Friday, 31 July 2015

Guest blog post: authorised archives --- overview of the article "Historical records, national constructions: the contemporary popular music archive"

In this post, guest blogger Lauren Istvandity provides an overview of a journal article written by Sarah Baker, Peter Doyle and Shane Homan that emerged from the ARC funded project “Popular Music and Cultural Memory” and which was recently published in the journal Popular Music and Society.


The preservation of popular music heritage is increasingly prevalent, not only in DIY spheres, but also in terms of national collections. As Sarah Baker has shown through her current research, DIY preservation faces a host of issues, especially in regards to sustainability. However, authorized collections of music heritage, which are often seen as more stable, are under a different kind of pressure when it comes to practices of preservation.

In a new article published in Popular Music and Society, titled “Historical Records, National Constructions: The Contemporary Popular Music Archive”, Baker, Doyle and Homan compare the practices of national popular music collections in Australia, United States, United Kingdom, Israel, and Iceland. Of particular interest to the authors is the ways in which these archives and museums represent national cultural identity, in light of budgetary or technological demands.

The National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Australia is used as a case study with which other national collections are compared. The authors interviewed workers and curators at these institutions to obtain internal opinions on governance, archival practices, and other issues impacting on collection and representation, such as copyright, artefact selection and funding.

Conceptually, national archival institutions should strive to acquire a wide range of artefacts in order to comprehensively narrate the history and identity of the nation. This is becoming increasingly problematic, however, in a modern age where there is more historic information to be collected, logged, digitised, and stored, than ever before. As an additional challenge, the governmental funding allocated to national archives does not necessarily grow to reflect this change.

In the case of the NFSA, budgetary restrictions mean the organization must streamline its collections, whilst still trying to maintain a balanced representation of national identity. This leads to a collections policy that advocates for the de-selection of material that is not deemed significant enough to be housed in the archive. Internationally, the situation is similar in Britain, although countries with smaller populations, such as Iceland, are able to maintain more exhaustive collections policies.

The issue of copyright within museums and archives remains a complicated and above all, restrictive, matter in their governance. In Australia, copyright law prevents sharing of copyrighted material, such that archives may possess an original item, however in most cases they are prevented from copying or loaning this material. Further to this, the employment of peoples well-versed in copyright law within archives is often countered by budgetary restrictions. Both collection policies and copyright laws, as affected by budgets, impinge on the degree to which heritage institutions can house comprehensive collections, and in turn how they fulfill their role in representing national identity. Funding constraints are also felt in other national institutions, such as in Israel and Britain, where the labour-intensive processes of archiving are under-valued and consequently under-funded.

Attitudes towards the role of the archive in narrating identity vary throughout the world. It seems most heavily felt in Australia, where NFSA workers voiced their feelings of responsibility in collecting and preserving popular music heritage. A similar sentiment was echoed by workers at the National Library of Israel, who feel their work is of high significance. This concept was felt somewhat less strongly in the UK, where the discourses of a ‘national’ archive are not as keenly communicated through archival institutions. Throughout all of the museums and archives investigated for this research, it was found that the presence of multiculturalism complicated ideas of national identity, especially where such discourses were not properly represented in the archive.

In a time where there is so much material of popular music’s past to collect and preserve, there appears to be a dire need for a renewed approach to archiving within national public memory institutions. Indeed, if this is an issue for museums and archives in the present, changes to copyright law, increased funding, and an overhaul of collection policies in institutions worldwide is required to ensure the sustainability of future preservation practices.


Baker, S., Doyle, P. and Homan, S. (2015). Historical records, national constructions: The contemporary popular music archive. Popular Music and Society. doi: 10.1080/03007766.2015.1061336