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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.

LN
What brought you to the Music Library?

DA
A reformatting project on the Laura Boulton Collection, which is a collection of Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox chant repertoires.

LN
What state was the collection in?

DA
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 tapes—all 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 Foundation—along with the collection itself—for 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 Library—and the College Library in general—needed 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.

LN
I take it that you are not a librarian.

DA
No. I came here as an audio engineer having done a fair amount of mastering-and a lot of recording.

LN
What were you doing?

DA
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.

LN
What was your background?

DA
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.

LN
What are the goals of your LDI program?

DA
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 him—and 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 unique.

LN
Are the audio tapes the complete record of his work?

DA
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 them—scribbles 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.

LN
How do you coordinate these visual materials with the audio?

DA
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 tapes—except for the copies on CD that are in the library—are 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 performances—not just little snippets of sound—and to the written documentation that pertains to the performances.

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 collection—out of hundreds—and we have written permission to use their materials. Because a lot of these people are still living and still have viable careers.

LN
Of course.

DA
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.

LN
Issues that go beyond audio engineering.

DA
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.

LN
If you do the work, you become the expert.

DA
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.

LN
What's been the most interesting thing to you about the LDI project?

DA
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.

LN
Can you spell that out a bit more?

DA
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.

LN
How long will it take to complete?

DA
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.

LN
Is the Ellington material unique?

DA
Mostly not. Primarily it's commercial recordings. It is however a very comprehensive collection of Ellington's recordings.

LN
What's your message for the library community?

DA
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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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.