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A Physical Problem: The CBC Dismantles Its Archives

By Calum Marsh | 26 January 2012

The news broke earlier this week that the CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster mandated to protect and disseminate national artifacts, has been ordered to dismantle its vast CD and vinyl archives as a new measure to reduce operating costs and overhead. They’re knee-deep in the process of digitizing their library, of course, but that’s not enough to assuage alarmists, who argue that this is a dick move by Harper that will essentially destroy our cultural heritage. The Globe and Mail reports that the CBC archives currently house about 650,000 CDs and many more vinyl LPs, and though the broadcaster’s Toronto library will be at least temporarily retained, albums stored elsewhere across the country will be sold off or otherwise given away by March. The Globe also estimates that because the majority of the records have duplicate copies available in the Toronto archive, only 140,000 of the records to be removed are unique to the libraries getting rid of them, and those are the ones archivists will be presumably scrambling to digitize before the deadline.

A major point of concern for music enthusiasts across the nation is that an unknown number of the records being downsized are currently unavailable elsewhere, and as such the current archive is a crucial historical record of music otherwise lost to time. This is our legacy, the argument goes, and if any one-of-a-kind albums are lost in the transition to an all-digital archive, we’re basically throwing away a piece of Canadian history. Besides, they say, our grasp on a digital collection is necessarily tenuous, and a digital archive will never have the perceivable permanence of a bunch of physical records. Cloud collections are ephemeral, incomparable to a traditional historical record. We need something more, something really there, that you can see and touch. And even if 139,900 of those 140,000 unique records aren’t likely to be listened to again by anybody for any reason, there’s still that slender chance that a curious DJ or music programmer might pull a random record from the shelves, a serendipitous unearthing of history. That can’t be replicated with ones and zeroes.

All of which is what you expect to hear when news like this drops. There’s an entirely natural tug of resistance to change of this kind, a nostalgic impulse that warns against losing the old and the analog. This is part of the reason that the closure of every locally run record store is treated like the collapse of the Pruit-Igoe buildings. Many of the same arguments are trotted out in discussions about film preservation, and cinephiles were just as indignant upon hearing the news of Kodak’s bankruptcy, or of the recent push toward all-digital projection. Vinyl purists feel about their preferred medium the same way that 35mm purists feel about theirs, although for me the difference is that you can clearly see the difference between a theatrical presentation projected digitally and one presented in rich, beautiful 35mm, whereas I don’t think I could hear the difference between vinyl and an MP3 when they’re broadcast over the radio. At home, on a good sound system? Of course, and that’s why I happily support the continued production of vinyl records even though I use my iPod for the sake of convenience. But as heard through a radio? I’m perfectly willing to be corrected by people with a better ear for this sort of thing, but I suspect that in the case of radio play, the quality difference is imperceptible.

So let’s just assume for a moment that there are no aesthetic reasons to want to broadcast vinyl records or CDs over the radio rather than MP3s. Let’s assume that the overlap between disappearing film projection and this dismantled archive is minimal. That the CBC archives should aim to be a comprehensive record of Canadian cultural history is something I accept fully, and for that reason I sincerely hope the archivists are careful not to neglect even the most obscure or unimportant albums during the digitization process. I know as a film fan that innumerable obscurities are lost during the transition from one home video format to the next, and it pains me that something like Rivette’s Out 1 still isn’t even on VHS, let alone Region 1 DVD or bluray. That is always unfortunate and I hope its effect is minimized in this case.

I’m less convinced that the seemingly ephemeral nature of digital music poses any threat to the long-term viability of the archive, or that a digital collection is qualitatively worse than a physical one. Though I can concede that we should approach the digitization process with trepidation, I don’t think there’s any reason to be leery of a digital collection in and of itself. In fact, beyond differences in the raw quality of the sound produced, I don’t think there’s any reason to prefer any physical format over its digital alternative. The advantages to retaining a digital library rather than a physical one seem obvious to me: storage and maintenance are simplified and streamlined, for one thing, and the space required to house the music itself is reduced to something almost completely negligible (I don’t know precisely how large the storage area for a half a million CDs and vinyl records is, but it’s presumably quite substantial). And surely it’s easier for DJs to access whatever music they want to play when they want to play it, now that they needn’t thumb through thousands of LPs to find just one track. There’s a sense in which this increased ease of access could be liberating for a music programmer.

What the CBC would be enabled to actually do with their music collection once it’s been totally digitized, too, is expanded greatly, and the possibilities should excite any music fan. Searching a central library of millions of songs not accessible or attainable in any other way from any computer in the country is an obvious one, yeah, but that library could feed a hundred thousand creative endeavours (user-generated radio stations hosted by the CBC, say, or custom playlists and mixes sharable via Facebook or Twitter). A giant warehouse full of crates of old vinyl might be useful to a programmer somewhere, but it’s far less useful to me or you. And if a DJ might chance upon a record with an interesting sleeve and give it a spin, so to might you or I stumble upon something with a curious title and play it through a web service—with all of that music right there online, a song’s chances of being played surely go up.

As far as long-term viability is concerned, I accept that maintaining an exclusively digital library has its dangers. Harddrives crash and clouds dissipate over time. But I don’t see how a physical collection is any more capable of lasting through the generations, given the tendencies of those formats to wear and tear. And I don’t know what kind level of control even scrupulous archivists have over the inventory of these collections, but is it unthinkable that someone could steal (or even just misplace) a uniquely collected CD from the shelves, after which point it really might be lost forever? Surely that’s no less a danger than a song being deleted by a governing body, or a song being lost during the digital conversion process. Again, this is mostly speculation, but a big collection of albums sitting around in an office in Quebec City or wherever hardly seems like a bastion of permanently protected cultural heritage.

All of which is to say that I’m not convinced this is such a big deal. I get that the digital is scary to a lot of people, and particularly to music fans, who still largely feel that even the cassette tape died too soon. When record stores are shuttered we hear pronouncements of the death of a free and healthy culture; we hear that without these once-towering cultural institutions we won’t be able to meet like-minded people or build a community. When college radio stations struggle to stay afloat, we hear rhetoric about a lost golden age; we hear that without these great little voices we won’t find out about new music, and that our communities and young people and whomever else will suffer as a result. And then we all go online and download the new Grimes album and talk about it to 500 people with identical taste on Twitter and Tumblr.

My point is that this stuff seems scary, yeah, but it doesn’t have to represent the end of our culture as we know it. The internet is pretty cool sometimes. Music, incredibly, survives and thrives as a digital rather than a purely physical thing. Should we, and should the CBC, exercise caution and diligence when facilitating such a transition? Obviously, and I assume they will. But should we revolt at the first sign of digitization, scoffing at the very idea of dissembling the physical archives? I don’t think that’s quite necessary. What’s important is that Canadian music be preserved, and that it be made available to as many people as possible in the simplest, most accessible manner. Digitization amplifies the CBC’s capacity for doing just that. Retaining a physical collection during and after the digitization process wouldn’t hurt, and in a perfect world we’d have both just for the sake of it. But that’s not how it’s going down and we should learn to cope with it. It’s not the end of the world.