“Much of the material will be lost,” says MacMillan. “We just won’t be able to cull it properly because of time pressure.”
The CBC is currently transitioning to a new, more streamlined digital library system, which will be available to show producers across the country. Every regional bureau will be asked to evaluate and liquidate its music archives, with the exception of Montreal and Toronto, which will absorb some material. Recordings scored with high “programming value” will be digitized and made available online. MacMillan estimates that 14,000 recordings from the Vancouver collection will be digitized. Everything else will be given away or discarded, while other items will be sold wholesale to private archivists.
“This is the nature of the digital broadcasting business,” says Chuck Thompson, CBC’s head of media relations. “Just as we made the transition from LPs to cassettes to CDs, new means of production are changing all the time, replacing the physical things that we once relied on.”
The future of all of the objects in the CBC’s archives is uncertain.
“We haven’t decided what we will do with the physical assets yet,” Thompson says. “We’re making every effort (to ensure) that parts of our music collection will find a good home.”
Although some albums will be digitized, it’s unclear if things like record-cover images, liner notes, or photographs will also be preserved.
“This metadata is inseparable from the meaning of the music,” says Jonathan Sterne, a communications professor at McGill University.
As contemporary society increasingly shifts its emphasis from physical objects to more ephemeral, non-physical data, preservationists are arguing that society needs to protect its cultural artifacts. After hearing about the CBC’s decision, Geeta Dayal, a San Francisco-based music and technology journalist, tweeted: “This is like a national film archive saying ‘Let’s transfer only part of our collection to .avi files and throw out all the original prints.’”
British music journalist Simon Reynolds tweeted back: “That’s crazy. They’ll be sorry, mark my words.”
Institutions around the world, both in the private and public sector, are increasingly moving toward digital storage and shifting their archives onto the Internet. Earlier this month, the Association for Cultural Equity released more than 17,000 free tracks from the collection of prodigious American folklorist and ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax. The U.S. Library of Congress has been gradually digitizing manuscripts and other primary source materials, while retaining the original physical copies. Many agree this would be an ideal scenario for the CBC, as well.
“Digitizing means making your materials more available,” says Sterne. “It means moving from a hand-typed finding aid to something that is text-searchable on the Internet. It means making your collections available to people in faraway places. Digitizing in the right context is a good thing — it just needs to be paired with a clear understanding of the institution’s mission.”
Yet the CBC’s decision to selectively digitize its CD and LP archives has many people up in arms.
“Recordings of obscure artists from the past are often unearthed and found to have great artistic value,” says Nathan Gage, owner of Montreal record store, Phonopolis. “The CBC could be selling, or even throwing out, recordings whose importance have yet to be discovered.”
In 2011, Montreal musician Eric Fillion discovered a live session by Le Quatuor de Jazz Libre du Quebec, acknowledged as the province’s first free-jazz ensemble. The release of this ultra-obscure document, which was recorded at Radio-Canada’s Studio 13 in 1973, was described by Scottish music journalist David Keenan as a “historically potent unearthing.”
Many of the CBC’s archival vinyl records are either out of print or have never been released in a digital format and, with the closure of some bureaus, likely never will be.
“A library as a whole is a document of how and why an institution or organization collects and organizes its artifacts,” says Amber Goodwyn, the music co-ordinator at Montreal radio CKUT. “Digitization obfuscates that history.”
CDs represent a more redundant form of technology, notes Dan Seligman, the director of Pop Montreal, while vinyl records are a more accurate representation of actual recorded sound.
“CDs merely act as a medium to transmit digital information, and if that information can be archived in a more direct and useful manner, it will make accessing music easier for CBC DJs and producers across Canada,” he says. “(Records) have physical grooves that carry information. You can’t just digitize those. It won’t be the same.”
Another concern is the fragility of digitization, which is a relatively young and untested technology. Sterne rates the durability of digital data and storage media as surprisingly low.
“Hard drives are very fragile,” he says. “You can play wax cylinders that are over 100 years old, but most hard drives last about 10 years. I think digitizing introduces new logistical problems in terms of preservation over long periods of time. It doesn’t handle neglect or deterioration, as well.”
Even though society’s transition to digitization may be inevitable, archivists like MacMillan will continue to mourn the loss of physical artifacts.
“I feel there will be trouble in our future,” he says. “But technology is always changing.”