWire: How did this idea originate? Did any experiences or best practices around digitization at KEXP lead to the desire to spread the knowledge to listeners?

Dylan Flesch: Preservation and access are the inseparable, core pillars behind the work I do as KEXP’s media asset librarian. Digitization definitely plays a part in these efforts as well. I think audiovisual materials sometimes get neglected when it comes to educational resources, the historical record, or primary research materials, because they can be more complex to work with. Lately though more people are beginning to recognize what audiovisual preservation professionals have known for a long time — that hearing and seeing history brings it to life in a way that text can’t.

John Vallier, head of Distributed Media and manager of the Ethnomusicology Archives at University of Washington Libraries, and I attended the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) at the Library of Congress in November of 2017. The meeting brings together academics, historians, archivists, librarians and researchers to plan strategies for preservation and classroom use of historical radio recordings. It was inspiring to be with so many people who work on preserving and making use of this important history.

Right after that conference John emailed me with the idea for hosting a “personal archiving day” at KEXP. It quickly grew from there as he pulled together a dream team of librarians and archivists. Libby Hopfauf, audiovisual archivist from Moving Image Preservation of Puget Sound; Andrew Weaver, digital infrastructure and preservation librarian at Washington State University Libraries; Valeria Wonder, community engagement manager at Seattle Public Library; and Andrew Harbison, assistant director of collections and access also at Seattle Public Library.

PREVIOUSLY: KEXP’s digital Nirvana: Radio station bringing vast album collection into new era, comments included

Our event is inspired in part by initiatives encountered while in DC for RPTF: the Great Migration initiative from the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the Memory Lab at DC Public Library. Both inspiring examples of cultural institutions providing their communities with preservation resources and assistance to ensure their memories aren’t lost to history. DCPL’s Memory Lab is now being used as a model for a Memory Lab Network with seven public libraries all building their own labs and participating in trainings and resource sharing.

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of pop-up and mobile preservation efforts like this for a long time. I remember attending the Digital Public Library of America’s West Coast plenary meeting in 2012 as a library and information science grad student and falling in love with the idea of Scannebagos (gutted Winnebagos equipped with digital preservation labs). Archivists and librarians road-tripping to cultural memory organizations who have requested services, making preservation copies of at-risk archival materials and sharing educational resources still sounds like a dream to me. If I didn’t already have my dream job, I’d find a way to make this happen.

GW: What are people mainly doing wrong when it comes to storing or holding onto old formats? Or is age alone the biggest problem?

DF: With audiovisual media objects held on physical carriers (like VHS tapes, cassettes, reel-to-reel recordings, digital audio tape) the big problem is the “evil twin headed monster” of degradation and obsolescence, or “degralescence” (credit to Mike Casey at Indiana University Media Digitization & Preservation Initiative). Degradation can be caused by physical damage from mold, dust, dirt, vermin, poor handling, or simply not having the media stored in an appropriate container or environment. Objects and their component materials also just degrade in different ways over time. Sticky shed syndrome, for instance, is a major plague for magnetic media like open reel audio tapes, where the material that binds magnetic particles to a tape breaks down. This can be worked around by baking the tapes and it’s important to identify before trying to play them back as well because playing back tapes with this issue will also damage your playback equipment. Which leads us to the second evil head of degralescence: obsolescence. Some playback equipment is no longer available new and is very hard to find used, it can have parts that are no longer available to purchase or find used, and it frequently needs repairs from specialized technicians who are mostly nearing traditional retirement age. Even recent formats like the CD are heading toward this eventual reality.

With this event, we’re mostly set up to combat the obsolescence monster, but we’re happy and well suited to recommend best practices for folks who show up with degradation issues as well.

GW: What are some of the best practices that will be shared?

DF: We’ll be sharing specific physical preservation tips with folks based on what they bring in. We’ll also share digital preservation tips. Attendees will be given a zine called “Maximum Preservation 2: Electronic Boogaloo,” a joint publication from the DC Punk Archive and DCPL Memory Labs, graciously made free to the world courtesy of Jamie Mears and Michele Casto. It has lots of effective, but simple preservation tips, like using lists so you don’t forget where you’ve saved something, using consistent and descriptive filenames, saving items in multiple locations, checking in on them every now and then, and sometimes converting old file types to new ones.

How valuable are your musical memories, and what format are they on? (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

GW: What types of technology will be used to transfer materials?

DF: Our setup will consist of a range of some specialized and some standard equipment and tools. I think the language around digital preservation can sometimes sound more complicated than it needs to, which may actually prevent people from taking steps with their personal memories, so I’ll keep it simple: our setup is basically a handful of workstations made up of computers (Mac and PC), audio, video and scanning capturing software, playback equipment (CD drives, cassette decks, turntables, reel-to-reel players, etc), cables and converters, and some quality control and monitoring hardware and/or software.

Workstations will be set up for various media types, each with a focus on a combination of the workflows below:

Analog-to-digital transfers:

  • audio – (1/4 inch audiotape reels, audio cassettes, vinyl)
  • video – (VHS, VHS-C, 8mm/Hi-8)
  • film – (16 mm, 8mm/super 8)
  • ephemera – (small posters, photos)

Digital-to-digital transfers:

  • audio – (DAT, optical discs (CD, CD-R, DVD)
  • video – (MiniDV, DV/DVCam)

GW: Are you expecting more than just musical memorabilia — as in, wedding videos and so on?

DF: We’re focused on music memories for this event — music memories that are considered valuable by our communities, undiscovered local gems from days of yore, home captured audio and video from music venues or events spaces that long ago went out of business. I’d love to see some KCMU listeners show up with “pirated” home cassette tapings of our old broadcasts. The pirates (probably descended from the same ones who were “killing the music industry” back when the player piano scene was strong in the 1920s) are often times the only reason significant broadcast history survives beyond an ephemeral moment over the airwaves.

Visit this site to register for the event.

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