Whenever I visit Linda Williamson, it feels like coming home. She was waiting for me in Edinburgh with roast chicken, conversation and company. We talked of my children, her children and the man who brought us together, Duncan Williamson.
I was staying with Linda for the week so that we could take the tapes to The School of Scottish Studies, to sort out between us exactly what the tapes were and to begin the process of transferring them to a digital format.
However, my first port of call was The Scottish Storytelling Centre, www.scottishstorytellingcentre.com. This is a marvellous building – right in the middle of Edinburgh on the Royal Mile, the first purpose built modern venue for live storytelling. It has an exhibition/workshop space, gorgeous theatre, shop and café. It is open all day, all week (except Sundays) and provides a physical heart for the storytelling scene in Scotland. Donald Smith, the Director, was away and I’d meet him later in the week, but he connected me with Fiona MacDougall, who also works for the Centre. I turned up expecting a half hour chat over a cuppa – a courtesy call to talk about my project; explain how I was digitising Duncan’s tapes and to talk about how and when a sharing performance at the Centre might work. Three hours later we were still talking!
Fiona is relatively new to the Centre. She moved from the School of Scottish Studies to the Scottish Storytelling Centre about three months ago, bringing with her a passionate love of Scottish Traveller culture and a vast knowledge of stories, songs, family connections and history. My notebook rapidly filled up with names, possible connections, similar projects, books, documentaries, websites and discussion groups to follow up. Positivity, knowledge and enthusiasm radiated out from Fiona. She was full of excitement on my behalf about my impending visit to the School of Scottish Studies, still missing her ex-colleagues and sure that I would have a great time the next day with Cathlin and Stuart, sorting out the tapes and exploring all the material available within the hallowed halls.
Linda and I set off the next day for the School of Scottish Studies, daring the Edinburgh traffic – and far worse – Edinburgh parking!
The School of Scottish Studies is on the Edinburgh University campus in the heart of Edinburgh. It is open to anyone and is a treasure trove of voices, memories, ballads and stories. It is free to use and you can go in and listen to any of their recordings. They have also been sharing more and more stories and ballads online on their site http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/, which translates as ‘kist of riches’. It is an amazing site and a fantastic resource, but only a fraction of the material held by the sound archive, so there’s plenty more to listen to if you go in person.
The School is a tall thin building, with steep staircases that go up and up. We were on the third floor and after three journeys back and forward to the car, I began to appreciate where Cathlin’s lithe build came from! When your main focus is listening to recordings and poring over cataloguing systems, building a large number of steep stairs into your day to day existence is probably a good idea! (However, don’t let that put you off – the reading and listening room is on the ground floor!)
Cathlin had set out a huge empty table for us, ready to sort out the tapes. Our first job was to put them in date order. Thankfully Linda had labelled the tapes very clearly, but it still took a while! Most tapes were labelled with the date, track A and track B and contents. Many of the tapes also had an SA number. The SA number showed that the tape had come from the School of Scottish Studies Sound Archive, either as an original or a copy. For example, SA1976_062 would translate as SA (Sound Archive), followed by the year, 1976, followed by the number of the tape – the 62ndtape accessioned that year. Linda and Cathlin thought these were copies of originals held in the Sound Archive that Linda had used for her PhD and books.
Cathlin brought out the lists of tapes for Duncan’s entries, from the late 1960s to the 1990s. There was no point in transferring tapes already digitised, but she needed to make sure all our tapes with SA numbers definitely were copies, not originals – and that the originals were in good condition.
At last the tapes were sorted into piles: dated copies; originals missing from the archives; dated originals not accessioned into the archives and a small pile of bizarre odds and ends including Linda’s piano recitals and my first radio documentary.
Having a much clearer idea the tapes’ contents and provenance, we discussed how they might be managed into the future. The usual parties in such an agreement are the School of Scottish Studies, who curate both the tapes and their contents; the contributor (the voice on the tape) and the fieldworker (who recorded the tapes). In this case, there was also me – not involved in the original recording, but holding in trust six boxes full of a strange assortment of tapes.
