The Following is a guest post by Judith Gray, ethnomusicologist and coordinator of reference in the American Folklife Center.
In the last decades of the 19th century, Thomas Edison and his contemporaries in Europe created various devices for capturing sound . These inventions, in turn, led to the creation of audiovisual archives. The first two were established within research institutions in Vienna in 1899 and in Berlin in 1900. Here in the U.S., formal audiovisual archiving came a bit later, most often at universities and museums that sponsored fieldwork and wanted to preserve the documentation collected during those expeditions. While the Library of Congress announced plans for a sound-recordings collection in 1907, active acquisition of such materials began only in the 1920s. Meanwhile, radio stations also played significant roles early on, archiving their own programs or turning over their instantaneous disks to other collections.
As a result of such activities, the world now has over a century of audiovisual documentation. But audiovisual archives around the world are facing the possibilities of massive losses of that accumulated information if the materials cannot be digitized in time.
October 27 is the annual World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Established by UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in 2005, the observance is based on the realization that the primary records from the 20th and 21st centuries are, more often than not, audiovisual rather than printed documents. As the UN website explains it, “Transcending language and cultural boundaries, appealing immediately to the eye and the ear, to the literate and illiterate, audiovisual documents have transformed society by becoming a permanent complement to the traditional written record. However, they are extremely vulnerable and it is estimated that we have no more than 10 to 15 years to transfer audiovisual records to digital to prevent their loss. Much of the world’s audiovisual heritage has already been irrevocably lost through neglect, destruction, decay and the lack of resources, skills, and structures, thus impoverishing the memory of mankind. Much more will be lost if stronger and concerted international action is not taken.”
Each year has a specific theme. For 2014, it’s “Archives at risk: Much more to do.”
Here in the American Folklife Center, our oldest recordings are the cylinders recorded by archaeologist/ ethnologist Jesse Walter Fewkes, containing narratives and songs by Noel Josephs and Peter Selmore, two Passamaquoddy men. The recordings were made in Calais, Maine, between March 15 and 18, 1890. Since the archive’s establishment in 1928, we have added recordings in many diverse analog formats, from cylinders, wire recordings, and films to hours and hours of audio and video tape. We are constantly aware of the fact that the clock is ticking for these historically important recordings, that in order to accomplish the digitization of the many audio and video formats in our collections, we need, for example, to have playback machines for all of those formats, as well as technicians who know how to maintain them. In some cases, specialized treatment is necessary to extract recorded sound or images from recordings displaying certain types of problems. But the necessary equipment and human expertise are increasingly hard to find.
At the Library of Congress, we have the benefit of robust systems and resource people to help us with this work, essentially of preserving the past for the future. Many audiovisual archives, especially in developing nations, are not as well-served. So the goal of the annual World Day is to raise public awareness of the needs and to promote heritage issues and accessibility of archives. Each year, then, many archives schedule programs highlighting their holdings. You’ll find information on some of the activities on the official 2014 website.
As the website puts it, “UNESCO encourages everyone, everywhere to join us in celebrating 27 October by showcasing their precious collections so that present and future generations can enjoy the treasures that are our shared audiovisual heritage.” We here in the American Folklife Center hope you will join us today in celebrating the richness of audiovisual documentation and in working towards its preservation.
 For summaries of the development of recording technology, online articles such as these are helpful:
Roger Beardsley and Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, “A Brief History of Recording to ca. 1950,” Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (2009), accessed October 27, 2014
David Morton, “Overview History of the Technologies for Recording Music and Sound,” Recording History (2006), accessed October 27, 2014
Steve Schoenherr, “Recording Technology History,” The Audio Engineering Society (2005), accessed October 27, 2014