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AFC accelerates its efforts to preserve analog media

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Alan Lomax recording at the Palma Festival, Palma de Mallorca (Mallorca), Islas Baleares (Spain), 1952. These recordings are part of a collection of 6,400+ that were recently inventoried.

This is a guest post by American Folklife Center archivist Maya Lerman.

Staff in the American Folklife Center archive finished a project that will improve our efficiency in preserving and making accessible AFC’s rich audiovisual collections. Like audiovisual archives everywhere, AFC is working to prepare for a time when obsolescence and degradation of physical media will greatly hinder preservation efforts.

We now have a new way to create inventory records for sound recording and moving image items in batch – thousands at time. A new java tool, custom built for us by AVPreserve, helps the archives staff more easily repurpose existing inventories to make audiovisual collections discoverable, improve their storage conditions, and prepare the ones not yet digitized for digital preservation. Using the tool made it possible for us to swiftly inventory and transfer the last portion of Alan Lomax’s collection of sound recordings (over 6,400 items) this past summer to the Library’s National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) in Culpeper, VA.

Some background: to send our audiovisual collections to their permanent home at NAVCC, we must document each item in the Library’s internal audiovisual inventory system, MAVIS (Merged Audio-visual Information System). MAVIS is used to track the location of analog and digital audiovisual collection items. It also is where preservation, descriptive, and technical metadata associated with these items can be stored. MAVIS is connected with the Packard Campus Workflow Application (PCWA), a workflow tool for staff that is the primary means by which we serve digital files onsite at the American Folklife Center in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. It’s also how staff listen to and download many of the digitized audiovisual files in our collection. When processing a large audiovisual collection, it is time-consuming to inventory each item in MAVIS individually.

While most of AFC’s audiovisual collections are already housed in Culpeper, in-process collections on storage decks in the Jefferson Building must be inventoried, barcoded and transferred to NAVCC. In 2013, AFC transferred its 8,800 wax cylinder recordings to NAVCC entering that inventory data into MAVIS the hard way. In this case, when it came to moving the collection of 6,400 recorded sound items that Alan Lomax collected following his departure from the Library of Congress in 1942, we generated each of those item records with the upload of a single file into MAVIS. This portion of the Lomax collection includes the field recordings he made around the world of music and oral history interviews, as well as the materials he collected for his Cantometrics research. Many of the recordings are digitized and accessible on the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) website. An example from Lomax’s trip to Spain, which was part of the collecting efforts that lead to the Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music, is below:

Tape box from Alan Lomax’s Spain collecting trip. Includes “Malagueña,” performed by Cortés, José Bernardo [guitar], and González, Francisco (Niño del Gas) [vocal]
Location: Barranco de las Conejeras, Granada (Granada), Andalucía (Spain), recorded September 9, 1952.
As part of the acquisition of this large Lomax collection in 2004, we received a Microsoft Access database containing information about the recordings that staff at the Association for Cultural Equity compiled. AFC’s Lomax collection curator Todd Harvey enriched the data, which includes technical fields about format and condition, as well as information about the region, field collector, date, and descriptions of each recording.

We realized that the Lomax sound recordings would be a challenging collection to start with, both because of the collection’s physical size and because of the amount of existing data we wanted to include in our MAVIS inventory records. But we also knew that the challenge would provide us with an opportunity to develop the capabilities we would need from a batch inventorying tool.

Staff from the AFC archive (archivists, catalogers, reference staff, and our digital assets manager) worked with the consultant to decide how we wanted the information from the Lomax database to map to fields in MAVIS. We wanted to re-use as much of the original descriptive information as possible.

Notebook from Lomax’s Spain trip. Source: Lomax Collection, Manuscripts, Spain, 1952-1953 –

Once the spreadsheet tool was built, we tested populating it with raw inventory data and converting it to an XML (Extensible Markup Language) file, which we uploaded to MAVIS. We collaboratively worked out issues ranging from wrong input fields to special characters that caused the import to fail.

In the meantime, we prepared the physical Lomax recordings for transfer to Culpeper. This involved populating the Lomax database with shelf numbers and LC item barcodes, and then affixing the labels to the various formats. This work was completed by archivist Marcia Segal, with assistance from me. We did it format by format, and in sections. We also took the opportunity to do additional rehousing of audio when containers were deteriorating. Section by section, we’d deliver the materials to the Recorded Sound Reference Center in the Library’s nearby Madison Building in cage carts for shipping to NAVCC.

The tool is a spreadsheet with multiple tabs. The “Global variables” tab includes fields that apply to the entire collection, such as collection title, collection identifiers, and donor/collector information. Another tab allows us to input information that doesn’t directly map to MAVIS fields, such as region/location and description, which the tool aggregates into the Summary field in MAVIS. This feature was particularly useful in the case of the Lomax collection. We had much meaningful information that wouldn’t neatly fit into specific MAVIS fields. Finally, we input into MAVIS the XML that the tool generated from all of the fields in the spreadsheet, thus generating the 6400+ inventory records. All of our work developing requirements, testing, and inputting the data was rewarded.

Original housing for a recording Alan Lomax made with singer Vera Hall. Archives staff have since rehoused discs in acid-free sleeves and delivered them to Culpeper, Virginia, where they will be preserved.

Though custom-built for AFC, the batch inventory tool can be applied to other collections inventory systems that have the ability to import XML files. AVPreserve has created a repository in Github ( that includes instructions for the tool, a zip file of the final build, and the raw java code.

The pace at which we can move analog audiovisual collections on the Library’s Capitol Hill campus to NAVCC has quickened. We now regularly use the tool to process the majority of our AV collections containing more than 25 items. Inventorying and consolidating our analog audiovisual collections in Culpeper not only improves storage and access, but aids in a new project to survey the entire audiovisual collections and develop a comprehensive plan for preservation digitization.



Comments (2)

  1. Great work, Maya and Marcia!

  2. Wow! Monumental work and a testament to the collaborative spirit of the AFC staff. Thanks for sharing.

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