KPFA Tape Archive
A tape library at KPFA | Courtesy of Other Minds

When the greatest archive of the ancient world, the Library of Alexandria, was destroyed, all its precious resources disappeared.

That’s certainly the way most people think of the vandalization that ravaged the world-renowned collection in 391 A.D. The truth, however, is more complicated with echoes that reverberate from the days when “data storage” was on papyrus scrolls to the multiterabyte cosmos of the cloud.

See if this sounds familiar. By the time the Alexandria library was set ablaze the institution had been in decline for centuries, victimized by anti-intellectual purges, administrative infighting and resignations, lack of funding, falling membership, and the need for more secure storage space. As a result, by the time the fatal fire was lit, the majority of the Alexandria Library collection had already been dispersed (probably sold off) to other institutions around the Mediterranean.

Ancient Library at Alexandria
The ancient library at Alexandria

Technology has not made the problem any easier. Modern digital storage is still expensive and data and audio/video can be lost when older websites are no longer technologically supported, when links become corrupted, when budgets run out, when new technology renders older storage systems obsolete, and much more. Our information and cultural history may not be as secure as we believe it to be.

To understand the issues facing archivists today, I spoke with several experts on the subject: Charles Amirkhanian, long-time producer for Pacifica Radio station KPFA and co-founder (with Jim Newman), in 1993, of the new and experimental music organization Other Minds; Indian music scholar and performer Jody Cormack, archive assistant for the World Music Archives at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut; and Robert Chehoski, manager of the Media Management Archive for Bay Area educational television station KQED and KQED FM.

Their stories, victories, and laments proved amazingly similar as they face the challenge of storing, editing, and cataloging vast collections of recorded material on disintegrating reel-to-reel magnetic audio and video tape, vinyl records, audio cassettes, VHS and Betamax video, and reels and reels of 16 mm film. And even as their efforts to preserve these materials makes progress, the state-of-the-art data storage program they are using today could be out of date in a month. Remember the days when 10K of RAM was considered a wonder? They also face the dilemma of determining what should be saved or lost; how to maintain funding and secure storage while weathering administrative changes.

When I was employed at KQED (from 1969–1974), the station believed it was more cost-effective to reuse tape than store and catalog it. I personally watched reel after reel of 2-inch videotape, filled with culturally significant programs, placed on a massive magnet and erased. Decades of music, dance, opera, art, and cultural criticism programs were consigned to oblivion.

The loyal opposition at the station, the producers, resorted to clandestine midnight raids to rescue their programs. One such mission resulted in the liberation of the master reels for the 1970 music special, An Hour with Pink Floyd (which I co-produced with John Coney). Recently remastered, the show is now part of the archive at the Getty Research Institute Library in Los Angeles. It is also safely stored at KQED, and appears on Pink Floyd’s The Early Years 1968–1972 legacy box-set.

The Archive or the Dumpster?

I asked Charles Amirkhanian if KPFA was archiving programing in 1969 when he went to work for the Berkeley radio station.

“No,” he answered simply. “The station was so short of tape supply, there was a crisis every time an important person showed up for an interview. If our tape allotment for the month had run out, we had to erase a tape and lose whatever was on it. I eventually began setting aside a box of 12 reels and kept them in a locked cabinet for emergencies.”

“To give you an idea of the amount of audio tape the station required,” Amirkhanian said, “When we would record the entire Cabrillo Music Festival, it required six cases of tapes.”

Charles Amirkhanian

A tragic loss to KPFA’s archive of interviews and performances took place in 1988, Amirkhanian recalls.

The plan was to move 1,000 reels of labeled and edited tapes to Pacifica’s KPFK facility in North Hollywood. I assumed it was all going into storage forever. But instead of being taken to KPFK’s building, someone put them all in a self-storage unit. Every month a bill would show up at the station and nobody knew what it was for. Finally, a new manager came in and said to just stop paying it. They did and eventually the contents of the unit were sold at auction. In 2015 tapes began showing up on eBay with my handwriting on the boxes! They’d be asking $200 for a tape of Pauline Oliveros. Some showed up in China. I bought as many back as I could. I even had an alert on my computer. Years of performances, entire Cabrillo Festivals, in-depth programs on composers produced by Charles Shere and Alan Rich were entirely lost. We have no idea where they went.”

A similar tragedy, says Amirkhanian, was narrowly avoided in 1999.

“I got a call from KPFA’s manager, Jim Bennett. He said they had a whole room filled with tapes of classical and new music. ‘We don’t have room for them,’ he told me. ‘We were going to put them out in the alley and let them get picked up. Would you like them?’

“The question was, where to take them? Ultimately the savior of the tapes was Bay Area art-storage specialist, Scott Atthowe, who offered an available space (recently vacated by Bay Area artist William Wiley) to store the tapes.”

“We rented a van and the 4,000 tapes were saved,” Amirkhanian recalls. “Later with the aid of a $160,000 matching grant from the NEA, we were able to digitize the tapes. They are now stored on Brewster Kale’s massive digital repository, internetarchive.org.”

