Hearing voices of the past

Recording registry preserves music and spoken words


February 02, 2003|By Jonathan Pitts | By Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

For years, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences -- the people who produce the Grammys -- pressed Congress to support efforts to preserve vulnerable American sound recordings. In response, Congress passed an act in 2000 that created the National Recording Registry, a roll call of American recordings that is aimed at publicizing the preservation movement.

The registry, chosen by Librarian of Congress James Billington, contains both musical and spoken-word entries, including samplings from Thomas Edison, Scott Joplin and Bob Dylan. The library announced its 50 inaugural choices this past week.

Sam Brylawski, head of the library's Recorded Sound Section, discussed the registry, and pertinent sound-recording matters, with The Sun.

How did the librarian make his choices?

Congress decided they had to be culturally, aesthetically or historically significant, and more than 10 years old. We refined that. [A nominee] couldn't be a lost recording; it has to exist. It can't be the soundtrack of an audiovisual work, unless the soundtrack exists independently. Dr. Billington had input from the public via the Internet, and from representatives of 17 different organizations in music, recording and sound. But he made the final calls.

Is the registry a physical collection?

The law asks us to maintain the registry as a collection. We'll designate one version of [each] work. For access, people can come to the reading room. Because of copyright restrictions, we can put only some works on the Web.

What problems do we face in preserving sound recordings, both old and new?

There are problems in both. The earliest recordings were on wax cylinders. They're about the size of a core of a roll of toilet paper and played back with a needle, on what they call a mandrel. These were used, for music, from the late 1880s until 1902. ... [Many] are terribly susceptible to mold, which eats away at the cylinder. You can't clean it off. You can store the thing in a cool place, and keep the temperature and humidity low, but you have to keep your fingers off it. The oil from the fingers provides something for the mold to [take root] in.

What valuable recordings have been lost?

As we said in our press conference, we've lost a Mark Twain cylinder, among other things. But our first two entries -- the Edison exhibition cylinders and the 1890 recordings of Passamaquoddy Indians -- are on cylinders.

What other recording formats are endangered?

In the 1930s, they invented a form called a lacquer disk, which was used to record radio programs from the '30s well into the '50s. The whole Golden Age of radio, if it's preserved at all, is usually on those. They're not mass-produced. And they deteriorate. They have a plasticizer that evaporates, and eventually the groove becomes brittle. During World War II, the base material, aluminum, was rationed for defense use. So [the disks] became glass-based. ... Some have been lost.

How about more recent formats?

LPs and 78s are robust and will last a long time, if stored properly. But you need to find clean copies of the recordings. Another challenge is having the hardware to play them -- to have the right turntable for a 78, to have the right stylus, or needle, for your tone arm to play the cleanest part of the groove.

What about tape?

Some recording tape made as late as the 1980s is deteriorating faster than older media. It suffers from "sticky-tape syndrome" or hydrolysis. It absorbs moisture; it squeaks and sheds its coating.

Is CD technology a major advance?

Archivists don't necessarily think the CD is a permanent preservation format. DVD formats hold more [information than] CDs, ... so DVD audio has digital sound that's richer, ... that has more bits and bytes. In addition, there's concern about the CD as a permanent medium. It's laminated format, which is to say it's made up of layers. Archivists are suspicious of things made up of layers because they can de-laminate.

Have new software technologies helped?

Enormously so, in digital techniques. The archival world has been slow to adopt them, but they are of great benefit in the long run. There's no generation loss when you copy a file. With tape and LPs, every time you copied one, or copied that copy, you lost fidelity and increased noise. With a digital recording, each copy is a clone of its parent. Instead of committing themselves to a specific medium, archivists are now creating digital files, ones that might be stored on whatever medium is used to back up computers.

The congressional act makes $250,000 a year available. Where else will the money be spent?

After preservation of the registry, the money ... will go toward some of the things Congress set out for us to achieve. One is a comprehensive study of the state of conservation in the United States. The [preservation] board will issue a road map for where national preservation ought to go.

Among precious recordings: Edison, Welles, King and Franklin

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