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Collaborative archiving Out West: aspirations, frustrations, celebrations

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This is a guest post from John Vallier, Head, Distributed Media at the University of Washington Libraries. His post is based on a presentation he made at an American Folklife Center symposium held at the Library of Congress last fall.

Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble (Peter De Guzman, Eleanor Lipat, Nicole Martin, Will Simbol, and Mary Talusan) performing at the AFAMILA Festival, June 2004 (photo by John Vallier).
Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble (Peter De Guzman, Eleanor Lipat, Nicole Martin, Will Simbol, and Mary Talusan) performing at the AFAMILA Festival, June 2004 (photo by John Vallier).

This past September I had the pleasure of participating in the American Folklife Center’s Cultural Heritage Archives Symposium. This two-day event brought together archivists, ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, digital humanists, artists, activists, museologists, and host of other –ists committed to the preservation and ethical dissemination of cultural heritage materials. Attendees presented and spoke to one another about a wide range of topics, including archival repatriation, curatorial re-mixing, and archive/community partnerships. In contrast to what was at the time a looming Federal Shutdown, the Symposium was characterized by a sprit of collegiality and open communication.

The following is part of a presentation I gave at the symposium. In it I give an overview of some collaborative efforts I have been involved with to build unique regional music collections at UCLA and the University of Washington in Seattle. I focus on the collaborative aspects of these efforts, and in so doing describe my work with musicians, community-based non-profits and archivists, students, record companies, and other stakeholders. I attempt to show that although collaboration can at times require a recalibration of expectations, the end results are well worth the effort.

UCLA IN LA Collections

Between 2002 and 2006 I was the ethnomusicology archivist at UCLA. Times were good, so good that UCLA was able to fund community partnerships between university departments and Los Angeles-based community non-profits. The Ethnomusicology Archive had two of these grants. With Archiving Filipino American Music in Los Angeles (AFAMILA) we documented Filipino American musical events over the course of the year and added these recordings to the Archive. From indie-rock to hip-hop to kulingtang, we made hundreds of live recordings with the help of students and our community partners. With Gospel Archiving in Los Angeles (GALA), we again recorded hundreds of hours of performances but this time mostly at one church: Greater New Bethel Baptist Church in Inglewood. With both projects we held culminating events and performances with our community members. Both projects were successful, and celebratory kumbaya was had, but there is no denying that frustrations were also part of the mix.

A few groups we wanted to record initially refused to participate because of an uneasy pre-history they had with one of our community partners, something we were not initially aware of. Also, one group wanted to explicitly ban one researcher from accessing recordings of their performances. This was not something we were willing to do. Finally, perhaps my grandest (and most naïve) hope of all—that the archive would become a place that community members would use for research and study—didn’t pan out. It’s difficult to convince someone to visit an archive when it is tucked away in an ivory-tower setting and ringed with pricey parking lots, especially when user expectations are more in line with YouTube-like access.

A corner of Kearny Barton’s Seattle basement “archive” (photo by David Belisle).
A corner of Kearny Barton’s Seattle basement “archive” (photo by David Belisle).

Kearny Barton Collection

Kearney Barton was a Seattle recording engineer considered to be the godfather of the “original NW Sound,” an analog-soaked sound you can hear on recordings by proto-garage bands such as the Sonics, the Frantics, and the Ventures. He also recorded other groups in his 50 years of work, including a teenage Ann Wilson, bands for Quincy Jones, and—perhaps—the first ever recording of Jimi Hendrix. Great stuff worthy of celebration, but not exactly well organized or cared for.

While the condition of his collection was frustrating, working with Barton was a joy. Even though he was far from being a certified archivist, he understood what it would take to catalog and digitize his legacy. It was with another partner, a local record company that was re-releasing parts of the collection, where some mild frustrations grew. Even though I was clear about UW’s inability to take the collection in without additional funding, some at the record company thought we should accession and process it all. However, as Barton and I worked more closely together unrealistic expectations subsided just in time for another source of collaborative frustration. Someone from a company called Google called us to propose that they digitize all 4000 tapes for free (minus the shipping costs to NYC). Proposals were written, conference calls had, but—in the end—Google failed to commit. Frustration, for sure, but celebrations are now in order as an endowment from Barton and his estate has arrived to support ongoing care for the collection. And in case you are wondering, we haven’t found that Hendrix recording…yet.

