The work of archives in the age of audio reproduction: archival theory and recorded sound
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This thesis examines the implications for archival theory of sound recording as a documentary medium. Over the last three decades, archivists have devoted considerable energy to exploring the challenges associated with records in media other than ink and paper. Yet, while the theoretical and methodological problems fostered by digital and photographic records have been subject to vigourous debate, comparatively little attention has been devoted to audio records. When archival sound recordings are discussed, the focus is almost exclusively on the formidable task of preserving the sonic signals captured in degraded or obsolete formats. Preserving and enhancing the accessibility of audio records remains an indispensable endeavour, but this thesis argues that other long neglected aspects of archival activity with sound recording now require much greater attention. Sound recordings are welcome additions to the documentary heritage and transactional evidence preserved by archives, but they are seldom viewed as anything more than adjuncts to the archival enterprise as a whole. The medium-specific value of audio-based records—as opposed to whatever content they may contain—is rarely articulated beyond an affirmation of the powerful allure of listening to noises, music or voices brought forward from the past. Occasionally, these endorsements are supplemented by appeals to sound’s ability to convey the immediacy of a particular moment or to trigger involuntary sense-memories. In recent years, a wide-ranging body of scholarship has established sound as a focus for historical and interdisciplinary investigation. Audio records undoubtedly amplify the range of documented experience, but this thesis argues that archivists must resist the association of sound with simply a more immediate or “immersive” record of the past. The provenance of sound recordings must be carefully situated in relation not only to the technical means by which they were recorded, stored, and preserved, but also according to the shifting conventions, institutions, expectations, and assumptions that have guided the intended purpose, creation, and prior circulation of such recordings.