As George Harrison beautifully sang, “All Things Must Pass.” It’s a sad realization of which we are constantly aware in the field of ancient audio, and life feels—on a daily basis—like a race against the clock as we try to preserve and contextualize the world’s oldest recordings.
The Library of Congress understood it had a role in saving our aural history when it instituted the National Recording Registry at the beginning of the 21st century. Now up to a total of 400 items, the Registry is a list of recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States.” Further, “the Library is identifying and preserving the best existing versions of each recording on the registry.” But by their own admission, they don’t have copies of everything on the Registry, and so it’s up to the individuals or institutions that *do* possess originals to join in the mission of preservation.
What is “preservation” anyway? And how does it apply to a one-of-a-kind 1890s brown-wax cylinder versus a 1980s mass-produced LP and/or CD? The oldest items on the Registry are the 1853-1861 Phonautograms of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville (we were part of the team, First Sounds, that discovered and played them back), and the newest item is Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama” from 1995. Surely the task of “preservation” in each case is different.
While it identifies many historical items desperately in need of attention and conservation, the Registry has also become something of a Hall of Fame. This has the curious effect of actually drawing attention away from the earliest recordings—which most people know nothing about—and toward more recent things with which the general public is already quite familiar. Archeophone is constantly reminding our friends at the Library personally and through the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, of which we are sustaining members, of the need to train their eyes toward the most endangered material. And that’s usually the oldest stuff.
So what kind of media do you have in your collection, and which of it do you regard as “endangered”? Individuals, as well as institutions, play a significant role in saving and understanding our recorded heritage. Survey your collection and its media—phonautograms (?), brown wax cylinders, black wax cylinders, celluloid cylinders, shellac discs of all kinds (i.e., “78s”), wire recordings, vinyl 45s, LPs, open reel, cassettes, CDs, mp3s and other digital files—and determine what’s most at risk. That’s what Indiana University did a few years ago in addressing its campus-wide need for an audio preservation plan. They made a master list of every recording held in every department and put them on a sliding scale from most endangered to least, and then devised a strategy for preserving them, starting with the most critical needs.
The next list of entries on the Registry will be announced sometime this spring. It will be interesting to see what makes the cut from our period: what few items get plucked for salvation from among a vast sea of candidates. Give us your thoughts on these questions.