Saturday, January 29

Chapter 3000: The digitization of the archives of the National Sound Library, at risk from budget cuts and the pandemic


Mexico’s sound heritage is at risk. Thousands of sound documents from the National Music Library, such as the original recordings of music composed for Mexican cinema, a wide collection of traditional music or historical radio series are in serious danger of extinction. Not only because the recordings are preserved on obsolete magnetic tapes, but because budget cuts and the rehiring of staff, with half salary and half capacity, threaten to reduce the projects of the institution in charge of the investigation, the registry , the conservation and dissemination of the country’s sound heritage.

The collection of the Sound Library consists of 238 funds and collections containing 579,000 sound documents. Slightly more than 300,000, more than half of the total, are open reel tapes, cassettes and other analog formats according to data from the survey carried out by the UN and the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (out, for its acronym in English). The UNESCO launched, in mid-2019, a global alert on the urgency of digitizing humanity’s cultural and linguistic diversity recorded on magnetic tapes – one of the most fragile media, which is more easily damaged by climatic conditions and time. According to the workers of the Sound Library and the director of the institution, for a year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, these tapes have not been digitized. And it is very likely that the rate of transfer to digital files will slow down in the coming months.

“We have a limited digitization capacity,” admits Pável Granados Chaparro, director of the National Music Library, in an interview with EL PAÍS. “When we arrived in 2018 they asked us how long it would take to digitize those sounds. We would need about 80 years counting that the collection does not grow any more. We need to hurry, because for now there will be no digitization. And we don’t know until when ”. Unesco warns of the progressive disappearance of analogue reproduction equipment, which it estimates will be final by 2025. “The only way to preserve these sounds and images in the long term and keep them accessible for future generations is to digitize them and transfer them to repositories. digital safe ”, warns the organization for Education, Science and Culture.

Jewels of the Sound Library

Since its foundation, in December 2008, the Sound Library was already running a race against time, not only to preserve the sound files that it already keeps in its vaults, but to rescue materials from private or public collections, which are out of the collection, scattered or stored in cellars without the optimal conditions for their conservation, to which is added the growing shortage in the market of equipment for the reproduction of magnetic and analog media (tapes and discs), wax cylinders, magnetic wires and pianola rolls.

Now he also faces budget and human resource cuts, his latest misfortune. After numerous negotiations, self-employed workers from Sound library 3000 – hired for fees – they stopped the dismissal of more than 70% of the staff, but with salaries cut by up to 50% and a shorter hiring term. The collaborators of the collective signed under protest in early February the offer of the Ministry of Culture with lower remuneration and for a shorter period of time (from one year to nine months). The workers justify the agreement in the important “commitment to the National Music Library and collectors” and also because “the alternative of getting a job is practically nil”. Last December he had already denounced in a public letter a cut in the budget of 80%, which made it impossible to hire collaborators assigned to Chapter 3000, a group of workers especially affected by the adjustments in cultural budgets.

The cuts in the cultural institution are not new. In the last five years it has suffered a reduction of 50%. According to data from Expenses budget, in the National Sound Library the budget fell from about 16 million pesos -about 763,700 dollars- in 2017 to 8 million -about 384,000 dollars- in 2021. Although the Ministry of Culture informed this newspaper that the budget exercised was much higher than the official figures say, at least in 2019 they say it was 23,886,923 million pesos and 20,449. 736, in 2020. The threat of dismissal or “non-rehire” of three-quarters of the staff, announced to employees on December 23, 2020, supposed, according to those affected, the entry into a coma of the House of Sounds of Mexico.

The reduction in wages accepted to avoid layoffs means a reduction in their wages of between 30% and 50%. Salaries went from between 8,000 and 20,000 pesos, to between 6,000 and 15,000 pesos, according to the workers themselves interviewed by this newspaper. In recent months, more than 500 signatures have been collected in support of workers, where personalities in the academic and cultural fields stand out. Among others, the photographer Graciela Iturbide; Eugenia Revueltas, daughter of Silvestre Revueltas; Tre Berney, president of the IASA; the music critic and promoter Gerardo Kleinburg; or the former director of the Fonoteca Ernesto Velázquez Briseño.

The workers who demand better working conditions are a team of specialists that has been in charge of preserving seven projects inserted in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program, among which the original recordings of music composed for Mexican cinema between 1958 and 1958 stand out. 1975, the Collection of Thomas Stanford (the most prolific of the compilers of the traditional music of Mexico), the radio series of Radio UNAM Women’s Forum (first Mexican radio program with feminist content) and the field recordings of Henrietta Yurchenco (pioneer of ethnomusicological research and recording) or sound documents of Raúl Hellmer. For this 2021, the Department of Digital Audio Restoration had the approval to deal with sound documents such as: conferences by Salvador Novo, Octavio Paz, Rufino Tamayo and Salvador Elizondo; music recorded in the Porfiriato and typical orchestras.

“We as a collective recognize that all this effort and the achievements that have been made so far would not have been possible without the citizen participation and the trust of great personalities, who have joined our struggle. Society is aware of its heritage and of the importance of preserving sound memory, ”Julio Delgado Revueltas, head of the Department of Digital Audio Restoration of the National Sound Library and member of the collective, tells EL PAÍS Sound library 3000, which stresses that “this fight is for working conditions and the preservation of heritage has nothing to do with any association or political party.”

The National Sound Library is the spearhead in Latin America in terms of preservation of sound documents. The institution has, for example, a Procedure Manual and a Restoration Protocol unique in its kind in the region. The workers claim the importance of having trained personnel in the rescue of thousands of sound documents that are still forgotten or that are in imminent risk of loss. Collectors who had deposited their sound collections in the custody of the Sound Library expressed their concern, such as Mario Lavista or the heirs of the conductor and composer Eduardo Mata. The Fonoteca, in any case, has called for the tranquility of the collectors. “If anyone wants to visit the Fonoteca, we are willing to show them that the care of heritage continues. We are monitoring the vault, the mass storage system, the virtual connections of the Sound Library ”, assures the director Pável Granados.

The institution has announced that they will now also work with audios that were born digital and at a different pace. “The direction of work is going to change. We are going to concentrate on digital native audios. Fundamentally the radio. The physical conservators, who carried conservation work on disk, on tapes, are now going to do digital conservation work, which also needs a treatment before being infested into our digital collection ”, explains Granados.

Regarding the digitization of the archive, the director of the National Music Library, assured this newspaper that once they return to a face-to-face work scheme “the work of digitizing physical media will begin to be regularized, prioritizing magnetic tapes. And he clarified that this company “never ends and is being done.” “Right now we will be working on the conservation, cataloging and ingestion of digital objects, due to the health contingency”.

The history of the workers of the National Music Library is repeated with other dependencies of the Ministry of Culture, one of the institutions most indicated by the Superior Audit of the Federation (ASF). In their last report, the auditors identified irregularities for 1,707 million pesos, about 85 million dollars. One of the main ones is the payment of 727 million for alleged debts from years prior to 2019, “without having the corresponding authorization” and without “providing documentation that proves that the goods and services were satisfactorily received.”

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