Alan Lomax archives to be digitized and made open access

From the New York Times. Folklorist’s Global Jukebox Goes Digital.

 Just as he dreamed, his vast archive — some 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and piles of manuscripts, much of it tucked away in forgotten or inaccessible corners — is being digitized so that the collection can be accessed online. About 17,000 music tracks will be available for free streaming by the end of February, and later some of that music may be for sale as CDs or digital downloads.

It’s not entirely clear to me if every single piece of content will be free, but the article seems to say a huge chunk will. But even before digitization,  the Association for Cultural Equity, which apparently is custodian of this material, had an admirable policy aimed at getting the material out there for use in cultural/creative projects, without letting cost be a barrier:

“We go from the attitude that we just want everyone to use it, whatever their budget is,” Mr. Fleming said. “If it’s educational or for the press, it’s usually no charge, and when someone has a budget, well, then we just want to get roughly what other people are getting.”

How many ostensibly not-for-profit library and archival special collections have similar policies?  

As the digitization rush in mass produced publications changes the role of libraries, our unique rare/special materials are what may still distinguish libraries. Getting them out in use without letting cost be a barrier will not only fulfill our missions (books are for use), but remind the public that libraries (not Google, not Amazon) really are just about the only institutions whose primary interests are in serving our users, not in making a buck off them.  It’s from that standpoint that libraries can expect the popular support needed to make our funding sustainable as the environment changes around us. On the other hand, miseducating patrons about copyright in order to try to maintain/maximize income streams  is counter-productive to our missions (in at least a couple different ways), and will teach the public that we’re no more on their side than any of the commercial information institutions and that there’s no reason to support us over them.

I have a personal interest in folk music, and am very excited to see/hear the digitized and released archives. Much respect to the custodians of these archives for prioritizing the public interest as per their mission.

(The article is somewhat vague on exactly what’s going on organizationally and who’s doing it, so I’m not entirely sure who deserves the credit. Obviously written for an audience more interested in Lomax’s music, rather than who’s doing it and how like us library geeks are interested in. The Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center may also deserve some of the credit?  We’ll also have to wait to see if the entire digitization output will be open access or the open access component will be as large as the article suggests, I sadly wouldn’t be surprised if the article has over-stated that aspect, but wait hopefully.)

Another part also sounds like an awesome show of responsibility to the folk communities that generated the content, cultural repatriation instead of appropriation, very unusual even amongst non-profit cultural heritage institutions:

The Association for Cultural Equity also has what it calls a repatriation program, meant to make Lomax’s work available to the communities where it was obtained and to pay royalties to the heirs of those whose music was recorded.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s