My collection fell into two halves: original tapes not previously archived, copied or accessioned and copies of tapes previously accessioned to the School of Scottish Studies archives, mainly by Duncan and Linda, but some containing other voices or recorded by other fieldworkers.
We agreed I would have complete copies of original tapes I was entering into the Archives. However, copies of copies of recordings in the archives were a bit more complicated! Most tapes were recorded by Linda, but the collection also included recordings by other fieldworkers such as Barbara McDermitt and Alan Bruford. There were recordings of concerts, conversations and house parties with other storytellers and musicians. I had permission from Linda to use her recordings of Duncan, but Cathlin would need to check permissions from all the other people involved. In some cases, the School would hold the copyright. If not, I would have to ask for permission. The School maintains contact with contributors and field workers, but inevitably people move on or pass away and it can be difficult and time consuming to track down individuals or their next of kin.
It is now the policy of the School of Scottish Studies to ask everyone who puts recordings into the archive to sign over the copyright. While initially, I had an instinctive wariness about this, as I faced the prospect of asking Cathlin to contact various copyright holders, I soon saw why it was necessary. There are many tapes within the archive that I am sure contributors recorded to be shared, but the School are constrained by lack of copyright now very difficult to obtain. Giving the School copyright ensures ongoing access to the recordings so that they can be shared and celebrated for generations to come.
After much discussion with her family, Linda assigned her rights as both fieldworker and as the executor of Duncan’s estate for my tapes and the many other recordings she made, , giving the School full copyright. With Linda’s blessing, there are now an extensive number of recordings of Duncan available to listen to at http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/and there will be more coming soon!
We agreed that my original recordings of Duncan should be digitised by Stuart Robinson, Audio-Visual Technician, at the School. Stuart and Cathlin took one look at the tapes and instantly spotted lots of Ampex tapes – tapes known to be susceptible to ‘sticky shed syndrome’ and usually needing baking to preserve them. Stuart was very relieved to hear that I had stopped trying to play them to prevent damage.
Transferring the tapes – baking them and playing them in real time – was going to be a time-consuming process. In the meantime, Cathlin and Stuart began sorting out copies of the SA recordings of Duncan that the School had already digitised. Where the copy was a whole recording it was easy to make a digital copy. Tape extracts copies of one or two individual items was going to take more time.
I was glad I’d allowed three days at the School. Cathlin worked on creating a database for copying digitised tapes using the accession listings on the School’s database. I created a database for all my recordings using information on the tape boxes. We worked for two days – and my phone is still full of photographs of the boxes to finish the database at home.
The time I spent at the School of Scottish Studies convinced me it is absolutely the right place for the tapes. When I started this journey, as a traditional storyteller, I hadn’t considered copyright at all – and yet, of course, it is essential in the safeguarding of Duncan and Linda’s legacy. Cathlin and I had long discussions about issues such as access and rights, custodianship and the role of the archives. I think that between us we have arrived at an arrangement that gives the best future to the recordings and have begun a partnership that will continue long into the future.
I will have copies of all the tapes for my private use, except where there is a copyright issue. I am able to use the recordings within my podcasts, blog, performances etc. I will keep in touch with the School, letting them know what I’ve used and how so that they know what is in the public domain. We will work together to produce an album’s worth of material for the crowd-funders who helped make this whole journey possible.
I will work with the School to digitise the tapes that have not yet been transferred and they will:
-Make sure that Duncan’s material is future-proofed as storage formats continue to be updated
-Share some, if not all, of Duncan’s recordings on http://www.tobarandualchais.co.uk/en/
-Look after Duncan’s tapes with respect and sensitivity, keeping in touch with Linda and her children about how the recordings are used, allowing use for reasonable requests.
-Provide a space where anyone can come into the building and listen to the recordings.
I think this partnership is the best path to ensure continued public access, protection and longevity to Duncan’s recordings.
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