Thursday, 14 May 2015

Guest blog post: sustainable archiving --- overview of the article "Sustaining popular music's material culture in community archives and museums"

In this post, guest blogger Lauren Istvandity provides an overview of a journal article written by Sarah Baker (Griffith University) and Jez Collins (Birmingham City University) that emerged from the ARC funded project “Do-it-yourself popular music archives” and which was recently published in the journal International Journal of Heritage Studies.


Both online and physical sites of DIY archives face particular challenges when it comes to maintaining their collecting and exhibition practices, especially in the long-term. Key factors affecting these sites include volunteer attrition, copyright and piracy laws, access to appropriate storage space, motivation, and funding opportunities, all of which may lead to the closure of archives. While authorized institutions such as national archives and museums may also face some threats to their longevity, challenges confronting volunteer-run archives are underscored by a lack of financial and in-kind support from external sources.

As Sarah Baker and Jez Collins found, these DIY sites face closure frequently, as evidenced by the remnants of both physical and online archives’ websites still residing on the internet. The Jazz Museum Bix Eiben Hamburg, a physical archive, and the online archives Mutant Sounds and Holy Warbles are three examples of sites recently closed due to sustainability issues.

Despite the obvious differences between physical and online archives, they are both subject to similar problems in that they run purely on the work of passionate individuals. Both Jazz Museum Bix Eiben Hamburg and Mutant Sounds describe the health of founding members as reasons for archive closure. The ageing workforce that typically fuels DIY archives makes such sites more vulnerable to closure for such reasons. Without the driving force of a founder or equally impassioned team, the motivation for others to continue collecting and displaying artefacts is decreased. As Sarah found in her visits to the Victorian Jazz Archive in Australia (now the Australian Jazz Museum), “passing the baton” of responsibility to younger generations is at the forefront of the archives’ stability plan.

Another central aspect that can cripple the activity of archives is the imposition of copyright laws that prohibit the unlicensed sharing of copyrighted material. This is particularly damaging for the practices of music archives, where rare and bootleg recordings hold a level of cultural, rather than monetary, value for fans. A systematic closure of websites stemming from a US court ruling in 2012 meant the end for the online music archive Holy Warbles, the founder of which was helpless to stop the termination of his site.

So what can be done to pre-empt these issues and stem the tide of DIY archives and museums that are reluctantly giving up the ghost? If these recent closures serve as instructive examples, current and future archival projects must construct contingency plans that look toward long-term outcomes. One solution is to consider collection integration, where one archive is absorbed by another when facing circumstances of insurmountable challenges. At present, such an idea garners much opposition from archival managers, who fear for the loss of artefacts and autonomy that would occur during integration.  How might this be overcome? In the medium-term, managers of DIY archives can look strategically at aspects such as volunteer up-skilling, archive location, public outreach, and succession planning, all of which may prolong the ‘shelf-life’ of the archive. Online archivists should keep on track with new technology trends, and look to update their archive platform on a regular basis to avoid redundancy.

World-wide, DIY archives play an important role in providing public access to popular music artefacts that are often neglected by mainstream heritage institutions. As such, it is imperative that all concerned identify and strategise against the identified challenges to securing long-term futures for DIY heritage sites.