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Preserving Oral Histories

Tim Mitchell and I attended a webinar presented by Solinet on January 15, 2009 entitled: Preserving Oral Histories. This workshop was a discussion about the primary issues of preserving oral histories.

The activity of processing oral histories was covered first.The most important issue when processing is to prevent audio from being erased (either audio cassettes or CD’s).The processor should conduct a condition assessment to check for damage and if possible, play and listen to the material.A strong odor detected at this point would indicate deterioration.The items should then be labeled, re-housed; and new reformatted preservation copies made.

There are several free tools available for surveying oral history collections:

FACET (Field Audio Collection evaluation Tool) is a survey tool which is an open-sourced database that allows for recordinginformation about materials.

Preservation Tool for Audio and Moving Image Collections– Columbia University Libraries has developed and tested a tool to inventory and assess the physical condition of audio and moving image materials.

Damage to audio materials

Magnetic tape damage is usually referred to as “Sticky shed syndrome” and is the deterioration of audio material.

Acetate tape deterioration is the formation of acetic acid on the tape which is called “Vinegar Syndrome” because of the smell it gives.This material should be isolated in cold storage.The Image Permanence Institute has A-D strips to test for acetate decay.

Labeling Oral Histories– Guidelines for future users should be created that uses a consistency of format.Water-based markers (sold in specialty shops) or pencils should be used for marking on the material itself.CD’s should be marked on the inner hub.

Preserving Originals

-use highest quality format available

-make a copy of the original and use that copy for reformatting-put the original away in storage

-only use the master for making usable copies

-keep original hardware and software if possible


-use best quality materials

-arrange by material type or by format

-store the master separately

Paper/Board-use material that conforms with NISO Z39 standards

Plastics-use inert plastics-avoid PVC (polyester is a good inert plastic)

Temperature-the best temperature for audio materials is 50 degrees, 30-50 Relative Humidity

Avoid electromagnetic fields or UV radiation


-shelve vertically, except 16mm/35m which should be stored horizontally

-keep in a dust free environment

Storage-Magnetic media

-for optical media (CD-R), avoid light


-use acid free paper

-for electronic transcriptions, store in multiple formats


-RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks)- a technology that employs the simultaneous use of two or more hard disk drives to achieve greater levels of performance and reliability.

LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe)- based at Stanford University Libraries, is an international community initiative that provides libraries with digital preservation tools and support so that they can easily and inexpensively collect and preserve their own copies of authorized e-content.

Dark Archives– a collection of materials preserved for future use but with no current access.This is associated with collections of online serial publications and databases that are held by an organization other than the publisher.

Preferred Digital Formats


.wav- considered the standard for audio archives

.bmv-broad cast wave- an open format with the inclusion of metadata

.mp3-a small file size, compressed file format that


.MJ2 (Motion Jpeg 2000)- used by the Library of Congress as the standard format

.MXF- open source format that allows metadata inclusion

.AVI-Audio Video Interleave used primarily for video on the web

Audio Digitization Standards-the recommended rate for voice recordings:

Human Voice-sample rate- 96 kHz; bit depth- 24 bit

This workshop was thorough and illustrated that preservation issues for audio oral histories are unique and the housing materials, methods, and survey tools for them are specific to this audio material.

Craig Fansler