Digitizing the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Archive

nicole finzer on “reviving the revival”: the digitization of the berkeley folk music festival archive @ niso hot topic virtual conference “digitization, discovery, and use,” 23 march 2022.


Some reflections from me on working on this project with Nicole and Northwestern University Libraries:

Project manager Nicole Finzer and many others did such incredible work digitizing the Berkeley Folk Music Festival’s 30,000-plus artifacts through an NEH Access and Preservation Grant over the last few years.

A bit of background. Northwestern University Libraries purchased the archive from Festival Director Barry Olivier in 1973. Then the collection just sat there for the most part, largely unprocessed until archivist Sigrid Perry told me about it one day in 2010 when I was conducting research in NUL’s Special Collections room. Eventually, preservationists, vendors (the staff at Backstage Library Works), digital librarians, catalogers, archivists, programmers, student interns, even a few participants in the original festival, which took place between 1958 and 1970, all contributed to the digitization of the entire collection.

The digitization of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Archive serves as a reminder of the enormous labor and resources required to bring a digitization and digital history project to fruition. Don’t forget: it’s worth it! These projects expand access and analysis of the past. They also expand communities of learning and knowledge, interaction and connection in the present.

That said, we should not minimize what it takes to get these projects up and running in terms of commitment and collaboration. From the NEH grant itself, written by Northwestern librarian Carolyn Caizzi with assistance from me and others, to additional labor and funding at Northwestern University Libraries, the Berkeley Folk Music Festival’s digitization required far more than just a day or two of scanning. Far more! It took unanticipated preservation and preparation of artifacts; strategizing about cataloging and metadata; generating many new NACO (Name Authority Cooperative Program) records; testing and improving the development of Northwestern University Libararies’ digital repository system; and other tasks.

In this sense, these projects are not about scholars magically making projects appear from thin air, but rather groups of experts with different skills coming together to prepare and curate a rich, multifaceted set of materials for public exploration. The projects also seem to work best when they benefit the partners. The Berkeley Folk Music Festival Archive digitization was not merely completed through the library functioning as service and the scholar participating as client or customer. Rather, even as the digitization helped me continue to develop the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Project as a digital public history effort, Northwestern University Libraries was able to use the project to test and improve their in-house digital repository system. I was able to continue teaching with the archive after my adjunct professorship ended at Northwestern; NUL was able to figure out how its departments might work together effectively, how to train students interested in library and archive work, and how to work through the challenges of such a large digitization effort.

These projects take institutional commitment. They take collaboration. They take good communication among people with different kinds of expertise. They need extraordinarily capable project managers such as Nicole. And they take all of us keeping an eye on how the project might benefit all the partners. There are always tensions, but at their best, projects such as this one harness a range of labor and knowledge in respectful ways to generate a community of making, learning, thinking, listening, and creating that even comes to include those from the past who are gone but whose lives live on in the artifacts themselves. We remember them by studying what they left behind. Their expertise becomes part of the project too.

Also, while they require people from a range of backgrounds, with a disparate set of skills and expertise, maybe what’s most intriguing about archival digitization and digital public history as collaborative endeavors is that they encourage participants to reach across assumed boundaries of knowledge. Everyone should not “stay in their lane,” as the phrase goes. Rather, these sorts of projects have the potential to become truly interdisciplinary. In this case, I as a historian learned so much about what goes into digitization, and continue to take part in improving the catalog metadata so that searches and other uses of the digital repository can become more effective. Meanwhile, Nicole and fellow digitizers became nothing short of practicing historians. As they went through the material, they noticed crucial, sometimes troubling details that demanded interpretation, such as the discrepancy that emerged in the business records between the pay for female as compared to male performers at the Berkeley Festival. The historian was now contributing to the library and archival work; the librarians and archivists were now thinking historically.

In this way, the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Archive’s digitization became a kind of ensemble effort in which we each played the instruments we were best at playing but also found ourselves trading notes, learning new approaches, creating a song larger than any one person’s contribution—a festive tune, full of dissonances and harmonies, produced from the collective effort.

1 thought on “Digitizing the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Archive

  1. Wow! I really liked this podcast with Nicole.. Did not realize all the aspects of what it took to bring the collection to its digital home.

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