Audio archives could become inaccessible, engineers warn

The recording tape and records that contain much of America's audio heritage could become inaccessible in the next few decades, sound engineers warn. They are urging organizations responsible for maintaining audio archives to focus on better digitization techniques and training in an effort to preserve the sound, according to a study released this week that was requested by Congress.

The report “Capturing Analog Sound for Digital Preservation,” published by the Library of Congress and Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), offers partial solutions to the daunting obstacles involved in transferring analog recordings to digital format.

The recommendations were derived from a January 2004 meeting of audio preservation engineers, representing organizations including Harvard University, RCA Records, Sony Music and Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

During two days of discussion, one issue took precedence: Although technology is crucial to many aspects of digitization, there are areas in which a trained ear and years of experience are more important.

“Technology will never replace the listener," one engineer said during the roundtable. As subjective as listening can be, there is still no substitute for the trained ear when reformatting sound recordings, according to the report.

However, the pool of expertise is dwindling. Important technical knowledge must be passed along soon to a new generation of listeners who can aid with restoration, or "thousands of recordings may not be accessible to America’s listeners 20 or 30 years from now," the report states.

Participants discussed, and disagreed on, a proposal that one listener monitor the entire contents of a record or tape each time a transfer to a digital format is made. Ultimately, the group concluded that, although ideal, such a standard is not practical during a time of budget and staffing constraints.

Another obstacle in transferring sound to new formats is the deterioration of the original tape or record. Shellac or glass discs can break, and protective lacquer can peel off. Damage that has already occurred or that could easily be caused during the handling of the records could make playback on a conventional turntable impossible. Shards of broken platters, even if all accounted for, may not be able to be pieced together.

Technology could come to the rescue in such cases, according to the report. Signal reconstruction technologies now under development could potentially read the information contained in the broken pieces of records and reconstruct a digital copy even if the record cannot be played. Therefore, the group unanimously recommended that archivists save all pieces of broken records.

To overcome those and other hurdles, the experts recommended that organizations:

* Develop core competencies in audio preservation engineering.

* Create cooperative arrangements among smaller institutions to buy esoteric materials.

* Conduct research on magnetic tape problems.

* Develop guidelines on when to use automated transfer instead of listener-assisted transfer.

* Create a Web-based clearinghouse for sharing information on digital preservation transfer programs.

CLIR officials said many people don't realize the magnitude of what is at stake.

“We will no longer know how people sang or what their accents were like," said Abby Smith, former director of programs at CLIR. "It will be too late. It is a very complex issue and there are several different risk factors depending on the format at any point in time."

The issue is difficult to simplify, she said, adding, that there is no single solution for the multitude of risks.

“The challenge to the Library of Congress is indeed to make that compelling case," she said.

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