In addition to the ongoing challenge of direct digital preservation there are other related activities that are crucial to this effort. Lots of things, actually – that are not directly “preservation” activities but do affect the digital preservation end result. Things such as metadata – which I’d like to focus on here, and using music as a specific example.
To preserve anything, you have to first be able to find or “access” the item, and the item is only findable if it has accurate information, or metadata attached. This is the kind of information listed in library catalog records, on web-based music services, or any number of searchable listings. It’s of course true for any subject area, but as a musician and former staffer of the Library’s Music Division the accessibility of music, of classical music in particular, is of special interest to me. Whatever the subject, a common challenge exists: how to find the exact historic item among many similar ones.
Music metadata includes information such as composer, artist, title, genre, date, etc. So, what are the challenges in “identifying” this music? Sometimes, due to the many changes or interpretations over time, the specific “title” of a musical work may match up in two different sources, but the “opus” numbers won’t. Or, sometimes the title itself will be listed a bit differently, especially if there is a translation involved. Sometimes one composer’s name has two or more different spellings (“Tchaikovsky” vs. “Chaikovsky”) which can make it difficult to find all listings through a search. The list goes on.
Of course, once an item is in digital form, the goal is to have an electronic record with some sort of unique identifier (an ID number) attached. But you still have to be sure that particular item is the one you are looking for.
Now, let’s say the metadata is consistent for a given item. (We can dream, can’t we?) But, what about the tool used to find or “access” it? This next round of confusion is brought on by the digital download, and the fact that many download services are pop-music centric. So you might download a recording of a Mozart string quartet onto a smart phone or any other digital device and instead of seeing a listing by “Mozart”, the individual tracks/movements would be listed by the performing group instead. This makes it hard to search for a specific work by Mozart, or any other composer for that matter.
We can’t recommend specific commercial download services, but, there are some out there now designed to handle the multi-movement, composer oriented nature of classical music. So, things are looking up there.
Also, there are some ongoing technical efforts underway in the library and archiving communities, whose members are doing the important work needed to provide solutions for these challenges. To mention a couple – the music information retrieval community, “ISMIR” (active for over 10 years), and “DDEX“, the Digital Data Exchange.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg when talking about challenges in searching for music. The bottom line is, before you can preserve anything, you need to be able to identify, then access, whatever it is you’re trying to preserve.