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Save the Sounds

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During one of my first visits to the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, one of the division chiefs there pointed out  the 35 mm projector in the theater. He commented that the sound of 35 mm film being fed through a projector is an “endangered sound.” My furrowed brow and quizzical look prompted him to expand on that thought by explaining that the Library has in its collections recordings of many sounds that are scarce if not entirely extinct – steam engine whistles, dial telephones and manual typewriters.

It had never occurred to me to think of sound that way.

Fast forward to today’s sound preservation challenges – including variations in quality of compressed mp3 files to born-digital materials that are not consistently procured by national libraries or archival institutions, and it could be that the sounds of today are even more endangered than those of yesterday.

Such questions have been the business of a team of experts assembled by the Library of Congress to write the National Recording Preservation Plan (PDF, 1.7MB), a historic blueprint for saving America’s recorded sound heritage for future generations. The congressionally mandated plan, introduced today by the Library and the National Recording Preservation Board, spells out 32 short- and long-term recommendations involving both the public and private sectors. These recommendations cover infrastructure, preservation, access, education and policy strategies.

As Librarian of Congress James Billington explains, “our collective energy in creating and consuming sound recordings has not been matched by an equal level of interest in preserving them for posterity. Radio broadcasts, music, interviews, historic speeches, field recordings, comedy records, author readings and other recordings have already been forever lost to the American people.”

No one alive today remembers a time before recorded sound, but as a medium it is only about 150 years old (timeline, PDF 180KB) — still a young format when one considers that the first book published in the west on a printing press is nearly six centuries old. And while the basics of a printed book haven’t changed much in all that time, the devices used to record and listen to sound have evolved almost continuously since the earliest recording. So the mission of collecting and preserving sounds starts out at a tremendous disadvantage when compared to a medium like the book.

The Library will continue working collaboratively with the organizations and individuals involved in putting together this groundbreaking plan to pursue its implementation. But this plan is also a call to action for anyone who agrees sound recordings are important to our cultural heritage – broadcasters, performers, audio engineers, preservationists, archivists, librarians – all have a role to play. And, in fact, many are offering support today (PDF, 164KB).

Broadcaster and member of the National Radio Hall of Fame Bob Edwards says, “Sound recordings offer a rich documentation of the broad scope of America culture. Our national story is incomplete if the audio record of our rich and diverse history is not preserved in the best condition technology allows.”

Tim Brooks, president of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, says, “We believe this bold new effort represents a major breakthrough in efforts to secure for posterity historical audio recordings, and we will do everything we can to help it succeed.”

Composer Stephen Sondheim says, “As a composer who has been both informed and influenced by sound recordings, I feel passionately that they are a heritage too easily lost, and one which requires all due diligence to preserve. The Library of Congress National Preservation Recording Plan represents our best and most thoughtful chance to preserve the country’s musical creativity.”

Neil Portnow, president/CEO of the Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Foundation, says, “The Recording Academy and the GRAMMY Foundation support the objectives of the National Plan and are committed to working in partnership with the Library of Congress and others to implement its important recommendations.”

As the Washington Post’s always-clever Chris Richards wrote today, sounds like a plan.

Comments (3)

  1. This was really so very interesting! Thank you, as always, LOC!

  2. What a wonderful program!

    When my son was six years old, while we were waiting at a busy intersection, out of the blue he queried, “I wonder what this place sounded like one hundred years ago.” I had never considered that before. I was impressed with the depth of his curiosity. I am pleased that The Library of Congress National Preservation Recording Plan was created to possibly answer that question for him and other like-minded citizens.

  3. Forty years after she had heard the sound as a child, one of my friends burst into tears while grabbing my arm in great terror. When she calmed down, she explained that the particular rhythm and rise and fall of the siren on a passing emergency vehicle was the same as the warnings she had heard as a child, just before and while bombs rained on her village.
    And the pages in Moby Dick that describe the sounds of the ship.
    Absolutely great project.

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