Audio recordings are an endangered species

Preservationists say policy-makers should be more alarmed about the losses

A trained ear and years of experience are as crucial as information technology is to preserving sound, according to a new report on challenges facing the Library of Congress as it tries to preserve the nation’s audio heritage.

Information on millions of tapes and discs might become inaccessible within a few decades unless organizations adopt policies that foster expanded audio training and better digitization techniques, according to the report “Capturing Analog Sound for Digital Preservation.” It recommends policies for meeting the challenges of transferring analog recordings to digital format. A principal recommendation is for colleges and universities to offer more programs that develop core competencies in audio preservation engineering.

The Library of Congress and the Council on Library and Information Resources published the report last month. Its recommendations are based on advice from prominent sound engineers from organizations such as Harvard University, RCA Records, Sony Music and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

There is no substitute for the trained ear when reformatting sound recordings, according to sound engineers whom the library consulted for the report. But audio expertise is in danger of being lost.

“If key technical knowledge is not passed along soon, thousands of recordings may not be accessible to America’s listeners 20 or 30 years from now,” the report states. For example, skilled hands and trained ears are necessary for diagnosing problems in aging recordings, identifying the chemical makeup of recording materials and applying a remedy that will not exacerbate problems.

The report also recommends establishing cooperative arrangements among smaller institutions to buy esoteric recording materials, formalizing guidelines on when to use automated transfer rather than listener-assisted transfer of analog information to digital formats, conducting more research on magnetic tape problems and creating a Web-based clearinghouse of information on digital transfer programs.

Although audio experts are concerned about preserving audiotapes and records, they have not gotten the ear of policy-makers, library officials say. Abby Smith, former director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources, said audio preservationists have been unable to quantify the problem for policy-makers.

“We don’t know the scope of what’s at risk,” Smith said, because preservationists are understaffed. But the losses will be real, she added. “We will no longer know how people sang or what their accents were like.”

Government and industry leaders often do not appreciate the magnitude of the audio preservation challenge because the concepts of audio preservation, playback and transfer are arcane, Smith said. “The challenge to the Library of Congress is indeed to make that compelling case.”

Meanwhile, library officials are crafting interim strategies to prevent historical recordings from vanishing. Employees must be trained in the art and science of audio preservation before touching historical recordings, said Sam Brylawski, a consultant to the Library of Congress. Brylawski, who was director of the library’s recorded sound section, is now editor of the Encyclopedic Discography of the Victor Recordings Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“Like in medicine, first do no harm,” Brylawski said. To improve the training of audio preservationists, for example, the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board plans to work with universities, other archives and research laboratories to develop curricula for audio preservation programs.

Brylawski said he is optimistic that students will enroll.

Graduates of such programs would discover that many federal agencies, including the National Archives and Records Administration, face significant audio preservation challenges. NARA’s multimedia collection, for example, includes 200,000 sound and video recordings, ranging from Nazi speeches to past presidents’ radio broadcasts.

Charles Mayn, an audiovisual preservation specialist at NARA, said the agency encountered difficulty when it tried to digitize taped interviews from the Nuremberg military tribunals. A groove on the 50-foot-long plastic microfilm tape had eroded, he said. To recover the sound contained in the groove, preservationists had to unwind 14,000 loops of tape.

“We had to build a machine that would open up this tape and place the stylus in particular grooves,” Mayn said. “There were 11,000 hours of recording. It took a long time.”

As with musical recordings, playback equipment can destroy old spoken-word tapes and discs. But unlike the process of preserving harmonies, saving the spoken word does not require musical training, he added.

NARA’s transfer engineers need not be musically trained, but they must care about audio materials to ensure that preserved recordings are clear and complete. “We look for people who have [audio engineering] experience, but as much as anything, interest,” Mayn said. “It takes a certain kind of person who wants to sit and listen to old recordings [of long meetings and trials] for the sake of preservation.”

Policies for preserving the country’s audio heritageLeading sound engineers generated 15 recommendations about the best ways to transfer sound recordings from analog tapes and discs to digital media.

Their recommendations include:

  • Offering more college and university programs to develop core competencies in audio preservation engineering.

  • Establishing cooperative arrangements among smaller institutions to buy esoteric recording materials.

  • Formalizing guidelines on when to use automated transfer rather than listener-assisted transfer of analog information to digital formats.

  • Conducting research on magnetic tape problems.

  • Creating a Web-based clearinghouse of information about digital preservation transfer programs.
  • — Aliya Sternstein

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