Interview with Jenny Doctor – Director of Belfer Audio Archive

I interviewed Jenny Doctor during my first semester of the program to learn more about her career path and the future of the archives profession.

In career paths, as with life in general, happenstance and serendipity can often be the driving factors leading to unexpected waypoints.  This became abundantly clear as I interviewed Professor Jenny Doctor, who serves in her capacity as a professor in the Newhouse School and the director of the Belfer Sound Archive at Syracuse University.  Doctor’s career path meandered from her time as a performing musician; receiving a masters and PhD in Musicology from Northwestern University; through a Fulbright at Kings College and editing for New Grove (publishers of music reference books); a stint as the director of the Britten-Pears Library; eventually she was lured back to the United States by SU’s offer of a dual appointment as a professor and director of an important sound archive.  Such a career trajectory harmonized with the muse of Doctor’s evolving interests and abilities—demonstrating how prospective archivists need not follow a prescribed path.

As with libraries, sound archives perch on the edge of exciting developments and challenges.  Doctor enthusiastically described their standards for the digitization of recorded media—source recordings are played at half-speed to increase fidelity and photographs document everything from album labels to etchings, in an effort to secure as complete a digital representation as possible.  On the acquisitions side, she explained how their standard for uniqueness has been expanded so that multiple recording takes are retained for a given item.  This touched a chord, since we have been discussing uniqueness in my Introduction to Cultural Heritage course.  As products of mass production, the same recorded materials (at least commercially produced recordings) can be collected by multiple sound archives across the country.  With limited space and resources, Doctor emphasized the benefits of peer sound archives working together to preserve diverse collections while limiting overlap.

Collaboration between sound archives has been encouraged and influenced by the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox project, which offers digital recordings from various institutions available online.  Doctor has high hopes for the project, as it will help in codifying cataloging practices and hopefully address some of the challenges facing all sound archives.  Copyright law, as Doctor explained, remains woefully behind the times when it comes to sound recordings.  The public domain for sound recordings is severely constrained and varies from state to state, which disallows archives from making commercial recordings widely accessible.  Increasing recording companies’ awareness of their deep historical catalogues will therefore be an important goal of archives outreach.

Jenny Doctor closed our discussion with a question: “what is [should be] the new model?”  After interviewing Doctor, I am convinced that the way forward for sound archives lies in their ability to bring the sounds of the past into the public consciousness.  With the fiftieth anniversary of the Belfer Sound Archive fast approaching, the archive should leverage its collection back onto the (digital) airwaves and give us an opportunity to hear what the past sounded like.