Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Intermedial Archives

Archivists and other records professionals have tended to see their issues with digital recording technologies as uniquely difficult and revolutionary. As records professionals they are working with information and being in the midst of the information age, they face peculiar and paradigm-shifting challenges. Or, so the argument goes. Anyone stepping back a bit and looking at the information age claims quickly see how such arguments fall apart. We can see this with Steve J. Wurtzler’s Electric Sounds: Technological Change and the Rise of Corporate Mass Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Wurtzler considers technological innovators and corporate power, the marketing of technological change to the American public, the demonstrations of the utility of the new media forms, the promotion of the sound media for commercial, cultural, and political purposes, and other such topics.

Wurtzler’s book “examines the process of technological change and the always contested emergence of new media forms by focusing on a crucial period in the history of U.S. mass media,” in this case the 1920s and 1930s (p. 2). The new media forms are the cinema, radio, and the phonograph. All “related applications of the same technology,” what Wurtzler terms “electric acoustics,” the “electrical and mechanical means through which sound was successfully encoded, amplified, transmitted, decoded and then reproduced” (p. 3).

Archivists, working to preserve the movies, radio broadcasts, and sound recordings of this era will welcome Wurtzler’s richly textural account of the formative industries supporting their production and marketing. Electric Sounds is a good basic reference and historical interpretation sound, moving image, music, and other archivists will find immensely useful as part of their basic bookshelf. There are, however, even more poignant reasons to read this book. Wurtzler suggests “our contemporary historical moment resonates powerfully with developments in the 1920s and 1930s. We increasingly live in an intermedial world. Ongoing technological change blurs distinctions between cinema, television, the Web, radio, and recorded sound . . . . Our contemporary experience of the intermedial might be productively informed by an understanding of a previous moment when the distinctions between media forms were not as clear as media-specific historical scholarship might suggest” (p. 11). Archivists, obviously, have to come to terms with such complex and shifting recording forms, but it is useful to know that there may not be anything particularly new about this challenge.