Saving a World of World Music

Jody Cormack arrived at Wesleyan University in 1991 with an extensive background in Indian music and performance with a degree in ethnomusicology from the University of Washington and advanced studies in the World Music department at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia (CAL ARTS).

“When Jennifer Hadley and I were hired, the university had just gotten a two-year NEH grant to process all the recordings that the World Music Department had inventoried,” Cormack explained. “Jennifer’s specialty is Indonesia. Mine is India. We had thousands of open-reel tapes to go through and we worked with a team of graduate students from the music department. A lot of the magnetic tapes were shedding. Some had mold and had to be baked to extract the information.

Jody Cormack
Jody Cormack at Wesleyan University's World Music Archives

“There were reels of film and early videotape recordings of performances I had done in India. There was also a collection of film footage of performances by South India’s most famous artists from the 1950s. Everything needed to be cataloged, restored, and eventually digitized, first to CDs and DAT. Then when electronic files came in, we had to transfer them again and store them on a server. But even that technology has gone through four generations of storage systems since we started, and each time requires a whole new learning curve. Now we’re using Google Drive and R-Store, but that’s about to change too,” Cormack said, with a visible note of frustration.

“What we really need to do is get a grant to go back to the beginning and digitize everything from the originals up to the point where we began using digital files. That’s a huge task. Funding is a constant issue, and we’re at the mercy of the University. It’s always about a space, tech support, quality control, and budgeting.”

Grad student at the Wesleyan World Music Archies
Graduate student assistant processing a concert recording at the World Music Archives, Wesleyan University | Courtesy of the World Music Archives

But, as Cormack observes, even when things seem to be secure, something can go disastrously wrong.

“It’s best to have the originals stored safely and a preservation copy off site. The idea is if something does go wrong, there’s another copy. But there’s no funding for that. Look what happened from the fire at Universal Studios.”

On June 1, 2008, between 40,000 to 50,000 archived videos, digital and film copies, and 118,000 to 175,000 master audiotapes belonging to the Universal Music Group were destroyed.

“We’re storing performances on the cloud,” Cormack explains. “But uploading performances takes up an amazing amount of data storage space, hundreds of terabytes. We like to think the cloud is secure. But is it?”

“I Can’t Stand the Cloud!”

“I have a unique position at KQED,” explains Robert Chehoski. “I was hired in July, 2011, to manage and inventory the station’s archive in association with WGBH (Boston), the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, and the Library of Congress. The project’s goal is to compile all the PBS station archives into one database.”

When Chehoski first went to work for KQED, however, he found the condition of the station’s archive in a state of chaos.

Recording Cabrillo Music Festival
David Cloud (top), Helen Susko, and Charles Amirkhanian, at Duck Island in Santa Cruz, recording a concert of the Cabrillo Music Festival, on August 30, 1980.  Susko was selling programs for the event while Charles (KPFA Music Director) monitors the recording, and David (radio producer for KUSC in Los Angeles) oversees the production. | Credit: Hal Baker

“At that point, KQED no longer had a chief librarian,” he points out. “Producers were taking tapes out of the library and making copies. The archives were upside down. It was an unbelievable mess. Tapes were stored everywhere — boxes stashed in broom closets, under people’s desks, in the machine room off the garage. When I started asking questions, no one knew anything.”

Sorting it all out was a laborious process, but Chehoski (an experienced archivist) got it done.

“We had to go through it all tape by tape. In some cases, there were five copies of the same show: There was the one-inch master, the 3/4-inch dub, three versions of the VHS. There was so much duplication it ended up filling up dumpsters. There were things that the rights had run out on that no one had gotten rid of — ancient copies of British Antiques Roadshow. It took six months to compile it on a single database. There were also reel and reels of 16 mm film that are now archived and stored at San Francisco State University.”

The popular thinking of the moment, Chehoski emphasizes, is that data storage on massive cloud servers represents the ultimate way to preserve content. He disagrees. Strongly.

“This is an issue I have fought over. I can’t stand the cloud. People have an idea of what it is. But the reason I don’t like it is because I don’t think the technology and the right business model is here yet.”

The way Chehoski sees it, “When a media organization decides to store everything on the cloud, what that means is your media data is being held hostage by providers like Amazon. When you start to upload 4K video to the cloud (which takes forever) you get nickel-and-dimed for everything. When you need to download the high-resolution version, you get nickel-and-dimed [again]. And if you decide you hate the service and say I’m done with it, you have to pay so much money to get your media material back, it’s like ransom.”

Chehoski recommends the use of a tiered storage system using disks that hold up to 2 1/2 terabytes on a 3-inch square the thickness of a hockey puck. But, he says, he has no doubt the storage capacity will soon increase, making it possible to store enormous data sets safely in less space, making it possible to bypass the cloud entirely.

These are just the observations and experiences of three professional archivists. Imagine how many archive/libraries there are in the Bay Area, the state, the nation, the world. Looking back, I’m sure the keepers of the Alexandria Library imagined their data-storage system was state-of-the-art, their security system topnotch. They were probably certain the collective knowledge of the known world they had amassed was secure against whatever was to come.

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday