U of T’s Media Commons: Preserving Canadian Popular Culture

“Nothing is long ago in an archive, my dear. In the records, we treat the dead as same as the living; that’s the whole point of keeping papers. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hundred years or only a few weeks. It’s all filed away, fresh as the day it went under the covers.”

It was in the spirit of this observation by Scottish writer/author Sara Sheridan, the recognition of the importance of popular culture to the creative life of Canada, and the need to preserve the archival records of its creators and distributors, that led to the establishment of Media Commons at the University of Toronto in January 2003 at the instigation of then chief librarian Carole Moore.

She saw the value in non-traditional (i.e. non-book) scholarly resources, a philosophy passionately shared by Brock Silversides. He has been Media Commons’ only director from the start and has overseen the collection of archival fonds from various media industries including popular music artists and companies like Anne Murray, Blue Rodeo, Triumph, Cowboy Junkies, Domenic Troiano, Sass Jordan, Paul James, Andy Curran, Brian Vollmer/Helix, Roy Kenner, Ian Thornley/Big Wreck, True North Records/Bernie Finkelstein, Alert Music and SOCAN, among many others.

There are collections from multimedia stalwarts like Denise Donlon and Joey Cee with the research files from Grammy Award-winning “rock ‘n’ roll professor” Rob Bowman on their way. There’s a huge collection from Metalworks, reportedly now the longest-running studio in Canada, which includes the two-inch multi-tracks to all of the digital files. There’s a Paul White collection that came from music journalist Nicholas Jennings with almost every album issued by Capitol Records-EMI of Canada and Jeff Healey’s 78 rpm collection of close to 20,000 discs has found a home there. Doug McClement, perhaps Canada’s foremost live concert engineer, has deposited his vast collection of tapes.

In the field of film and television, there’s Ron Mann’s collection (producer of Twist and Grass) as well as a large donation from Moses Znaimer and CityTV, so there’s a lot of MuchMusic material. There are Jana Lynne White’s interview tapes from her program Speakeasy. You’ll also find John Brunton’s Insight Productions, with all their documentaries and specials as well as archival materials from the many years they have produced the Juno Awards broadcasts, and from Canadian Idol, which the company produced for the period it was on the air at CTV. In the field of radio, there is a collection from Doug Thompson, producer of audio documentaries such as Rock Express/Music Express, The Producers, The Thunder Gods, and the Orbyt Media Archive of live performances and interviews with an array of Canadian and international rock bands. In the area of photography, there is the NOW Magazine photo collection as well as the full archives of three of its main photographers: Paul Till, David Lee and Susan King, all of whom extensively covered the Queen Street scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“Our collection is derived from a number of different sources: broadcasting, film, media critique/analysis/history, animation, advertising, photography, acting, spoken word/performance, popular culture Judaica and teaching,” explains Silversides. “We don’t just collect audio/visual records like magnetic tape and film. We are interested in all media that is generated in the making of any production, so that will involve correspondence, contracts, set lists, track sheets, production stills, textual material, graphics, posters, reviews and merchandise like t-shirts, banners and promotional artifacts in the case of popular music artists and companies.

“98 percent of all the collections that are donated to us are for the tax receipt. When the collection comes in, depending on how detailed the list is, we might tweak it a bit and do a really detailed listing. At a certain point, we will have enough information that we can call in an arms-length appraiser, someone who is not associated with the university. We have a pool of them. They will look at the collection, compare it against other like collections, and come up with a value. The U of T then issues a tax receipt for the appraised value.”

If people want to put things into the archive that they feel need to be confidential at this point, Media Commons will honour their restrictions. “If they want to close it for a certain number of years, we’ll do that,” says Silversides. “It’s better to put it in the archive for the historical record with a stipulation that it be private until the time the material is no longer sensitive.

“We always want to collect the original formats. Yes, it’s nice to have a digital copy of things but we always want the original format if it exists. We can say that because we have all of the playback equipment you would need for any audio, video or film format. It’s important with studio recordings to provide the original multi-tracks. We even have the equipment to play back wax cylinders.”

Access to the archives at Media Commons is straight forward as Silversides explains. “We are currently updating our website to include a whole bunch of new collection level descriptions that will tell you who donated the collection, what is covered in that collection and the names of the productions they have worked on whether it’s albums or documentaries and so on. To actually go over the detailed listing, you have to come in and talk to either myself or my two colleagues. We’ll go over the listing with you and when you know which boxes you want to access, we’ll just call them up from the Downsview storage facility. That’s where everything is shipped, except for material that is just on film. For that, we have a cold vault, the only university in Canada that has one dedicated just to film.

“Everything else, no matter the format, goes to our Downsview facility. Most of the things that are collected by archives, regardless of the format or the gauge, everything upon which musicians produce something, by the nature of its manufacture, starts deteriorating and just continues to do so over time. We can sometimes revive badly damaged tape. It’s a process known as baking. What that means is that the adhesive between the oxide particles and the plastic base breaks down over time and a powder starts coming off it. If you bake it, it will soften up the adhesive and re-laminate it, then you’ve got one or two passes after that. That’s when you digitize because, ultimately, it will start to break down again. The best we can do is to store all of the archival material we receive in the most ideal conditions as possible and that will slow down the inherent deterioration. Sometimes, you can keep it going for centuries, but you have to store it properly.”

Most of that storage takes place at the U of T’s $20 million environmentally-controlled warehouse facility in the Toronto suburb of Downsview the operation of which is overseen by Mark Phillips, who has a little music history of his own. His grandfather was Percy Phillips, proprietor of Phillips’ Sound Recording Services, a small studio he set up in a small room behind the family-owned business in Liverpool.  It was here that The Beatles, known as The Quarrymen back in 1958, recorded their first songs: That’ll Be the Day and In Spite of All Danger, a song that Paul McCartney has played in concert with an intro that recalls Phillips’ studio and those early days in Liverpool.

“The racking here is 35 feet high separated by 125 foot-long access passageways,” explains Phillips. “It’s a super flat floor, all within one/one-hundredth of an inch so that when the lift platform goes up, it’s on the same plane as the racks. If the level of the floor was off just a bit, as it went up, it would interfere with the racking. The facility is kept at 63 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity; there are two-million-dollar HVACs (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) for climate control.

“For the longest while we were processing between four or five thousand items a week but that is going to increase. I hired more staff recently and they’ll be dealing with about 8000 items a week. Altogether, we have about three and a half million items in the building and 90 percent of that is both archival and published books in various languages from a wide range of cultures that have all been bar-coded by hand, one at a time. All of it is available in the catalogue.”

Is there more material out there that should be preserved? “Absolutely,” says Silversides. “There have been so many people and companies that have contributed to the growth of the Canadian music industry: the artists themselves, of course, but also managers, booking agents, recording companies, recording studios, promoters and publicists. If anyone feels they have archival material that should be preserved as part of the historical record, I would welcome a conversation with them.”

Martin Melhuish, the writer of this piece, has a large collection of archival material at Media Commons. Brock Silversides can be reached at brock.silversides@utoronto.ca. Photo of the interior of the U of T Library Downsview warehouse facility by Uriel Humphrey.

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