Appraisal of the Library of Congress Commissioned Composers Web Archive

This blog post was first posted on June 25, 2019 on The Signal by Trevor Owens, Head of Digital Content Management at the Library of Congress. In the Muse happily cross-posts this interview about the Music Division’s participation in web archiving activities at the Library.

A key part of the Library of Congress Music Division is commissioning works from composers. This work has resulted in the development and performance of a wide range of significant works. Valuable documentation of the creators supported through these commissions increasingly appears as part of websites which are often ephemeral. Recognizing the value and ephemerality of this content, Music Reference Specialist, Melissa E. Wertheimer proposed and now curates and manages the LC Commissioned Composers Web Archive. Melissa recently presented on her work on this collection at the spring Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference in Morgantown, West Virginia. I am thrilled to share the slides from her presentation here on The Signal and to interview her about lessons learned from developing this unique and significant digital collection.

Trevor: You provide some context in the talk about how and why this collection fits with the history and mission of the Library of Congress Music Division. Could you walk readers through that? It would be great if you could give an example or two that illustrate connections across the work of the division and the collection.

Melissa: Former division chief James W. Pruett eloquently discusses how foundations and commissions make us “unique among national libraries.” The Music Division has commissioned new music from composers since 1925, and world premieres of those commissions almost always happen here in the Coolidge Auditorium (exceptions are usually co-commissions). Part of every commission contract is that the Music Division receives the original score – that’s how commissions build our collection of unique music materials. Of course, the formats of those originals have changed greatly over time as composers’ methods do, from handwritten scores and sketches, to computer printouts with handwritten edits, to music notation files on CD-ROMs.

The first fund created to commission new works at the Library of Congress was the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. It’s overwhelming to think about how much core solo and chamber music repertoire is because of Mrs. Coolidge. As a flutist, my mind goes immediately to my favorite piece of chamber music to both listen to and perform, Maurice Ravel’s Chansons madécasses for mezzo-soprano, flute doubling piccolo, cello, and piano. Because of this 1925 commission, the Music Division holds the holograph score and correspondence between Coolidge and Ravel in the Foundation’s papers.

A screenshot of Augusta Read Thomas’ website, included in the collection as a site from a commissioned composer.

In the LC Commissioned Composers Web Archive, we’re crawling websites of two French foundations related to Maurice Ravel, Le Fondation Maurice Ravel and Les Amis de Maurice Ravel. For a more contemporary example, the world premiere of Austin Wintory’s Arrows for violin and piano, commissioned by the McKim Fund (established in 1970 by violinist Leonora Jackson McKim and her husband W. Duncan McKim), just took place in the Coolidge Auditorium on April 4 as part of our Video Game Music Mini-Fest. Afterward, I added his website to the collection. We were able to crawl his social media posts related to the event, too, which is something special about crawling websites of living composers.

Trevor: How did your process begin? What sites did you start with and how has it grown? What do you see as the future growth for the collection?

Melissa: I started by creating a single cohesive list of every commissioned composer, work, and fund in one spreadsheet (dataset coming soon!). Decades of information like this as manual data entry took months. I felt that the best place to start the URL nomination process was with the most high risk websites – personal websites of deceased composers – because they would be most likely to come down. They often took the longest in terms of permissions, as well, because I had to track down heirs. This decision proved to be quite prescient. One commissioned composer, George Walker, died in August 2018, and his website was gone by the winter. But, we captured it! Then, I moved to deceased composers’ legacy foundations. Once I cycled through all the deceased composers, I went through my list of living composers alphabetically.

Now that I’ve addressed websites of composers commissioned up to 2018, it should be pretty smooth sailing to annually add websites of composers commissioned each year. This initial ingest was the big push. A surprising part of this process was finding how many composers did not have websites. I expected this with early to mid-20th century composers like Edgard Varèse, but I was quite surprised about how many major composers active right now – like Sofia Gubaidulina, Chen Yi, or Brian Ferneyhough – don’t have official websites.

Trevor: You talk a bit about some of your approach to appraising sites for the collection. You also described some clear distinctions about what kinds of sites related to the composers are in and out of scope. Could you talk through these points a bit and give some examples?

A screenshot of the Tri-Centric Foundation’s website, an example of a living composer’s foundation site in the archive

Melissa: The web is so vast, and it isn’t possible (or necessary) keep everything – it’s why theories and methods of appraisal exist, to help us select the best, most authentic records we can for posterity. The scope of any collection, be it websites or paper, is vital to define, but often harder to enforce for ephemeral objects like web sites.

For archivists, authenticity is about closeness to the creator – in the case of the LC Commissioned Composers Web Archive, the composers themselves and their heirs. The further from the composer, the potentially less authentic, less accurate, and less unique the information; it’s just like a game of “Telephone,” when by the end of the game the last person’s phrase barely resembles the one used to start the chain. That’s why Wikipedia pages are out of scope for this collection, for example. No matter how detailed the information may seem, it isn’t verifiable to be by the composer or their heirs, let alone broken links in citations. The same goes for faculty directory pages or music publisher pages for composers who may not have websites. Those types of pages serve intermediary informational functions that serve the institutions who created those pages, rather than composers and their legacies.

At first, I included composers’ music publisher pages and faculty directory pages in my spreadsheet because I wanted those composers represented if they didn’t have official websites. Eventually, I realized that this collection would have more value if the appraisal criteria was tighter. That decision filtered out nearly 50 websites.

Trevor: In your talk, you described the significance of the aggregate value of the websites as a collection. Could you tell us a bit about that and how that informs your approach to building the collection?

Melissa: One website, one book, one score, one letter – they’re all just that, single items without context. The aggregate value of these websites is the story they tell as a whole. This context is important because each web archive collection is an “artificial collection,” a digitally united group of objects without common creators. I’m excited that this collection is going to be part of a pilot to incorporate Library of Congress Subject Headings and Name Authorities because then websites related by one commissioning fund can be linked not only to each other, but also to catalog records of musical scores, recordings, books, and special collections.

I also think about aggregate value in terms of time, not just content. I like to imagine Library users 25 years from now looking at archived versions of a composer’s website when it first got crawled and being amazed how the content changed, how many more works were published and in our catalog over time, and how many more commissions – or even their papers! – came to the Music Division after that moment.

Trevor: Are there any other areas of web content that you are working on web archives for the Music Division? Are there other areas you are thinking about developing new collections around?

Melissa: One is websites related to Music Division special collections, which will have a degree of overlap with the LC Commissioned Composer Web Archive, but also have new content. This is especially important to reflect our performing arts special collections holdings, like set designers, choreographers, and performers. Another web archive idea I have is for websites of performing arts organizations and foundations to document the professional, educational, and philanthropic elements of performing arts communities. Colleagues are also beginning to submit ideas for collections as well.