Preserving Ephemera

Spectrograph: the letter A

Walter J. Ong writes, “There is no way to stop sound and have sound. If I stop the movement of sound, I have nothing … no other sensory field totally resists a holding action, stabilization, in quite the same way”I. While the contents of a digital sound file can be studied by replaying it time and time again, stop the recording and the content no longer exists in any physically recognizable form. If we must listen to the sound-file in order for the file to exist, we could say the sound archive exists only when the act of listening is undertaken. However, while the recordings stored within the digital sound archive are ephemeral, the archive itself preserves the ability – perhaps paradoxically – to revisit the ephemeral experience.

The relatively inexpensive nature of collating and maintaining digital files means the very nature of archives is evolving apace. It is increasingly likely that our first, and perhaps only, interaction with an ‘archive’ of butterflies, first editions, Quaker furniture, yo-yos or magic lantern slides, will be a URL address. For some, the explosion of digital archives – the collation of ‘mere’ signifiers of real objects – signals some sort of Derridian nightmare in which battles are fought over the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the ‘representational’. But if digital archives have certain negative implications, the technology that underpins them opens up new and exciting possibilities for archival practices. Digital archives offer the potential for new methods of preserving hitherto uncollectable materials and activities, especially those connected with ephemeral performance arts. The Seamus Heaney Centre Digital Archive (SHCDA) is one such project: a storehouse dedicated to the collation and preservation of digital recordings of public poetry readings. At the time of writing, it is a project unique in Ireland.II

Spectrograph: the letter B

The collation and archiving of ephemeral performance means addressing many of the traditional concerns of the archivist (establishing parameters for inclusion, creating filing systems, facilitating cross-referencing, worrying about storage capacity, deciding who is allowed access, etcetera), while at the same time taking into account the changes brought about by the very nature of the on-line digital archives. The Internet has the potential to allow an archive’s visitor-numbers to reach the multi-millions. In order to attract and maintain an audience that will appreciate and benefit most from the SHCDA, it is essential to tailor the archive to the needs of its potential users. Archival content and website design – particularly the archive’s search and browse capabilities – are perhaps the key components that will ensure users engage with the archive and become regular visitors.

The SHCDA is fortunate in that it is designed for a very specific target audience; the students, faculty and approved researchers at Queen’s University Belfast. Access to the archive is limited to those with access codes sanctioned by the University. But having a ‘captive’ audience does not mean that a complacent attitude to content, design and search capabilities can be adopted by those building the SCHDA. Indeed, as an educational and research tool that represents the University, the onus on the archivist is to ensure that the SCHDA functions as a creditable, reliable, and easy-to-use site is perhaps even greater. It is also a priority that the SHCDA allows for, and encourages, creative uses of its materials.

Spectrograph: the letter C
One standard by which an archive might be judged is its potential to generate imaginative and original research. While search and browse engines will lead SCHDA users to their requested files, it is hoped that the metadata collated for all of the recordings in the archive will also produce interesting and perhaps unexpected search results. For instance: The archive collects recordings of poets performing at more than one reading event. As a result of collating data, search results will indicate how many times a poet reads a particular poem across all of these recordings. Does Ciaran Carson, or Michael Longley, or Sinead Morrissey, for example, have one poem or a set of poems that he or she performs habitually? And do the introductions to these poems follow some sort of script from reading to reading? If so (or, indeed, if not), what can this information tell us about the concerns of the individual poets and their poetics, about Irish poetry readings, and about the performative nature of poetry readings in general?

To use just one other example of the archive’s potential to generate results: Browsing the archive by publisher will indicate which publishing houses are best represented in the archive. If we then search these results to see where poets associated with these publishing houses read, can we discern any interesting patterns? Are the poets of ‘big’, ‘important’ poetry publishers found to be reading almost exclusively at universities and at significant festivals? If so, do universities and festivals have a bias towards poets with ‘big’ reputations? Indeed, does such information suggest that the SHCDA archive has a bias towards a certain type, or genre, of poetry reading? It is hoped that the ability to perform such browse and search tasks, and therefore raise such issues, will attract the interests not only of those investigating the literary merits of individual poets and poems, but also students and researchers from disciples such as ethnopoetics, anthropology, linguistics and performance studies.


IWalter J. Ong. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. 1982. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. 32.

II The SHCDA will be administered and maintained by the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry and the Special Collections department at Queen’s University Belfast Library. The archive is believed to be the only digital archive of a major Irish library that is dedicated solely to public poetry readings. Poetry recordings – public or private, and in digital, tape, LP or CD format – exist within most library collections, but they are rarely gathered together, digitized, and stored under the umbrella of ‘poetry readings’. The result is that the very existence of these recordings is often unknown. Apart from library archives, online digital poetry sound archives have been created by other bodies in Ireland. However, these tend to be subsidiary features of larger websites and their function is more entertainment and promotion than research. They are, nonetheless, interesting repositories for recordings and certainly have the potential to serve as educational resources. See for example Poetry Ireland’s Media Archive: To date, Dedalus Press and Salmon Press are the only poetry publishers in Ireland to exploit the potential of digital sound files. They are, in effect, creating his own ‘boutique archives’. Dedalus Press: The Sound Room: Salmon Press: The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry also has an online Audio Library as part of its website: While related to the SHCDA project, The Audio Library is intended as promotional aid for the Seamus Heaney Centre, accessible by the general public. It is not designed with the same capabilities for research as those found in the SHCDA. When more on-line Irish digital poetry archives are created – and we hope this is the case – they will be listed on the links pages of the SHCDA.