Crocodile Café Collection

On to a collection that encompasses five years’ worth of live recordings made at the Crocodile Café, a Seattle rock club where some of the grungiest bands in town once played. Before you get too excited, note that this collection was made between 2002 and 2007, a good decade after grunge imploded. However, that is precisely what makes it interesting. It documents a time in Seattle music history when multiple scenes were developing—led by such bands as Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Reggie Watts’ Maktub, and Harvey Danger. There were internationally touring acts, too, such as Yoko Ono, Adam Ant, and Robyn Hitchcock.

One important fact about the collection: the sound engineer who made the recordings didn’t get permissions from the bands before recording them. Instead he recorded them without their knowledge and then let them know after the show, asking if they wanted to buy a CD of their performance. In collaboration with Laurel Sercombe at UW’s Ethnomusicology Archives, we managed to bring the collection to UW but, due to these murky rights issues, we made it accessible in the library only. I, naively again, thought the collection would still be well received by fans and pop music scholars alike.

As you can see from the following comment, fans were not universally excited by the idea of having to come into a library to listen to “their music.”

Searching through the near-encyclopedic list of the thousands of hours of footage induces feelings of joy and dread at the prospect of being able to re-listen to some of my favorite shows I saw at the Crocodile at the expense of listening while being strapped to a pair of headphones under fluorescent lights.[i]

There were many more comments that put the library in a less than favorable light, including a thread where fans planned to break into the library at night and pull off a “Mission Impossible type maneuver” to steal the recordings. And yet it wasn’t only fans that expressed frustration with the archival lock down. A scholar who wanted to use parts of the collection in an online exhibit expected to use the unpublished recordings under the guise of fair use and without permissions from performers. While frustrating at first, these reactions spurred me to work with the collector, fans, bands, and others to make at least a portion of the recordings more widely available.

Screenshot from the Crocodile Café Collection SoundCloud page:
Screenshot from the Crocodile Café Collection SoundCloud page.

Bob Nelson Collection

The Bob Nelson Collection contains hundreds of hours of regional folk music recordings collected by Bob Nelson, a Pacific Northwest folk music icon (and hootennanie host). Nelson was determined to digitize and describe a trove of analog reel-to-reel recordings on his own time and equipment. A community archivist to be celebrated and supported, for sure, but I had to get used to the fact that certain digitization and description standards were not going to be realized. Thankfully UW graduate student Lauren Work stepped in and worked with Nelson to assist with his Google spreadsheet, quality control his transfers, and make the recordings accessible online. Lesson learned? Collaborating with and building the capacity of community archivists is vital to the success of building rich local music collections. However, for the good of the overall project, professional archivists may from time to time need to sidestep, or at least postpone, the implementation of exacting archival standards, standards that could inadvertently kill the project as a whole.

Screenshot of the Bob Nelson Collection guide:
Screenshot of the Bob Nelson Collection guide:

Looking Back, Moving Forward

As I look back on these and other collaborative archiving ventures, I wonder what makes such projects ultimately successful. While each collaboration presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities, all projects benefit when they are grounded in mutual understanding. As librarians and archivists we need to make every effort to understand where our partners are coming from, what their expectations and capabilities are. By the same token, I believe we need to be sure that our partners understand our own expectations, capabilities, and limitations. This requires transparency, open communication, and looking beyond ourselves to our common goal: making a community’s musical heritage accessible for generations to come. When we do that, frustrations fade and celebrations emerge.



  1. It’s refreshing to see someone openly talk about the frustrating issues that can arise — and as an audio archivist, with audio recordings especially! Thank you for sharing this.

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