Ravers and time travellers re-record history

The creators of Video Time Machine are among a new generation of content producers and archivers (Video by the BBC's Matt Danzico)

In an increasingly disposable world, efforts to preserve and catalogue our analogue and digital lives could change the nature of history as we know it.

In a modest house in Chicago's Bridgeport neighbourhood, an antique library filing cabinet holds hundreds of old cassette tapes. Many have handwritten labels, some two decades old.

The cabinet stores the raw analogue material for Ravearchive.com, an online project aimed at preserving and distributing the DJ mixtapes, party fliers and fanzines of the 1990s US rave scene.

The site's founders - two ex-ravers who have gone decidedly straight - hope their collection will allow older fans to indulge their nostalgia for the scene, while exposing a younger generation of club kids raised on dubstep and grime to the origins of those genres.

"The rave scene came and it went, and there just wasn't much left of it," says Dan Labovitch, the archive's co-founder. Mr Labovitch, 31, is now married and works for an insurance company.

"It wasn't like rock and roll where they keep reissuing the music, and you can turn to any oldies station on the radio and constantly hear the music."

The rave scene was a flash in the pan of American youth culture.

As the music emerged largely from small independent labels and distributed on vinyl and cassette tapes, the industry has not undertaken a broad effort to preserve what it produced.

Prof Stephen Brier Prof Brier says the internet allows broad access to archival material

From roughly 1991 to 2000, untold young people across the country packed into nightclubs, warehouses, catering halls - anywhere that could hold a sound system and a few hundred sweaty teenagers - and danced through the night.

The hallmarks of the scene were baggy trousers, brightly coloured, loose-fitting clothing, accessories like baby pacifiers and ski-goggles - and drugs.

Flourishing in the decade before digital music players and MP3s, the thumping house, techno, trance, acid and drum and bass tracks were created by producers working with synthesisers, samplers and drum machines.

But by the end of the last decade of the 20th Century, the ravers grew up and found other things to do. New musical styles took hold, and the subculture faded into memory.

'Democratising access'

Today, Ravearchive.com is just one example of how across the internet, dedicated hobbyists, tech entrepreneurs and professional archivists and historians are using the internet to preserve, catalogue, archive and distribute cultural ephemera.

Previously, the mass collection of cultural material had been the responsibility of archivists at institutions as august as the Library of Congress in the US or the British Library.

Start Quote

You get to see the progress of time through popular media, whether it's changes in music, or changes in movie trailer styles or video games”

End Quote Justin Johnson Video Time Machine

In many cases, the materials themselves were available only to researchers who physically travelled to the collections.

"Digitisation really has the profound effect of democratising access," says Prof Stephen Brier of the City University of New York Graduate Center, a historian and co-director of the school's New Media Lab.

"It gives access to people to materials and documents that would previously only be accessible to very few."

Other notable efforts include What's On the Menu, a project by the New York Public Library that asks users to transcribe the library's collection of 40,000 paper restaurant menus - which date back to the 1840s.

The completed database will eventually be an invaluable resource for historians looking at culinary, economic and social trends, says Brett Bobley of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a funding organisation affiliated with the US government.

Video Time Machine, an iPad and iPhone app developed by two New York software developers, culls historically and culturally significant videos from YouTube - news clips, television advertisements, film trailers - and indexes them by year.

"You get to see the progress of time through popular media, whether it's changes in music, or changes in movie trailer styles or video games," said co-creator Justin Johnson.

Musical history

When the rave scene died down and digital music evicted cassette and even CD players from teenagers' bedrooms and school bags, the 1990s mixtapes were largely forgotten or discarded altogether.

The pair behind Ravearchive.com say many of the DJs and producers left the music business altogether.

Dan Labovitch and Adam Dorfman Mr Labovitch and Mr Dorfman fund the archive themselves and maintain it in their spare time

The two - Dan Labovitch and Adam Dorfman - began digitising their own collections of mixtapes, fanzines and party fliers and posting them online in 2008.

As the project attracted notice, fans began posting in their own mixtapes. Mr Dorfman restores the tapes using music editing software to remove some of the hiss and boost the levels.

Now they have about 1,000 tapes in the collection, or more than 1,200 hours of music, organised by the name of the DJ, in alphabetical order.

Mr Labovitch said it was unclear how America's stringent copyright laws apply to the collection, but the site has had no complaints in three years and receives only encouragement from label executives and DJs.

Brett Bobley of the National Endowment for the Humanities predicts the site will have greater value than its creators and fans understand at present.

"I'll bet you anything scholars will gravitate to it over time," he says.

"If you are interested in modern music you are going to want to write about the rave scene. This will ultimately be of use to music scholars."

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