Listening in at an Audio Archive, an observation

The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts is the second largest archive of recorded sound in the United States.  It is home to a wide range of recordings including but not limited to music in just about every genre, recordings of theater, opera and comedic performances, oral histories, speeches, radio broadcasts and field recordings. The archive holds recordings on every kind of format from wax cylinders to shellac discs, magnetic tape, cassettes and digital audio files.

The collection can be accessed by visiting the third floor of the Library of Performing Arts and making a listening request at the audiovisual desk.  Patrons must look up the title, author and class mark, write it down and present a request slip to the library assistant.  Everything is classed according to its format for efficient shelving, not according to genre, record label or subject.  It is easiest to find a recording if one knows the specific track or artist she is looking for.  The online catalog is not designed for browsing like one might do in a record store.  Visitors can search via a massive card catalog or the song index that is also housed in card catalogs.  The card catalogs, though rarely in visible use, still provide something a little more like a browsing experience for those wishing to stumble upon something unexpected.  In addition to the catalogs, one can also peruse finding aides for different collections within the collection.  However the finding aides are varied, and some have very little information listed about what a particular title actually contains. Some of the finding aides have handwritten notes or corrections from previous researchers.  The sheer volume of material is astounding and somewhat overwhelming.  It is truly an amazing and treasure trove of a collection.

After making the listening request, a listener is given a set of headphones and is assigned a seat at a numbered listening station.  The listening stations are equipped with computers that have a special software program installed on them.  A patron must wait while the requested audio is collected from the vast archive that is located in the basement of the building.

A little known fact is that library staff known as the playback team are waiting in the basement to retrieve and play back audio for patrons.  They find the requested material and in the case of vinyl or shellac discs or audio reels, they also operate the playback equipment.  The playback equipment in the basement is connected to the computers on the third floor so that listeners can hear the requested sounds without actually handling the sometimes fragile audio carriers.  The computer software allows listeners to scroll or fast forward through digital audio files during playback, however if a listener has requested a vinyl LP for example, the listener must indicate which track he or she wants to hear via a messaging service on the computer screen.  The playback staff is notified of the listener’s message with a little “beep” and will move the needle to the the desired track on the record.  This can sometimes prove a little difficult for staff when patrons ask to hear specific tracks or parts of tracks repeatedly for their research.  Many patrons assume the entire system is computerized and do not realize the human labor involved in bringing the sounds to their ears.  They do not always understand why it might take a little time to process their request, in these days where messages are sent into space and back in fractions of a second.  Some that do understand the situation send humorous messages to the playback team via the messaging system, like “Dear Audio God, please play the next track.”

Listeners can stay for as long as they like during opening hours.  Some researchers, having made special trips from other parts of the country or abroad will stay the full day or multiple days, only taking short breaks to have lunch in the library cafe.  They are trying to get through hours and hours of material during the short time they have in New York.  While video or photos allow one to quickly scan and find points of interest, it does not work the same way for audio, particularly during interviews or field recordings.  One must sit and listen in real time, unless the audio has been logged or transcribed.  Recent developments in automatic transcription and partnerships with organizations such as Pop Up Archive may prove very useful for researchers in the future.

While the collection holds such a wide array of fascinating recordings and most likely has something of interest to just about anyone, it does not seem that there are many casual listeners or members of the general public who stop in to sample what the archive has to offer.  Lack of  awareness of the collection and accessibility are two issues that perhaps lead to less enjoyment and use of the RHA holdings.

In his article, “The User Experience,” Aaron Schmidt defines user experience as “arranging the elements of a product or service to optimize how people will interact with it.”  Librarians, curators and archivists working with audio collections must think about how people want to interact with the sounds in their collections.  Copyright issues, conservation, audio formats and accessibility are all issues to consider when planning out how audio collections will be encountered and experienced by library users.  In what ways do people want to listen?

From the user experience perspective, one issue members of the public must face is gaining access to the spaces where they can hear the recordings.  To access the listening stations, patrons must first place their belongings with security.  Then, as outlined before they must make a request to hear the material, some of which may or may not be immediately available since some recordings must be digitized before playback is allowed. This situation may not be a problem for researchers familiar with library procedures who need access to the recordings in order to carry out their work.  However, what about the patron who may not even know the collection exists, considering that it is located in a locked basement doors and difficult to browse online?  Audio collections tell fascinating stories through words, sound and music.  However, without more focus on user experience, they may go unheard.  Listening spaces in libraries are in need of an update.  As audio technology becomes less expensive and more widely available, why aren’t library users offered more options for listening?  Innovations in audio technology can raise awareness of collections, improve accessibility and offer library patrons new ways of listening.  How do you want to listen?

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