Building the Folk Dance Archive – Part Three

by Ron Houston

Society of Folk Dance Historians (SFDH)


“Archives, Part One ” presented three reasons why folk dancers avoid archives:

  1. Few people understand the nature of archives.
  2. Archives threaten the way some people want to dance.
  3. Archives threaten the social capital of some veteran folk dancers.

As a result, we forget our dances, our teachers, and our history. To restore our past and perhaps to extend our future, we must collect, organize, digitize, and publish our archives.

“Archives, Part Two” explained the differing treatment required for library, archives, ephemeral, and museum items that you will receive. We left that article with boxes of donated folk dance “stuff” still unopened.

“Archives, Part Three” was a how-to manual for processing folk dance “stuff.”

Anyhow, let’s now focus on preservation


Santa Rita! You know what’s next — one of our most popular Mexican dances (see the 1993 Folk Dance Problem Solver). But have you seen the BODY of Saint Rita [1381-1457] in her basilica in Cascia, Italy?  She did not avoid spousal abuse in life, but her body was preserved in death from the abuses of time. Folk dance archives, however, are not so blessed. You gotta PRESERVE your archives. Let’s say a few words about physical preservation and then focus on everyone’s favorite topic, digitization.


In the ‘archives biz’, we talk about physical preservation in six steps, which most people call ‘common sense’. Here they are, with the most cost-effective listed first:

Disaster preparedness : mitigates the effects of fire, flood, coffee spills, and such catastrophes. Search Google for ‘disaster preparedness’ and use your judgment. But do it now, unless you know when the next disaster will strike.

Regular cleaning of the building : reduces damage by pollution and pests.

Housing : (pH-appropriate folders and boxes) keeps documents from the harsh world by a friendly ‘micro-environment’, kinda like you wear clothes against the weather.

Environmental control : reduces pollution, light, and changes in temperature and humidity. Air conditioning and heating cost more than folders and boxes, but they slow down the aging process (and make the building so comfortable to work in!). Can’t afford a new air conditioner? Then at least shut the windows!

Supervision : reduces theft and carelessness such as we saw in “Mr. Bean: The Library,” a ‘must see’ on YouTube!

Conservation : repairs damaged or unstable documents to further their useful lives. Highly specialized. Do not try this at home!


‘Preservation’ combines two activities: ‘conservation’ (ensuring the longest possible useful life of an item) and ‘providing access’ (making the item available to users). One without the other would be kinda pointless, don’t you think? No sense in preserving archives if you never use them, and no sense in destroying archives through use! This dilemma reminds me of the proverb: ” Wolde you bothe eate your cake, and have your cake? “ In other words, using an item reduces its usable life.

But in the 1990s, electronic reproduction through DIGITIZATION became affordable and solved BOTH problems. When you create a digital copy of a phonograph record, for example, you provide access to the intellectual contents (the sound) of the record. At the same time, you reduce the need to play the record, extending its useful life. So let’s talk about preserving the three major types of folk dance archives: paper-based documents, video recordings, and sound recordings.


No mystery here. Put all paper-based documents in pH-balanced folders, and put those folders in pH-balanced document cases. But not some photos. Photos require special housing, depending on what kind of photos they are, so consult an expert.


This is a technological jungle. The more I learn, the less I know. Again, get help.


Here’s where folk dance archivists can do the most good. Few people will use our folk dance documents, but everyone wants our music and videos. And here is where most people go wrong. Let’s discuss digitizing options and the benefits of each. But first, forget about phonograph records and magnetic tape. Those original analog recordings did a great job of reproducing sound at the full range of human hearing, but let’s be realistic. Analog to analog copying can reduce quality by about 10% per ‘generation’. So that cassette tape you made of the group’s copy of a teaching tape made from a record now has lost about 25% of the original quality. Further, folk dancers now dance to digital recordings, whether those recordings are on mini-disc, on MP3 players, on CD, on laptop computers, or on media just being developed. So the question really is: will you digitize to the mastering standard, the archival standard, the CD standard, or the MP3 standard? As with everything else in this world, the answer is – YES! ALL FOUR! Use the mastering standard for studio capture, the archival standard for long-term preservation, the CD standard for your weekly dancing, and the MP3 standard while riding the bus. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Mastering standard : Honestly, the only time you would use this standard, 192,000 samples per second (192 kHz), with each sample having a 32 bit resolution depth per channel (for a bitstream rate of 12,288 kbits/second), would be in a sound studio, capturing live sound with expensive equipment for big money. And the only reason for using this standard is the time-honored rule of thumb: start at four times the quality that you want to publish at. So if you want to publish new material at anything higher than CD quality, you need to start at the mastering standard.

