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The State of Sound

Digital technology alone will not ensure the preservation and survival of the nation’s sound history. That is one of the findings in a major study released by the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) detailing the state of sound-recording preservation and access. The study was mandated by the U.S. Congress under the "National Recording Preservation Act of 2000" (P.L. 106-474) and is the first comprehensive study on a national level that examines the state of America’s sound-recording preservation ever conducted in the United States.

Louis Layton, seated at the controls during a recording session for "Carousel" at RCA Victor. 1955. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-USZ62-132610 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: NYWTS - SUBJ/GEOG--Recordings--General [item] [P&P] The Conservation Building is the “heart and soul” of the new Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va.  This view of the main entrance indicates the extensive use of light and open space in the mountainside structure and the scope of landscaping, including the planting of hundreds of trees. 2010. Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.

Titled "The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age," the study outlines the interlocking issues that now threaten the long-term survival of America’s sound-recording history. It also identifies the public and private policy issues that strongly bear on whether the nation's most culturally and historically important sound recordings will be preserved for future generations.

Although public institutions, libraries and archives hold an estimated 46 million recordings, the study finds that major areas of America’s recorded sound heritage have already deteriorated or remain inaccessible to the public. Only an estimated 14 percent of pre-1965 commercially released recordings are currently available from rights-holders. Of music released in the United States in the 1930s, only about 10 percent of it can now be readily accessed by the public.

Authored by Rob Bamberger and Sam Brylawski under the auspices of NRPB, the study points out the lack of conformity between federal and state laws, which has adversely affected the survival of pre-1972 sound recording. One of the major conclusions in the report is that the advent of digital technologies and distribution platforms has made inseparable the issues surrounding both the preservation of sound recordings and access to them.

The authors also conclude that analog recordings made more than 100 years ago are likelier to survive than digital recordings made today. In addition, the report warns that there must be a coordinated effort by the various stakeholders to address the scope of the problem, the complexity of the technical landscape, the need for preservation education and the copyright conundrum.

Finally, the report notes that newer materials such as born-digital audio are at greater risk of loss than older recordings, such as 78-rpm discs; that there is a lack of a comprehensive program to preserve born-digital audio; and that open-reel preservation tapes made in the 1970s and 1980s are deteriorating faster than older tape recordings. For more findings from the report, review the appendix and the introduction/executive summary.

The Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation has already begun initiatives to solve some of the problems identified during preparation of the study. For example, the Recorded Sound Section of the Packard Campus has obtained a license to stream acoustical recordings controlled by the Sony Music Entertainment for the Library of Congress National Jukebox, which will debut later in 2010.