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Phonographs on display at the Musee Edison du Phonographe, Quebec

Photo by Regan Walsh, 2010, via Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

In 2005, UNESCO declared 27 October the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve spent a decent portion of your life consuming audiovisual media, whether in the form of news broadcasts, podcasts, TV commercials or, yes, silly cat videos. Today, the sheer volume of audiovisual stuff, combined with the seemingly endless memory of the internet, might make us take its availability for granted. But audio and video recordings are notoriously vulnerable. Tapes are lost, damaged or re-used; technologies become obsolete; valuable recordings gather dust in forgotten cupboards, uncatalogued and inaccessible. The internet might be great at preserving ephemera, but there is a real danger of important cultural knowledge being lost.

According to the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives, “much of the world’s audiovisual heritage has already been irrevocably lost through neglect, destruction [and] decay”, and “it is estimated that we have no more than 10 to 15 years to transfer audiovisual records to digital to prevent their loss”. The World Day for Audiovisual Heritage is designed to raise awareness of this potential loss, and to celebrate the successes of the scholars and others who are working to avoid it.

The slogan of this year’s celebration is “Archives at risk: protecting the world’s identities”, and it’s coincidentally a theme we’ve recently given some thought to at SUP. As scholarly publishers, we’re interested in how researchers, including many of our own authors, are exploring new ways to preserve and share vulnerable records. In Research, Records and Responsibility (edited by Amanda Harris, Nick Thieberger and Linda Barwick; published by SUP this month), scholars from a range of disciplines discuss the innovative archiving practices being developed by PARADISEC, the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures. PARADISEC now houses over 5000 hours of audio material, representing over 860 languages from Asia, North America, Africa and Europe. With an emphasis on collaboration and cultural respect, it allows communities to preserve and access their cultural heritage while providing researchers with a wealth of primary material.

Research, records and responsibility

One of the contributors to Research, Records and Reporting, Jennifer Post, quotes a wonderful line from ethnomusicologist Eliot Bates. Writing on “The social life of musical instruments”, Bates said: “Instrument museums are mausoleums, places for the display of the musically dead, with the organologists acting as morticians, preparing dead instruments’ bodies for preservation and display.” For musicologists and other scholars interested in performance, and for performing artists and their communities, audiovisual heritage is vitally important. Audio and visual recordings can bring these artforms to life in a way plain text and still images can never hope to.

An awareness of this has informed the SUP series Indigenous Music of Australia, which includes audio material alongside academic text. In the multimedia project For the Sake of a Song, Allan Marett, Linda Barwick and Lysbeth Ford consider wangga, a genre of public dance-song from the Daly region of northwest Australia. As well as providing a scholarly discussion of wangga, they transcribe and translate over 150 song items, documenting almost every wangga song ever recorded in the Daly region. The book is complemented by a website, where readers can stream audio recordings of the repertoires discussed in the book.

For the sake of a song

Wurrurrumi Kun-Borrk

Another SUP audio project, Wurrurrumi Kun-Borrk, features a 35-track CD and accompanying booklet. Kun-borrk (sometimes called ‘gossip songs’ or ‘love songs’ because some include veiled descriptions of real-life romances) is a genre of individually owned songs accompanied by didjeridu and clapsticks performed in the western Arnhem Land region of the Northern Territory. Wurrurrumi Kun-Borrk records the repertoire of song man Kevin Djimarr, a member of the Kurulk clan and the Kuninjku (Eastern Kunwinjku) language group. Recorded by the National Recording Project for Indigenous Performance in Australia, it was joint winner of the Traditional Music Award at the 2007 NT Indigenous Music Awards.

Our colleagues in the Fisher Library are also engaged in preserving audiovisual heritage. As collaborators in the Dictionary of Sydney project, for instance, they have helped to preserve a range of multimedia materials, including a rich collection of oral history recordings about Sydney’s history.

So – happy World Day for Audiovisual Heritage! To celebrate, why not explore some of the many audiovisual archives around the web?:

> Hear how English is spoken around the world at the International Dialects of English Archive

> Explore West African music at the British Library

> Check out home movies from decades past at the Australian Sound Archives

> Nominate your favourite sound for inclusion in the Australian National Film & Sound Archive

And, if you're in any doubt about the need to digitise, watch these kids try to figure out how to use a Walkman.

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