How to set up a music archive

By Santie de Jongh

This article draws partially from practical experience setting up the archive of the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) at Stellenbosch University[i]. Established with little funding in August 2005 as a research project of South African musicologist Stephanus Muller, DOMUS gradually grew into a functioning music archive (collecting and preserving various genres) accessed by researchers globally.

A selection of archival formats. Photo: S. de Jongh
A selection of archival formats. Photo: S. de Jongh

Why an archive?

Setting up an archive is broadly motivated by functions of preservation and access for posterity. These two aspects work hand-in-hand, as an archive is a dynamic entity and not merely a keeper of documents and information. Taking into account that archival content is created by society, it follows that the archive should also be accountable to society. ‘Society’ may broadly imply private individuals, academic institutions, communities, schools and associations; all reflecting a broad socio-economic and demographic spectrum.

What kinds of materials can a music archive potentially contain?

A music archive may contain various formats, including musical instruments, sound recordings (CDs, DAT tapes, DVDs, gramophone records, magnetic tapes, mini discs, reel tapes and sound cassettes)[ii], films, videos (VHS and Beta)[iii], playback equipment, paper documents (letters, minutes of meetings, newspaper cuttings, financial documents, song texts, photographs[iv], diaries and posters[v]), textiles, music manuscripts and born digital content (sound recordings, images and written content)[vi]. Materials may include animal hide, wood, metal and paper, thus suggesting that different archival conditions may apply.

What will be included in the archive?

Whether starting from afresh or building upon existing collections, the same principles apply. Long-term thinking will make provision for the inclusion of various formats (as described above). It is important to draw up a collection development policy to describe what will be included in the archive (for example, specific musical genres or geographical regions)[vii]. This policy will guide potential collection donors as to what they can donate. Potential donors may also visit the archive to see that their collections will be housed safely and that their collections will be processed and used. They may then sign a donor agreement, which stipulates the terms of collection usage and address copyright issues. Donations can also happen as part of estates or as ‘informal’ donations of single (secondary) items.

Archival procedures need to be constantly developed and documented, for example to describe use, access, retrieval, visits, charges and requests. Archivists should be familiar with copyright laws and collaborate with performing rights societies, such as the South African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO)[viii]. Note that copyright terms may vary from country to country.

The environment: preservation, storage and handling

General aspects and threats to archival collections include the following[ix]:

  • Temperature and relative humidity (RH) should be stable with maximum 21° C and between 30% and 50% RH. Items stored at higher temperatures deteriorate faster than items stored at cooler temperatures. Items stored in high humidity conditions and also in combination with high temperatures are prone to mould infestations and insect activity[x]. Very low RH may lead to embrittlement. Avoid wide fluctuating temperatures and RH, which cause damage. Certain objects prefer cooler temperatures. Items taken from cold storage should first acclimatise slowly to avoid condensation. Basic building maintenance can circumvent large-scale damage. Where necessary, and in consultation with climate control experts, various climate control devices can be installed. Monitor temperature and RH regularly.[xi]
  • Light (natural and artificial light) causes discolouring, fading and weakening of items. Keep light intensity and time of exposure to a minimum and avoid exposure to direct sunlight. Cover windows with shades, shutters, drapes or blinds to block the sun. Use ultra-violet (UV) filtering for fluorescent lights. Storage areas can also be fitted with timed light switches. Permanent exhibitions should not contain original documents.[xii]
  • Air quality: pollutant gases (sulphur dioxide, peroxides, nitrogen oxides and ozone) and particles (soot) can cause damage, resulting in discolouration, embrittlement, disfiguration and soiling in materials. Reduce pollutants by means of filters attached to air vents and air conditioners.
  • Chemicals: certain paper objects contain a high acidic content and can be treated by means of deacidification[xiii]. Proper storage conditions will prolong shelf lifespan. Ideally, acid-free materials are needed for packaging and photocopying. These are expensive and problematic when experiencing budget constraints. Shelving also requires certain specifications.[xiv]
  • Dust: keep areas dust free. Avoid food and drink as these can cause damage and attract pests.
  • Frequent handling can cause damage. Digitisation as means of preservation (and dissemination) also cuts out unnecessary handling.
  • Security is a basic prerequisite for archives and includes alarms, fire control and access control (regulated access) to prevent theft and vandalism.
  • Disasters: floods, fire, burst pipes, vandalism, theft, and so forth. Prepare a disaster preparedness and response plan that includes emergency procedures, contact details, emergency consultants and staff to be ready when there is an emergency. Insurance cover is also important.[xv]

Documenting the collections

For the retrieval and recording of content, start by listing the collections in the archive and the contents of each collection (each collection is listed separately) on a box and folder basis. Document how collections were acquired, the terms of collection usage and copyright.

Two processes pertain: preliminary and final (detailed) sorting. The former gives a broad indication of the archival contents, while the latter is a detailed finding aid with descriptions ranging from collection- to item-level, where each item is described in detail.[xvi]

There are various standards for archival description and administration[xvii]. General principles in constructing finding aids include arranging materials alphabetically, chronologically and thematically. Also bear in mind the standards pertaining to the use of punctuation, capitalisation and textual description. Types of information carriers are grouped together, for example: CDs, reel tapes, paper documents, and so forth. Certain paper documents may be separated, for example: newspapers that contain high acidic content will be separated from other paper documents to avoid acid migration.[xviii]

Take note of the original order (archival integrity)[xix], which provides information about the creator or donor. Either keep the original order or use cross-references. Remove damaging objects such as paper clips, pins, staples and elastic bands[xx]. Unfold or flatten documents while taking care not to damage these documents. Brittle paper documents should not be unfolded, but taken to a conservator. Consult with various professionals in the archival field.

Finding aids can be drawn up in Excel and exported to databases or converted to PDF. Database construction can incur high costs and is reliant on IT expertise and intensive testing. In light of time and financial constraints, opt for simplicity and sustainable formats.