Why don’t we edit master recordings?

One of those truths we hold to be self-evident as archivists and oral historians is that we don’t mess with an original audio or video recording. If it is born digital, preferably in a non-lossy format, we create a clone; and if we feel it necessary to edit, we then edit the clone. If the recording is carried on older tape or film media we certainly don’t cut and splice. We leave the original, the master recording, alone.

Why? With physical media, cutting and splicing undermines the physical integrity of the medium. In materials which are sandwiched together only through the force of human ingenuity and the strength of molecular bonds, we break those bonds with a blade, force the stumps together, and overlay them with the assault of a kind of over-arching sticking plaster which doesn’t really want to be there, and which immediately begins laying chemical plans to come away, plans which are aided and abetted by the bump, grind and friction of the mechanical playback mechanism, and possibly by atmospheric dust and organisms which slipped in between stump edge and stump edge or got trapped in the glue of the splice during surgery. The digital equivalent I guess would be translating a non-lossy format file, like .wav, into a lossy format file, like .mp3, and throwing away the original: It’s not an exact equivalent, because in the latter case it is more like taking an algorithmic brillo pad to the entire recording, mathematically scrubbing out audio data that experience says the ear will not miss. But in both cases the fullness and integrity of the original is irreversibly destroyed; a part of the world that used to be is no more, and can not be restored.

But editing as such is more than an assault on the integrity of the original; it eliminates context, it eliminates accountability, and it undermines the evidential authority and authenticity of the interview. Editing the original/the master means that it is impossible to know what has been lost, and how and why the interview has been manipulated. The editor will have one set of reasons for eliminating material, which they may or may not be able to articulate; but there may (indeed, almost certainly will) be losses the editor is not aware of (the history of archaeology illustrates how this works); or bias, or unconscious processes at work which the editor can’t, won’t, and/or doesn’t put into the record. The edited recording becomes an account; it is no longer an authoritative document.

10 September 1956 pt 1

One of the key archival issues the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project set out to tackle was the problem of the Data Protection Act, both in its specific terms, and in the more general miasma it has created around personal files, amplifying a built in conservatism when it comes to sharing information with former children in care and other ‘vulnerable’ people, whose access to information in files about them threatens to destabilise institutional equilibrium.

We were aware, as archivists and oral historians,  of the enormous absence which lives inside persons who, as children, find themselves torn out of the ground of the everyday and grafted into a strange new life;  who may thrive there, or who may find themselves  pulled up again and re-grafted elsewhere, sometimes many times; but who find in documents, files, and the memories of people who once knew them a promise of Something which the rest of us take for granted; and which we therefore can’t imagine their need for: Until the power of it is encountered. The need is so powerful that it is never entirely rational; and it presents challenges which a traditionally imagined and structured archives service is not designed to meet, especially when encumbered by the involuted language of the Data Protection Act, and the threat everywhere of legal action if you get the interpretation of the Act and its various Guidances wrong.

The principle of giving access as freely as possible to those people for whom it means most; vs. the Dark Abyss of its consequences. The “Other People’s Children” project was designed to work this boundary: to find the real as opposed to the imagined legal and moral limits of the possible; to engage the subjects themselves in the process; and to test and establish protocols and procedures which could then be shared and used by other archive services, to reduce the risk and effort required by others to legally and safely open up as much material to its subjects as possible; and in that way to address, as far as humanly and institutionally possible, that great absence, which subtracts so much from the well-being and happiness of the world.

That project began in 2010. It was not, in its own terms, fully successful; something partly discussed in the Final Report of the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project. “Institutions” are people, expressed in particular ways; and former children, and archivists, and oral historians, and other people are all expressions of institutionalisations whose differences require more time, and more emotional and intellectual resources to bring into full communication, than we had, given all of the other work and issues being handled at the time. But what was personally significant for me was a phone call that a cousin I didn’t know I had, in America, received from someone purporting to be working on behalf of the United States  government, and seeking relatives of the late Capt. Rodger Alan Fees to take DNA samples by which his remains might be identified. As my brother and I are pretty well present on the Internet, and on the face of it are more closely related to our father than a distant until-then unknown cousin (who had just moved in to her new house in a new town, adding to the mystery), my initial reaction included “barge pole” and “don’t touch”. As it turned out, however, the query was legitimate. The American government has a program of finding and bringing home all of its lost servicemen and women, from whatever conflict or war (including the American Civil War); and they needed mitochondrial DNA, the kind most strongly passed down through the maternal side, to potentially identify him. So Paul and I and our sister were less useful than my cousin or, in the end, my Aunts, my father’s sisters.