Archival standard : The International Association for Sound and Video Archives recommends archival capturing at 96 kHz with a 24-bit resolution per channel (4,608 kbits/second). “But my old 78 rpm phonograph records were recorded monaural, not stereo, at 14 to 18 kHz! Why do we need so much horsepower to create such big files?” In a sense, that’s true. For well-established physical reasons, we need a sample rate of twice the highest frequency. So a sampling rate of 96 is far beyond these records at 18. The reason, however, is because your archival copies are not RESTORED, yet. You captured the sound with all the clicks, pops, and hiss of the original record. Using this higher standard now allows you to modify the files to create restored copies for publication, without losing too much fidelity. And why stereo? Sometimes one part of the record groove is damaged, and recording in stereo might allow you to transfer from an undamaged part of the groove. And the large files? Wake up! We now have digital storage capacity that DWARFS even the largest files. Technology always has conquered storage problems and always will. Don’t even think about storage. And besides, w hat if you want to slow a dance down for teaching? Or if it was recorded too fast to begin with? You slow it down, and your sampling rate is lower, and even a tin ear can hear the lack of quality. So keep your archival copies at archival standard, if not mastering standard.

CD standard : The official CD standard is 44.1 kHz with 16-bit resolution for each of two stereo channels (1,411.2 kbits/second). For all but the most sensitive ear (musicians, audio technicians, extraterrestrials, etc.) the CD standard sounds fine, particularly in the church basement or high school gym where most folk dance groups meet. I fully expect this standard to evolve into a higher standard in the foreseeable future, but for now, it works. The most common file type for storage at this standard is the ‘wave’ file, with the .wav extension.

MP3 standard : I’m sorry. I have to disappoint a lot of folks, here. MP3 is BAD for all but the most superficial listening. Why? Because the most common MP3 standard (128 kbits/second) traded sound quality to conserve storage space, just before new technology solved that storage problem. How? Well, the engineers got together and thought: Hmmm. Normal people hear from 20 to 20,000 Hz, and old people and head-banging rock musicians can’t hear anything below 100 or above 14,000 Hz, so we’ll filter out all those extra frequencies! Hmmm. Certain frequencies mask certain other frequencies, so we’ll filter out those masked frequencies! And on and on. MP3 results in a file about 1/10th the size of a CD file, but that compression has a price. YOU CAN’T GO BACK. Once an MP3 in Narnia, always an MP3 in Narnia. Want to slow down or speed up the recording and change the relative frequencies? Sorry, the masking may not work any more. MP3s sound ‘bright’ and even tinny, compared to CD files. That pleases us older folks who have lost that higher frequency hearing. But if you want kids to folk dance, stick to the CD standard for your folk dance sessions and play your MP3s on the bus.

A couple more notes, on longevity and copyright, and we’re done.


Technical details appear at [].

But to cut it short, longevity depends on the type and brand of CD or DVD or other optical disc. Use ‘gold on gold’. Don’t argue, just use ‘gold on gold’. Anything else is asking for trouble. The market occasionally changes, so ask me for my current brand recommendation: [fdhist at yahoo].


Under most circumstances, you may play an original recording for a few listeners, and you may create a limited number of copies for archival purposes. But copying music or videos or document files (and giving or selling them to others) requires the copyright holder’s permission. And unless you can quote the four stipulations of ‘fair use’ in your sleep, forget about that “For educational purposes, only” nonsense.

Yet having said that, let me reiterate the message that concluded Episodes 1, 2, and 3: “You may not create the perfect archive, and you may not have permission, but DO IT ANYWAY.”

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