Restoring Virtue to Archiving

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Ed. Note: The picture above shows a portion of approximately 9,000 piano rolls in Trebor Tichenor’ s collection, reputed to be the most extensive in the world. I found the picture in Bittersweet Volume V, No. 2, Winter 1977 a high school publication from Missouri archived online by a local library! It’s proof of what Larry Melton says below. The picture came from a great article about Ragtime and piano rolls that would probably have never seen the light of day without digital archiving. 

Perceptions

As I was wandering the Internet this month for ragtime news, something Jeanie Wright wrote on her Facebook page caught my attention. When asked about donating some of her valuable items she wrote, “I thought about donating them to the (Sedalia Ragtime) archive but these (books) are different, they need to be read and used and enjoyed by someone who really will appreciate them and use them. They would never be read or appreciated by the recipients of the archive.”

And it hit me that the perception of an archive is as a place where documents and ephemera are accumulated, conserved, stored, and often forgotten. It is sad, but often true. I had an experience with just such a situation when doing graduate school research in history nearly fifty years ago.

Hidden Away

I discovered that an important subject of my research had taught at a small private Midwestern college in the late 1800s. Speculating that the institution might be the proud stewards of this person’s papers I contacted them by letter only to receive a reply from the college librarian informing me that they had no knowledge of my fellow but were interested to know more about him. A few weeks passed and I was about to send along a summary of my work when I received a personal telephone call from the librarian. Expressing profuse apologies, he informed me that after an extensive search of their storage facilities they had indeed discovered quite an extensive collection of papers donated by my subject in the 1890s upon his retirement.

Talk about stashing valuable collections away never to see the light of day! When I inquired how I might be able to examine the papers the librarian quickly offered to send them to me just as found (since I was responsible for their discovery) so I could properly make an examination and determine what was of value. The story of my own college librarian receiving the materials and severely restricting my access to them is still a further example of the abuse of academic stewardship.

Private Vs. Public Collections

Another question Jeanie inadvertently raised is the matter of the value of public verses private collecting. Again, it is often somehow assumed that because of the investment of time and resources, the collected items will have more intrinsic value to the private collector. But that assumes the collector (especially in the case of collecting ragtime compositions) intends to use and hopefully share the items and not merely acquire them to merely complete a set and then proceed to covetously stash them away.

It seems to come down to this. When acquiring rare items, there should be a responsibility factor that dictates a sharing ethic as opposed to a proclivity toward hoarding. I will share my own frustration with the course my own project is taking, in this regard, later.

The Digital Solution

Finally, to get back to my rather rambling commentary on collecting, I refer to a chain of comments I recently enjoyed reading on the Ragtimer’s Club Facebook page. It was prompted by a note Michael Chisholm inserted back on June 16.

Michael informed the group of a plan he contrived with Tom Brier before Tom’s terrible accident, to compile digital scans of all the instrumental ragtime that can be located (presumably to somehow share, benevolently or for “reasonable” profit).

It occurred to me that in our digital age, Michael and Tom’s idea represented the ideal resolution of the private vs. public ownership question. If indeed this is to happen, it would be necessary first to define instrumental ragtime (or any genre for that matter), locate the multitude of places where the music resides, then acquire the rights to scan and distribute the individual titles, and finally to create a mechanism to make the music available at a cost (covering the process and or a profit). Private collectors could thus own the sheet music with those beautifully created covers and the public at large could have access to the actual music.

Conservers Vs. Users

And to Jeanie’s point again, there is a vast difference between users and collectors, especially when it comes to the field of ragtime. Wealthy collectors can run up the prices of rare pieces of sheet music, then carefully conserve the music and store it away to avoid deterioration. Public or private, these collectors do not aid in the dissemination of these compositions. Users of the music (who are often sharers when copyrights aren’t violated I might add) perpetuate the enjoyment of the compositions and the public is richer for the availability.

The Modern Archive

Now as I want this to reach a conclusion, I think I can finally catch hold of what I wanted to say. The very word “archive” implies conserving and storing (documents and ephemera) to be used for research. In our modern age, most documents can be digitized and made universally available while maintaining the security and preservation of the originals. Time and expense issues are hopefully being mitigated to make this realistic. Thus, archives become lending (or even donating) libraries and everyone benefits.

As the Facebook chain to Michael Chisholm’s idea indicates, a great deal of labor and technology will be required to achieve a digital collection of every piece of original ragtime composed before 1925 (or any other designated date.)
I remember back in 1972 when I first learned of the collections of Mike Montgomery, Trebor Tichenor, and Dave Jason, I was nearly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material to be collected as a data base. That was before I really understood what digitizing was going to be all about.

Bringing it Together

Thus, turning archives into digital libraries and then linking them through common software will take research to a grand new level. It is already happening to a degree with syncopated music. Now it remains to bring down the cost, expedite the processing, and authenticate what is done.

And so, knowing there are many digital collections of ragtime music in existence, it seems the major task is to integrate them. Right now, web sites like the page curated by Bill Edwards (www.perfessorbill.com) with links to many of these sources are vitally useful.

I appreciate his generosity but wonder if we should not expect to pay at least a modest fee for such resources. Hopefully the integration with all the requisite compatibilities will be forthcoming.

And this addendum…best wishes to Jeanie Wright as she leaves Sedalia, Missouri, to live in Oregon. She has been an important ragtime personality for decades and her support for the genre has been unwavering.


Larry Melton can be contacted at lcmelton67@gmail.com


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