But the inference I drew from this contact was that they had found remains, and they thought they might be my father’s. They hadn’t; it was part of a long-term project of building a database; establishing an archive for identification. But a hole, which covered a chasm, had been opened up; a charnel house of memories which coincided nicely with the issues, the anger, the uncertainties and unknowns, and the hopes, and joys and devastations we were exploring with archives and oral history in the “Therapeutic Living With Other People’s Children” project.




Quote of the Week

Every day I wake up to the face of God, and forget to recognise it” . I’m not sure when I first came across this, or in what form – the ‘and’ can become a ‘but’, and so transform the inner narrative of the aphorism; ‘Every’ can become ‘Each’; ‘day’ can become ‘morning’; ‘face’ become ‘fear’, and so on, with each transformation changing its meaning. This is probably the gentlest version, with the substitution of ‘fear’ one of the more interesting and challenging.

Transitional Objects

When we came back from Japan, we brought a wooden step-stool with us. From adult hindsight it must have been cedar, because it was red and had a scent. It came back to Colorado, went with us to Texas, and then to California, where it was part of the kitchen. The shoe-shine stuff lived in the box formed by its base; and Mom sat us on it to cut our hair. It was part of my life from the age of four, when we were probably about the same height and I was probably most aware of its smells, to perhaps fifteen, when first it was painted, and somehow lost some of its soul; and then disappeared entirely, like my father, of whom it was a reminder, without trace or explanation. That was one of my earliest conscious experiences of the importance of apparently non-significant things; and the irretrievability of feelings and their understandings which objects hold for us and enable us to let go of and then have for us if we return, when the object is lost.

“Who, after all, is really interested in knowing…”

“Who after all, is really interested in knowing the roots and intricacies of this work, and the political and social consequences of that knowledge?”

In going through my papers and presentations for this website I keep being surprised by the things I’ve known and said, and forgotten, and reinvented. Am I one set of ideas, in different circumstances?

The quote above is from an unpublished presentation in my first public foray out of archives into oral history, the Oral History Society’s annual Conference at Sussex University in 1999, “Landscapes of Memory: Oral History and the Environment”. PowerPoint was still a novelty, and a major discussion point at the conference; I recorded my “slide show” on video, videoing the photographs and documents, and dubbing in the recordings. An interesting way to ensure you keep a talk to time.

In looking up over/under shotguns on wikipedia to confirm the mental image that came to mind on re-reading the quote – it’s a double-barrelled quote, but not in the conventional way – I was taken even further back, into Jung and the world of meaningful coincidence and the autochthonic humour of the Universe introduced to us by Prof. Floyd Ross in Philosophy 101 (no, really) during Freshman Year at college. “A notable example [of an over-under shotgun] is the Springfield Armory M6 Scout, a .410 / .22 issued to United States Air Force personnel as a “survival” gun in the event of a forced landing or accident in a wilderness area” foreshadows the theme with which I thought I would be initiating the “Archives are Personal” thread of this blog.

THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND: a specialist archive and study centre for ‘alternative’ therapeutic and educational communities” unpublished paper delivered to the Oral History Society Annual Conference (15 May, 1999).



2002: Oral History, Adding Value and Archives

Craig Fees, “Oral History, Adding Value, and Archives”, Film and Sound Group News 16 (June 2002), pp. 8-10

For some years, thanks to the kindness of the Society of Archivists’ Training Officer, Susan Bradshaw, I have been conducting the Oral History session at the Society’s Seminars for Recently Qualified Archive Professionals. My message has always been divided into two: That archives ought to regard the doing or facilitating of oral history as a core element of their work; and that archivists themselves ought to have recording as part of their everyday professional toolkit.

In the beginning I was inspired as much by belief and faith as by the fruits of practice, although those were certainly there. Having been asked to help establish ex nihilo an Archive and Study Centre devoted to therapeutic community, a field with a long history of neglect, loss, and lack of records (although not so extensive as I originally believed), oral history played an obvious gap-filling role. It also led to the discovery of archives, and to my education in the parameters and perimeters of the field. But there were other benefits as well, and taken together these seem so obvious and well-aired by now that I went to the most recent Seminar, on May 14, prepared with two presentations – one in case I found myself in the position of selling old rope, and another, getting into the exciting issues which arise among archivists actually doing oral history. In the event only a handful of the 30 delegates (and one President of the Society) had ever done oral history, and very few were in offices in which oral history was a feature.

I find this curious. To me there are two very strong arguments for including oral history within the remit of archives and archivists, and therefore in their training. One is based in first principles. The other is a simple appeal to Naked Self Interest. They both go back to the fact that archives only have a legitimate economic claim on Society if they are a value-adding activity. If managers in a corporation can get better value from twenty-five file cabinets and a squad of secretaries than they can from a dedicated archivist and archive service, then the conclusion is obvious. If a community doesn’t get back more from an archive than it puts in, then ultimately it will (or should) pull the financial plug.

As far as first principles go, we have to ask ourselves what an archive is, and what social role it fulfils. This is simple: Archives are a form of social memory, and an archive fulfils the role within a community that memory does within an individual.

That we don’t tend to see archives in these simple terms goes back to the fact that the profession as we know it grew up rapidly before but mainly after the Second World War, largely within government (the Society of Archivists very nearly began life as the Society of Local [i.e. ‘government’] Archivists), at a time when writing and print were not only the dominant technologies for recording experience, but were widely regarded as the only legitimate forms. It seems strange, now, in the day of “archive hours” and classic re-runs, that the early figures in the saving and preserving of recordings at the BBC had to fight both an entrenched lack of concern and an active opposition; just as it seems strange – or ought to – that it was once thought sufficient to save the transcript of an interview, and to dispose of an original recording. The flood of people seeking ancestors and family and community history on the one hand, and the proliferation of cheap and accessible recording technologies on the other, have helped to sweep that world away, and with it a definition of “archives” rooted solely in terms of written records and the conduct of business.

If an archive is a form of social memory, and if its role corresponds to that of memory within an individual, then we know certain things. We know that the deeper, the more diverse, the more extensive, the more grounded in reality, and the more accessible memory is, the more effective and appropriate the response to others and to changes and challenges in the environment. We also know the contrary. We know that where memory is impoverished, or inaccessible – or, indeed, fragmented, narrowed, decayed, distorted or cut off from experience – organisations and individuals behave stupidly, if not destructively.

Archives add value to the life of a community – and by that I mean any group or organisation – to the extent that they conduce to the former, and obviate the latter. That almost seems to me to be archival common sense. As someone who spent seven years studying the heck out of a small English town for his PhD. , what doesn’t make sense is the belief that the history of a community of any kind is sufficiently recorded in its conventional archives. The mass of experience – as anyone who has ever taken minutes knows – the mass of events, and the fullness of their reality, resides outside the conventional record. Indeed, there are whole swathes of human experience which are not even touched or indicated by conventionally understood archives, but which are essential to an understanding of why things have happened as they have and will happen as they do. We are not serving our communities to the highest standard if we are not looking for and storing up something of that mass for future use. You can call it oral history, although in principle a slightly better term might be ‘oral archiving’, the distinction being similar to that between an historian’s purpose and approach to collecting original materials as against that of an archivist’s.

Although it could be expanded, that is basically the argument from first principles: The community’s memory is not just on paper (or on disks); it resides more widely, notably in its members.

The pragmatic argument, or the argument from Naked Self Interest, begins with the fact that there is a social demand for oral history, and if archivists don’t cater for it, some other agency will, and will gain the benefits. Some of those benefits are reasonably well known, although perhaps not among archivists. Oral history, done well – and that is a catch – creates a relationship from which other things flow. It creates a sense of belonging and ownership in the archive. It generates trust, it generates understanding, it generates participation and involvement, and it generates the gift of conventional archives and resources or gifts of other kinds. Gifts of friendship. Gifts of special knowledge. Gifts of visible and invisible support.

