The Library of Congress’ “Sounds of Earth” is a visually stunning object full of historical significance, an evocative soundscape, and one of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center’s many treasures. Since the Library has recently restored and displayed the “Sounds of Earth,” we thought we’d share a little information about this treasure given by NASA to the Library.
The Library of Congress’ “Sounds of Earth”
The “Sounds of Earth” disc, also known as the “Golden Record,” due to its distinctive gold plating, was presented by NASA to the Library of Congress in 1978. Multiple copies of this sound recording were made: “Golden Records” were sent on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts in 1977, and other institutions (on Planet Earth) received copies too. (And it was named to the Library’s National Recording Registry in 2007.)
“Sounds of Earth” was “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials” per the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s “Golden Record” website. The disc contains music, greetings in 55 languages and images selected by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University. You can learn more about the greetings on NASA’s “Greetings to the Universe in 55 Languages” page.
Robert A. Frosch, NASA’s fifth Administrator, described both the objective of the Voyager mission and the intent to donate “Sounds of Earth” to the Library of Congress in his letter addressed to then Librarian of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstin.
As Frosch’s letter explains:
The main Voyager objective is to conduct a detailed scientific investigation of giant Jupiter and ringed Saturn, several of their moons, and possibly Uranus, before leaving the solar system to journey nearly end-lessly among the stars.
I would like to present one of these records to the Library of Congress. Another will go to the Smithsonian.
Frosch goes on to invite Boorstin and some of his staff to NASA on January 20  to present the “Sound of Earth” record. The Recorded Sound Research Center holds copies of letters acknowledging the donation.
Preservation and Conservation of the “Sounds of Earth” at the Library of Congress
As previously mentioned, the Library of Congress’ copy of the “Sound of Earth” has a golden look to it because of its plating. But as one of the Library’s conservators has described it in further detail:
The disc is made of a gold-plated copper alloy. Copper alloys are stronger and harder than pure gold, and would be able to hold the data grooves more solidly and robustly than gold. The gold plating protects the copper alloy from oxidation when in Earth’s atmosphere since gold doesn’t readily oxidize. Once the disc is in outer space it’s no longer a concern because there isn’t any oxygen to start the tarnishing process.
The conservation department recently cleaned the disc. Here’s how they did it:
[The Library of Congress’] copy was in generally great condition when it came into the lab, minus a few fingerprints, some light scratches, and a few areas where the copper alloy base was exposed. [We] wiped the surface of the record with a microfiber lens cloth to remove dust and fingerprints, then a cotton swab with some ethanol to remove any remaining grease or smudges from hand oils.
Not only has the disc itself been recently cleaned and placed in a custom preservation container, but all of the five reel-to-reel tapes that were also part of the donation were preserved as high-quality preservation wave files in April of 2012. As is standard practice in the Library’s Recorded Sound Section, our technicians rewound the original tapes with a smooth wind on a preservation reel, and shelved them with the permanent collection in our temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults.
Sharing the Sounds of Earth on June 1, 2023
The National Audio-Visual Conservation Centerwas invited to present the “Sounds of Earth” in honor of U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón’s unveiling of her poem for NASA’s Europa Clipper on June 1, 2023. We were honored to be invited to display the disc, but we wondered: how would we display the Golden Record and its sounds for this special event?
Once again, Conservation knew the answer. They created a special case for the disc, allowing the item to be seen and protected.
But how to play the audio? Fortunately, the display space, lined with books from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ personal library, provided the perfect setting. (A photograph of the disc in this display is shown at the top of the blog post.) We were able to loop the “Sounds of Earth” audio so that it was audible without being blaring. While we weren’t in outer space, we were able to surround ourselves with some of the visual and audio experience on similar Voyager records, now beyond our solar system.
For more information related to this blog or any Library of Congress holdings, please see Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.