March 22, 2013

Library of Congress Unveils National Recording Preservation Plan

I've written before about how the conversion to digital formats, particularly for video (see for one example), has great benefits for many parties.  Unlike film, for example, digital video formats retain their clarity and color forever (at least theoretically), as there are no chemical colors to peel off aging celluloid film.  I presumed that audio was easier to upgrade to digital format since much has already been converted.

But apparently, there are literally still tons of old recordings out there, some of which date as far back 125 years.  One might also think that digital audio is in better shape, therefore converting those to newer digital formats should be easy, say with a computer program that can convert from one format to another, right?

Not necessarily.

One big challenge with audio is that recorded sound does not always have a standardized recording format.  What was used for audio recordings at one time may have disappeared when newer, superior or less-costly formats evolved.  Audio recordings range from cylinders and vinyl discs (each with different speeds required for playback).  Other formats include various tapes (beyond what we think of as cassettes, who remembers the 8-Track, or even reel-to-reel tapes?), and more recently, audio has been recorded on computer files.

In 2000, Congress passed a law that established the National Recording Preservation Board and initiated a project to preserve our recorded audio content.  Some examples include Presidential addresses, to music recordings of a particular point in time.  There's a LOT of recorded audio content out there.

But just because files are in digital formats doesn't mean we'll automatically know how to convert those to newer formats in the future.

Sam Brylawski, the chairman of the National Recording Preservation Board says "You hear stories about things recorded on ... things like ProTools editing software 10 years ago, but the new version of the software isn't compatible with the digital files of 10 and 20 years ago."

On Wednesday, February 13, 2013, the U.S. Library of Congress unveiled its long-awaited plan to help preserve this country's audio archives.  The National Recording Preservation Plan proposes that anyone making a "born digital" recording needs to also encode the audio with metadata — information embedded in the file — that spells out exactly HOW that audio was recorded.  There's a lot more to the plan, including standardized practices for analog recordings preservation and storage (for analog media that may be susceptible to heat and humidity, for example).

While it seems logical to suggest converting everything to MP3 format, it represents a big change in thinking.  Mr. Brylawski says:

"It's important to think about the life cycle of the recording as it's made and not just 80 years later when you open your closet and see these things and scratch your head," Brylawski says. "Thinking about the life cycle of a born digital item as soon as it's made — that would be the best way to think about [the question of], 'How will this be preserved?'"

Copyrights Also An Enormous Challenge

The reason so many sounds from the very early stages of recording are lost is not because the recordings themselves are gone, but because we [the U.S.] have very expansive copyright laws that essentially lock them up and make them unavailable," according to Tim Brooks, the president of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections and the author of "Lost Sounds", a book about the earliest black recording artists.

My readers may also recall that a big change to U.S. copyright went into effect earlier this year which now enables authors to reclaim the rights to content they created but may have been signed over to publishers and/or record labels (see my post at for details).  That represents a new wrinkle in the copyright mess without necessarily clear solutions.

We can thank corporate mergers and acquisitions for some of the copyright situation we're now in, and the specific copyright protections the music industry lobbied so hard to get also makes archiving historic recordings legally difficult.  In many cases, the rights holders to those recordings cannot even be found.  Think of a process similar to a title search for a home or automobile, only with ownership data that's locked in corporate vaults without public access to those records.

However, some of the biggest labels in the music industry including Sony have come around, seeing the commercial potential for cooperation rather than keeping stuff to themselves.  They cite Sony's agreement to permit the U.S. Library of Congress to stream free on the Library's National Jukebox website [] some of its earliest recorded content as an example.

NPR had a fascinating story about the Library of Congress' National Recording Preservation Plan on February 13, 2013.  That can be listened to below, or by visiting

While you can listen to that, its worth visiting NPR's website (see above), as they have links to the first known jazz recording, which was made in 1917, and also a wax cylinder recording of a song about President William McKinley.

In the end, this was a fascinating story about the initiative to save American recorded audio history.  With an articulated plan for content, along with perhaps partnering with industry, we might not lose our recorded audio content, therefore ensuring future generations will still have access to it.  And with meta data attached to the newly-converted audio files, future generations may also be able to enjoy access to it.

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