In my first presentations to the Recently Qualified Archivists Seminars I tried to convey all of this Naked Self Interest dimension largely on the basis of enthusiasm and faith, albeit based in my early years of working to establish the archive, and, of course, in my PhD. research. Now, I am arguing it on the basis of what seems to me the accomplished fact of a flourishing archive service, making significant contributions to the community it serves. The growth from one collection stored in what then served as my bedroom, to several hundred collections housed in a specially adapted facility, which we have just extended through the construction of a purpose-built two-story archive block (which is already beginning to look too small even before we have really begun moving things into it), owes an incalculable amount to our oral history programme and the commitment it represents. Given the vicissitudes through which we have passed, and the difficulties facing a relatively small charity in establishing an archive of this standard from scratch, I do not think it is overstating the case to say that without our oral history programme we would not be here.

So much for oral history as such. What about the argument that archivists ought to have recording as part of their everyday professional toolkit? Again this seems to me to be obvious. To survive and flourish, archives have to be a value-adding activity. If you take a tape recorder with you when you go to pick up those archives; if you take the tape recorder with you when you meet the donor and go over the deposit with them; if you take it when you go to meet the manager or secretary or works foreman who is going to describe the way that the records coming into the archive were generated and handled and how they relate to the business of the organisation, you immediately add value. Your notes are not the same. Your notes will not capture the aside in which a hidden dimension of a family’s life is revealed; they will not catch a technical word which you thought you understood but in fact radically misheard; they will not convey the emotion when the donor comes across a letter they thought they had mistakenly destroyed.

In the Seminars I play various recordings, and I think the value they add to the archives to which they relate is immediately and incontrovertibly obvious. That is part of the nature of a recording: it contains a richness of information which can’t be converted into print, even in poetry. So what is the argument against? As an archivist you are going there anyway, and you are going to be asking those questions and going through those materials anyway. Take a tape recorder with you, and you automatically add value to the work you are doing, sometimes immense value – and if you don’t know it, the person you’re recording will, and the researcher coming after will. When the equipment is so cheap, when the process is so easy, when the benefit to the donor, to the materials, to the archive and to future research is so palpable, can it be professionally responsible not to?

That’s a rhetorical question. Given the growth in interest and understanding of oral history, I believe the time will come when archivists are expected as a matter of course to hold this dimension of the community’s history, or will have to explicitly account for the fact that they don’t. If the sponsoring community – be it a town, a trade union, a City business, a government department, a family – reaches for it and finds it there, it will benefit the archive. With the benefits of doing oral history themselves so clear, this seems to me a powerful argument: If you’re not engaged with oral history, why not? And if the recently qualified archivists, who are the future of the profession, are not taking this question back to their repositories, who will?


Post-scriptural remarks.

One of the key contributions that recently qualified archivists can make to themselves and to the profession is to carry out interviews with the senior people in their offices, and/or with those who have retired. If you need guidance or inspiration, contact the Film and Sound Group’s “Celebrating Memory” project, or go to the project web-site, at http://www.pettarchiv.org.uk/fsg/handbook.htm.

If we understand the work of archives in terms of social memory rather than record production, it clarifies a number of issues and gives a clearer sense of future direction. In the first instance, it underlines how potentially disastrous the slide into an identification of archives with something like leisure services is – it distorts and disguises the function of the archive, and leaves it less anchored and adaptable when times and fashions change. Conversely, where it is clearly understood that archives are part of the memory function of the community, the archive can respond actively and proactively to changes in memory needs, as with leisure-time researchers, without abandoning or diverting from its primary task. It can respond quickly and without let or apology to changes in recording practice and technology (as with the Internet and computers today or, in an earlier period, Roneo machines and photocopiers), and it can move ahead to anticipate and address the potential gaps in the community’s memory as different recording technologies, and change within the community itself, create them. Archivists need a variety of tools in their toolkit Oral history is one tool in this task.

January 1st, 2013

On a beautiful winter day, with the days growing longer

Now to clean the toolshed, with doors from one closed

therapeutic community, and steel cabinet from another.

We had a piano from a third, but it came with a mouse;

whose grandchildren many times over still build nests,

having forgotten the therapeutic home of their ancestors,

in the steel cabinet, and among the rusting tools.


([For Neill])