I’m back from another Music Library Association conference, held this year in Philadelphia. Some highlights:
Libraries, music, and digital dissemination
Previous MLA plenary sessions have focused on a disturbing new trend involving the release of new music recordings as digital downloads only, with licenses restricting sale to end users, which effectively prevents libraries either from acquiring the recordings at all, or from distributing (i.e., circulating) them. This year’s plenary was a follow-up featuring a panel of three lawyers — a university counsel, an entertainment-law attorney, and a representative of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation — who pronounced that the problem was only getting worse. It is affecting more formats now, such as videos and audio books — it’ not just the music librarian’s problem any more — and recent court decisions have tended to support restrictive licenses.
The panelists suggested two approaches libraries can take: building relationships, and advocacy. Regarding relationships, it was noted that there is no music equivalent of LOCKSS or Portico: Librarians should negotiate with vendors of audio/video streaming services for similar preservation rights. Also, libraries can remind their resident performers and composers that if their performances are released as digital downloads with end-user-only licenses, libraries cannot preserve their work for posterity. The panelists drew an analogy to the journal pricing crisis: libraries successfully raised awareness of the issue by convincing faculty and university administrators that exorbitant prices would mean smaller readerships for their publications. On the advocacy side, libraries can remind vendors that federal copyright law pre-empts non-negotiable licenses: a vendor can’t tell us not to make a preservation copy when Section 108 says we have the right to make a preservation copy. We can also lobby state legislatures, as contract law is governed by state law.
The entertainment-law attorney felt that asking artists to lobby their record labels was, realistically speaking, the least promising approach — the power differential is too great. Change, the panelists agreed, is most likely to come through either legislation or the courts. Legislation is the more difficult to affect (there are too many well-funded commercial interests ranged on the opposing side); there is a better chance of a precedent-setting court case tipping the balance in favor of libraries. Such a case is most likely to come from the 2nd or 9th Circuit, which have a record of liberal rulings on Fair Use issues. One interesting observation from the panel was that most of the cases brought so far have involved “unsympathetic figures” — individuals who blatantly abused Fair Use on a large scale, provoking draconian rulings. What’s needed is more cases involving “sympathetic figures” like libraries — the good guys who get caught in the cross-fire. Anybody want to be next? :-)
Music finally joins Digital Humanities
For a couple of decades now, humanities scholars have been digitizing literary, scriptural, and other texts, in order to exploit the capabilities of hypertext, markup, etc. to study those texts in new ways. The complexity of musical notation, however, has historically prevented music scholarship from doing the same for its texts. PDFs of musical scores have long been available, but they’re not searchable texts, and not encoded as digital data, so can’t be manipulated in the same way. Now there’s a new project called the Music Encoding Initiative, jointly funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the German Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. MEI (yes, they’ve noticed it’s also a Chinese word for “beauty”) has just released a new digital encoding standard for Western classical musical notation, based on XML. It’s been adopted so far by several European institutions and by McGill University. If, as one colleague put it, it “has legs,” the potential is transformative for the discipline. Whereas critical editions in print force editors to make painful decisions between sources of comparable authority — the other readings get relegated to an appendix or supplementary volume — in a digital edition, all extant readings can be encoded in the same file, and displayed side by side. An even more intriguing application of this concept is the “user-generated edition”: a practicing musician could potentially approach a digital edition of a given work, and choose to output a piano reduction, or a set of parts, or modernized notation of a Renaissance work, for performance. Imagine the savings for libraries, which currently have to purchase separate editions for all the different versions of a work.
Music and metadata
In a session titled “Technical Metadata for Music,” two speakers, from SUNY and a commercial audio-visual preservation firm respectively, stressed the importance of embedded metadata in digital audio files. Certain information, such as recording date, is commonly included in filenames, but this is an inadequate measure from a long-term preservation standpoint: filenames are not integral to the file itself, and are typically associated with a specific operating system. One speaker cited a recent Rolling Stone article, “File not Found: the Recording Industry’s Storage Crisis” (December 2010), describing the record labels’ inability to retrieve their backfiles due to inadequate filenames and lack of embedded metadata. Metadata is now commonly embedded in many popular end-user consumer products, such as digital cameras and smartphones.
For music, embedded metadata can include not only technical specifications (bit-depth, sample rate, and locations of peaks, which can be used to optimize playback) but also historical context ( the date and place of performance, the performers, etc.) and copyright information. The Library of Congress has established sustainability factors for embedded metadata (see http://digitizationguidelines.gov). One format that meets these requirements is Broadcast Wave Format, an extension of WAV: it can store metadata as plain text, and can include historical context-related data. The Technical Committee of ARSC (Association of Recorded Sound Collections) recently conducted a test wherein they added embedded metadata to some BWF-format audio files, and tested them with a number of popular applications. The dismaying results showed that many apps not only failed to display the embedded metadata, but also deleted it completely. This, in the testers’ opinion, calls for an advocacy campaign to raise awareness of the importance of embedded metadata. ARSC plans to publish its test report on its website (http://www.arsc-audio.org/). The software for embedded metadata that they developed for the test is also available as a free open-source app at http://sourceforge.net/projects/bwfmetaedit.
A pre-conference session held by MOUG (Music OCLC Users Group) reported on an interesting longitudinal study that aimed to trace coverage of music materials in the OCLC database. The original study was conducted in 1981, when OCLC was relatively new. MOUG testers searched newly-published music books, scores, and sound recordings, as listed in journals and leading vendor catalogs, along with core repertoire as listed in ALA’s bibliography Basic Music Library, in OCLC, and assessed the quantity and quality of available cataloging copy. The study was replicated in 2010. Exact replication was rendered impossible by various developments over the intervening 30 years — changes in the nature of the OCLC database from a shared catalog to a utility; more foreign and vendor contributors; and the demise of some of the reference sources used for the first sample of searched materials, necessitating substitutions — but the study has nevertheless produced some useful statistics. Coverage of books. not surprisingly, increased over the 30 years to 95%; representation of sound recordings also increased, to around 75%; but oddly, scores have remained at only about 60%. As for quality of the cataloging, the 2010 results showed that about 20% of sound recordings have been cataloged as full-level records, about 50% as minimal records; about a quarter of scores get full-level treatment, about 50% minimal. The study thus provides some external corroboration of long-perceived music cataloging trends, and also a basis for workflow and staffing decisions in music cataloging operations.
A session titled “RDA: Kicking the Tires” was devoted to the new cataloging standard that the Library of Congress and a group of other libraries have just finished beta-testing. Music librarians from four of the testing institutions (LC, Stanford, Brigham Young, U North Texas, and U Minnesota) spoke about their experiences with the test and with adapting to the new rules.
All relied on LC’s documentation and training materials, recording local decisions on their internal websites (Stanford has posted theirs on their publicly-accessible departmental site). An audience member urged libraries to publish their workflows in the Toolkit, the online RDA manual. It was generally agreed that the next step needed is the development of guidelines and best practices.
None of the testers’ ILSs seem to have had any problems accomodating RDA records in MARC format. LC has had no problems with their Voyager system, corroborating our own experience here at WFU. Some testers reported problems with some discovery layers, including PRIMO (fortunately, we haven’t seen any glitches so far with VuFind). Stanford reported problems with their (un-named) authorities vendor, mainly involving “flipped” (changed name order) entries. Most testers are still in the process of deciding which of the new RDA data elements they will display in their OPACs.
Asked what they liked about RDA, both the LC and Stanford speakers cited the flexibility of the new rules, especially in transcribing title information, and in the wider range of sources from which bib info can be drawn. Others welcomed the increased granularity, designed to enhance machine manipulation, and the chance this affords to “move beyond cataloging for cards” towards the semantic web and relation-based models. It was also noted that musicians are already used to thinking in FRBR fashion — they’ve long dealt with scores and recordings, for instance, as different manifestations of the same work.
Asked what they thought “needed fixing” with RDA, all the panelists cited access points for music (the LC speaker put up a slide displaying 13 possible treatments of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise arranged for saxophone and piano). There are other areas — such as instrument names in headings — that the RDA folks haven’t yet thought about, and the music community will probably have to establish its own practice. Some catalogers expressed frustration with the number of matters the new rules leave to “cataloger’s judgment.” Others mentioned the difficulty of knowing just how one’s work will display in future FRBRized databases, and of trying to fit a relational structure into the flat files most of us currently have in our ILSs.
What was most striking about the session was the generally upbeat tone of the speakers — they saw more positives than negatives with the new standard, assured us it only took some patience to learn, and were convinced that it truly was a step forward in discoverability. One speaker, who trains student assistants to do copy-cataloging, telling them “When in doubt, make your best guess, and I’ll correct it later,” observed that her students’ guesses consistently conformed to RDA practice — some anecdotal evidence suggesting that the new standard may actually be more intuitive for users, and that new catalogers will probably learn it more easily than those of us who’ve had to “unlearn” AACR2!
Our venue was the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, which I must say is the coolest place I’ve ever stayed in. The building was the first International Style high-rise built in the U.S., and its public spaces have been meticulously preserved and/or restored, to stunning effect. The first tenant was a bank, and so you come across huge steel vault doors and rows of safety-deposit boxes, left in situ, as you walk through the hotel. Definitely different!
Another treat was visiting the old Wanamaker department store (now a Macy’s) to hear the 1904 pipe organ that is reputed to be the world’s largest (http://www.wanamakerorgan.com/about.php).