Preserving the sounds
In the not-so-distant past, images in the form of photographs and recorded sound and film were considered to be luxuries that could only be accessed by the minority, but as time progressed, and technology with it, audiovisual materials became more widespread, which allowed a larger cross-section of society to record what it deemed to be important.
Annually, October 27 is recognised as World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. This day was chosen by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in 2005 to raise awareness of the significance of and preservation risks related to recorded sound and audiovisual documents, which include film, sound and video recordings, and radio and television programmes.
Events to commemorate this day are held in many countries and are organised by national and regional sound and film archives, broadcasters, museums, and libraries. In Jamaica, there are a few institutions that have and maintain audiovisual collections. These include the National Library of Jamaica, the Jamaica Information Service (JIS), the Public Broadcasting Company of Jamaica (PBCJ) and the University of the West Indies Mona Archives.
Plenty of scope
In 2018, the theme for World Day for Audiovisual Heritage was 'Your Story is Moving'. According to UNESCO, "This theme allows for plenty of scope for a wide variety of activities based on stories that are preserved in audiovisual archives - people's stories or narratives that enable heritage to be passed on to the next generation.
"At the same time, the theme also invokes the emotional connections and meanings people may derive from appreciating audiovisual heritage. It enlivens such heritage as a shared story, binding people in a common humanity, moving them, so to speak, to higher levels of understanding of and respect for the other."
According to librarian and Head of Department of Audiovisual and Micrographic Services at the National Library of Jamaica Yulande Lindsay, the audiovisual collection of the National Library, which was officially formed in 1998, consists of close to 60,000 audiovisual records.
These records are divided into categories such as film and sound, audio, and the moving image collection. All of the records, discs, video cassettes, films, reel-to-reel audio tapes, films, and phonographic recordings in this collection highlight some aspect of Jamaica's tangible and intangible history and culture.
While this collection continues to grow, the library is now facing some serious challenges with not only the collection of material, but the staffing of the library with adequately trained individuals. Since its inception, the library has outgrown its home at 12 East Street, and storage, along with damage to material caused by moisture and the passing of time, are some of the main concerns. Another issue facing the collection is the obsolescence of technology used by the library to access information from records and other materials. These devices are referred to as 'play back' machines.
One of the largest and most expensive issues faced by the library is the acquisition of equipment and software are needed for the digitisation of the collection. Shockingly, even the smallest types of equipment can cost the library millions of dollars and often require specially trained persons to operate the equipment and train the museum's staff.
Digitisation is paramount in the preservation of the audiovisual collection as these collections contain some of the primary records of the island's history of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Unfortunately, that heritage is now endangered because sound recordings and moving images can be deliberately destroyed or irretrievably lost as a result of neglect, decay, and technological obsolescence.
Even though the library is currently facing many challenges, one would be happy to note that the audiovisual department is currently engaged in a digitisation project to digitise the entire film and sound collection to provide greater access to the audiovisual heritage and as part of its effort to conserve the original documents for posterity.
It is also noteworthy that the audiovisual department of the National Library of Jamaica has consistently sought to supply footage and audio material to esteemed organisations such as the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and The University of the West Indies. The collection is heavily used by researchers from around the world.
Another important repository of Jamaica's material heritage, National Museum Jamaica, also has a growing collection of obsolete audiovisual technology. One might think that collecting these objects is useless and counterproductive, however, the collection of these objects allows us to maintain a physical memory bank of the development and use of technology not only within Jamaica, but on an international level.
One very important object currently housed in the National Collection is a vinyl record that was produced by B Tate Documentary under the London House record label for the Vanguard Local Chapter of the U.N.I.A. (Universal Negro Improvement Association), the brainchild of National Hero the Rt. Excellent Marcus Garvey and African Communities League (A.C.L).
The record is entitled 'Explanation of the Objects of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.' Vinyl records are an analogue sound-storage medium in the form of a flat disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove.
The groove usually starts near the periphery and ends near the centre of the disc. The phonograph disc record was the primary medium used for music and sound reproduction throughout the 20th century. Phonograph records are generally described by their diameter in inches (12-inch, 10-inch, 7-inch) and the rotational speed in revolutions per minute (33 1/3rpm, 78rpm, 45rpm). The one pictured is 45rpm.
Digitising a record such as the one pictured is incredibly important because it gives us an in-depth view of the life, beliefs, and practices of the UNIA and its members outside of Jamaica. It also allows us to explore the ways in which UNIA members disseminated information outside of print material.
Using a method such as recording ensured that even members who could not read as well as visually impaired persons were able to receive information about the organisation. Digitising a record of such importance ensures that the contents of the record would be available for many generations to come.
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) - website
National Library of Jamaica
San Diego State University Library Website - Audio Visual Material
UNESCO- Multimedia Archives and eServices - Communication and Information - website
UNESCO - Promoting digital preservation of cultural heritage in the Caribbean
UNESCO - World Day for Audiovisual Heritage
- Information compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica