Interview: David Ackerman
David Ackerman is the Audio Preservation Engineer of HCL's Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library. He is a key figure in a project funded by the Library
Digital Initiative (LDI) called "Music from the Archive: a New Model of
Access to Rare and Unique Sound Recordings." He was interviewed for Harvard
University Library Notes on April 26.
What brought you to the Music Library?
A reformatting project on the Laura Boulton Collection, which is a
collection of Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox chant repertoires.
What state was the collection in?
It was all reel-to-reel tape, mostly from the sixties and late fifties.
They were not cataloged. Users had no access to that collection at all. The
collection is a part of the Archive of World Music, and in that Archive,
none of the original materials are handled by patrons, except for compact
discs, which we feel pretty safe letting people handle. But reel-to-reel
tapes, even cassettes, DAT tapesall those sorts of things-we reformat to
preserve the materials before we give patrons access to them.
But to go back to how I came here, the Loeb Music Library received a grant
from the Laura Boulton Foundationalong with the collection itselffor the
reformatting. And that was how they were able to hire me. It was a
temporary project, that was supposed to go maybe 18 months and we concluded
the project pretty much on time. At that point Ginny Danielson really felt
strongly that the Music Libraryand the College Library in generalneeded
an audio engineer to continue this work. The Boulton Collection was just
the tip of the iceberg. HCL created an FTE to keep me on, and, after a
short time, the position was endowed. I've been here ever since.
I take it that you are not a librarian.
No. I came here as an audio engineer having done a fair amount of
mastering-and a lot of recording.
What were you doing?
Mostly local rock music. But I was also working with some of the world
music bands in the Boston area. I'd done some work for Rounder and for
Heartbeat Records, and a lot of independent CDs with local artists. So I
was aware of what was going on locally in the world music scene. I was used
to working with unusual music, not just European classical or pop rock: I
had an ear for other things.
What was your background?
I started out as an apprentice in a recording studio called Blue Jay out in
Carlisle, Massachusetts back in '89. I worked on all kinds of projects,
local bands, national artists. That was a great education. After that I
started working professionally on a free-lance basis, and this whole thing
clicked. I spent some time managing a studio in Allston called The Lanes in
the mid-90s as well.
What are the goals of your LDI program?
The primary goals are access to the material-and the preservation of that
material as we have it. For example, the Rubin Collection is mostly unique
recordings. Rubin was a businessman who loved South Indian classical music.
He made connections with prominent musicians of the time. He had access to
musicians that even the record labels couldn't get. These musicians would
perform for himand allow him to record their work. He made these
recordings (that no one has ever heard) of very famous and prominent
musicians, of people who were the best of their generation. They are truly
Are the audio tapes the complete record of his work?
No, there are many field notes that he took as well. Primarily, he logged
who he was recording and when. If he had some idea of what they would
perform, he would write that down as well. Sometimes he made notes about
how he recorded themscribbles about where he placed microphones in
relation to performers, that kind of thing. And then there's his large
collection of program books from Indian music festivals. These are the
primary sources of written documentation that we have.
How do you coordinate these visual materials with the audio?
We want researchers to navigate the collection as they see fit. We want to
give them the freedom to choose what they want to look at and listen to-at
the same time to present the collection in a cohesive way. In a sense,
we're unifying the collection through technology.
If researchers were to come to Harvard, they'd find that the program books
were at HD, the notes were in another location, and the tapesexcept for
the copies on CD that are in the libraryare out of bounds. You'd be trying
hard to figure out how all of this belongs together. So that's where the
multimedia aspects come into all of this with the LDI project. We're trying
to give comprehensive access to the collection to serious researchers.
They'll have online access to full audio performancesnot just little
snippets of soundand to the written documentation that pertains to the
But let me qualify that: it's access to the entire performance that we make
available over the network. For now, we've chosen three performers from the
Rubin collectionout of hundredsand we have written permission to use
their materials. Because a lot of these people are still living and still
have viable careers.
Ethically, we can't short-circuit someone's career by saying, "Look, here
are their performances online." Nor do you want to put out what they might
consider to be a poor performance. So we ask them, "Is there something you
want to exclude?" We honor that. We'll still have it here, but we won't
netcast it to the whole world. So there are these ethical questions which
we're very aware of.
Issues that go beyond audio engineering.
Right, for example the LDI project has spun me out into this whole new
world of metadata. We had to define audio metadata for the project. And so
we developed some goals: Robin Wendler, Mackenzie Smith, Steven Chapman,
and myself. We sat down and talked about what we had to know in order to
play back this sound in 100 years.
I'm also a member of an organization called AES, the Audio Engineering
Society. Through AES, I joined a technical council on archiving and
restoration in digital libraries. From that, I got connected with a group
that is trying to write a standard for audio metadata-and I became head of
the writing team for the standard. We had a meeting back in February at
Library of Congress, and since then, I've been working on two documents
that are going to be circulated. I'm going to Amsterdam next month to meet
with the standards committee, and also give a talk about audio metadata. I
knew nothing about metadata, but suddenly I have people calling me up and
thinking of me as an expert.
If you do the work, you become the expert.
I'm on the leading edge despite everything! There are all kinds of metadata
and each serves a different purpose. Cataloging is metadata. You have
administrative metadata and you have descriptive metadata, structural metadata. Most of
what I'm dealing with is structural metadata.
What's been the most interesting thing to you about the LDI project?
About the LDI project? I guess the metadata question. It's made me think
the hardest. How to reformat audio is second nature to me. There's always
an interesting problem that arises. But the metadata has forced me to
think about my role differently-what's important to know about the work
that I do. Not just for me. For other people.
Can you spell that out a bit more?
Well . . . when I started reformatting audio at Harvard, my boss came in
with a piece of paper and said, "Please fill out this form every time you
do a tape." It included the tape speed and a few general parameters. I
said, "This isn't the way an engineer would document things." So we changed
the form and started asking, "How should we document our work?" Now, here I
am six years later and I've just written my first XML DTD to document how
every piece of gear was connected to every other piece of gear. How to
really document it so somebody could look at this later, parse through the
data and say, "Ah, this is exactly what he did to it when he did the
transfer." What it tells you is the strengths and deficiencies of the
recording. It may help you manage the collection later.
Regarding the Rubin Collection, the tapes are getting to the point where
the work needs to be done now. The tapes aren't likely to last another 10
years. It's good that we got the LDI funding so that we could get up and
running on this.
How long will it take to complete?
The LDI project will run another year or so-and that will complete the
Rubin Collection finding aid. We hope that the Laura Boulton finding aid
will be completed and on line by the end of the summer. And the Ellington
collection will move fairly quickly as well.
Is the Ellington material unique?
Mostly not. Primarily it's commercial recordings. It is however a very
comprehensive collection of Ellington's recordings.
What's your message for the library community?
That we're here and available to help. We're a cost-recovery operation. You
can call me. The way my job is set up, a certain percentage of my time is
for HCL audio preservation in general. If someone had a collection in
desperate need of rescuing, I'm sure we'd find a way to help.
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