The Library of Congress today unveiled "The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan," a blueprint for saving America's recorded sound heritage for future generations. The congressionally mandated plan spells out 32 short- and long-term recommendations involving both the public and private sectors and covering infrastructure, preservation, access, education and policy strategies.
The National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 called on the Librarian of Congress to "implement a comprehensive national sound recording preservation program" that "shall increase accessibility of sound recordings for educational purposes." The plan released today is the cumulative result of more than a decade of work by the Library and its National Recording Preservation Board (www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/), which comprises representatives from professional organizations of composers, musicians, musicologists, librarians, archivists and the recording industry.
"The publication of this plan is a timely and historic achievement," said James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress. "As a nation, we have good reason to be proud of our record of creativity in the sound-recording arts and sciences. However, our collective energy in creating and consuming sound recordings has not been matched by an equal level of interest in preserving them for posterity. Radio broadcasts, music, interviews, historic speeches, field recordings, comedy records, author readings and other recordings have already been forever lost to the American people.
"Collecting, preserving and providing access to recorded sound requires a comprehensive national strategy. This plan is the result of a long and challenging effort, taking into account the concerns and interests of many public and private stakeholders. It is America's first significant step toward effective national collaboration to save our recorded-sound heritage for future generations."
A web of interlocking issues currently threatens the long-term survival of our sound-recording history, from a lack of storage capacity and preservation expertise to rapidly changing technology and disparate copyright laws governing historical recordings. Major areas of the nation's recorded-sound heritage have already been destroyed or remain inaccessible to the public.
Experts estimate that more than half of the titles recorded on cylinder records-the dominant format used by the U.S. recording industry during its first 23 years-have not survived. The archive of one of radio's leading networks is lost. A fire at the storage facility of a principal record company ruined an unknown number of master recordings of both owned and leased materials. The whereabouts of a wire recording made by the crew members of the Enola Gay from inside the plane as the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima are unknown. Many key recordings made by George Gershwin no longer survive. Recordings by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and other top recording artists have been lost. Personal collections belonging to recording artists were destroyed in Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Many rights holders have not permitted researchers or the general public to listen to the recordings they legally control outside the limited scope of facilities maintained by legitimate research institutions. One survey of reissues of historical U.S. recordings created between 1890 and 1964 determined, "On average, rights owners have made available 14 percent of the historic recordings that they control from the various eras." A gospel-music historian estimated that only a few of the thousands of gospel recordings that have been produced are now available commercially.
There is currently no efficient way for researchers or the general public to discover what sound recordings exist and where they can be found. Despite the development of the Internet, few historical recordings can be made available online legally because of aspects of the U.S. copyright law.
Technology of the 21st century provides enormous potential for addressing information-sharing, coordination, preservation and access challenges that were previously insurmountable. However, the digital environment has created significant technical, organizational and funding challenges for those institutions responsible for preserving recorded-sound history for future generations.
Among the recommendations:
• Create a publicly accessible national directory of institutional, corporate and private recorded-sound collections and an authoritative national discography that details the production of recordings and the location of preservation copies in public institutions;