Public Archives Matter! S.P.IN With Us

On June 27 this year Discogs hit a historic milestone: 10 million Releases in the Database. With that many Releases we know the Database is complete and comprehensive in some areas, but we also know also far from finished in other areas. And what makes an archive truly great is having a comprehensive collection.

That’s why for this year’s SPIN Campaign we’re focusing on those areas of the Database where we know we have gaps.

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If you psychoanalysed every famous recorded musician you’d probably find a lot in common with a BC Egyptian prince, except that 3000 years on we know sodium chloride and pyramids aren’t enough to safeguard an ego against the victory of time. You might reveal that putting tracks on wax is, amongst other things, some kind of mummy complex, a vain defence in the slow battle against mortality. What you’d be less likely to discover is that there are already hoards of (far more modest) discographical archivists who, for the past 18 years, have been working quietly on the solution: Discogs.

Apart from maintaining a perpetual stroking motion over the egos of long-dead artists, musical archivists like the 400,000 strong Discogs Database Community serve a serious cultural purpose far grander than any musician’s ego. I take my hat off to them.

Why are Archives Important?

Social media killed your attention span? Can’t remember what you ate for breakfast? I can’t even remember if I ate breakfast and if anyone else’s memory is as short and Swiss as mine it’s no wonder humankind has amassed so many memory aids over the millennia. Stories to transmit hard won lessons of life through the generations, then phonautographs then vinyls, and then archives of all those recordings.

Archives are the memory of the universe par excellence, a bridge to the past.

Only they’re not as fallible or biased as human memory. As strongholds of primary resources, they’re a record of the way things actually were, not of what someone later said they were like. Most importantly they shed light on the less salient moments of the past that made the world the way it is today, helping us paint a fuller picture of why we are the way we are. They help provide the full context for historical events, and musical archives are particularly important for this as music is like a crystallisation of social identity.

In sum they tell the stories of our cultural heritage but they do more to preserve diversity than human memory ever could.

But They Must be Accessible and Usable

The ultimate goal of archiving is to identify and preserve information so that it may be accessed and used by people. Without use the entries in any archive are just one-dimensional points in an abstract, indifferent memory. Literally useless.

Discogs has always been, and will always be free, and open to the public, but this is only possible because the Database Community has digitised the information on every Release in the database. Digitising information from a Release via the Submission Form is some of the hardest work the Community engages in. Other archives could only dream that all the information on everything in their collections was entered in an online database.

But, that also means every Release has to be verified and cataloged correctly according to consistent rules: two of the most important aspects of any archival process. There’s no need to explain why verification is important, but not everyone understands the critical importance of strict cataloging rules: putting information in the right place means it is actually discoverable.

Without a cataloging system Discogs would be a pathless and terrifying wasteland. No one in their right mind would open 1,000 random Release pages in their browser looking for their next favourite song. You use the Explore feature to filter for the styles, artists and labels you’re interested in, and then hop from Release to Release via the myriad hyperlinks on any page. But this is only possible because the Database Community has correctly cataloged everything on Discogs according to strict guidelines developed over 18 years.

Big shout out to the editors, the voters and the anti-web-subbers!

Big shout out to the Submission Guideline aficionados!

Without you, Discogs is a shallow soup of unconnected dots.

In the hearts and minds of the Discogs Database Community, as we watch them decipher and catalog the coded hieroglyphics of recorded sound, we glimpse a future in which all mysteries are solved, where this and other universes offer up their keys to all. As each worker weaves their way through a single slice of this universal memory, together they lay end to end the fragments of a single secret. In the words of French Filmmaker Alain Resnais, speaking about the Bibliothèque nationale de France, “Perhaps that secret bears a beautiful name: happiness”.

 

So What are we Doing?

Yada yada yada enough gushy sentiments. Discogs might be the world’s largest public archive of physically recorded music, but we know it’s not 100% complete, and we know that a comprehensive catalog is what separates an archive from a mere collection. Who knows what Releases from today will testify our lives to the civilisations of tomorrow?

To complicate our project, most of the physical media that music is recorded onto is perishable, and archiving can be thankless work: sometimes it’s hard to see the impact you’re having. But as hundreds of thousands of archivists keep tapping away bit by bit, slowly the signal begins to emerge form the noise, the meta-patterns that hold the constellations of Releases together begin to show their faces. In the wise words of Diognes_The_Fox: ‘It might not matter to me right here and now, but it will matter to someone someday’.

Over the past week we’ve been diving into the database to identify some of the patterns and gaps in the database, and over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing some of the insights. Stay tuned.

And then during this year’s SPIN (the annual ‘September Pledge Initiative’), we’ll be working hard with the Database Community to try to fill them as much as we can. We’ll be posting results and insights as they go!


Keep Digging

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