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Deadline: 2028—Time is not on our side

By Amy Armstrong

High stakes for cultural heritage

In just 11 years, the Harry Ransom Center could reach the point of no return!

Sound preservation experts estimate that 2028 is the year that many analog audiovisual recordings may be lost due to format obsolescence and physical degradation. With every passing year, more sound recordings are at risk.


A lacquer disc.
A lacquer disc.

The Federal government and private foundations have made saving the nation’s unique audio culture a priority for funding. Overseen by the Library of Congress, the National Recording Preservation Plan provides a blueprint to “implement a comprehensive national sound recording preservation program,” as mandated in the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000.


In March 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded the Ransom Center a Preservation and Access Planning Grant for a one-year project to develop and complete a preservation survey of the Center’s unique non-commercial sound recordings in order to prioritize preservation digitization based on condition and research value. This one-year project ran from September 2015 to October 2016 and consisted of five major tasks: 1) evaluating available audio survey tools; 2) conducting a visual inspection of selected individual recordings; 3) assessing the potential research value of recordings; 4) analyzing results; and 5) developing recommendations for next steps.


Detail of a wax cylinder
Detail of a wax cylinder

Taking stock

Project archivist and sound recording preservation specialist Lauren Walker began the year-long process of individually examining the unique recordings in the Center’s collection, which contains a variety of formats including wax cylinders, phonograph records, wire recordings, dictation discs and belts, reel-to-reel audio tapes, audiocassettes, microcassettes, compact discs, and other digital audio formats. The Ransom Center used the Preservation Self-Assessment Program developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as in-house tools, to assess and record the physical condition of 7,568 individual non-commercial sound recordings.


A warped dictation disc.
A warped dictation disc.

Over the course of handling and inspecting thousands of audio recordings, Lauren developed a deep understanding of the relationship between the creative process and the creator’s use of sound recording technology. The type of recordings at the Center tend to fall into two broad categories: 1) recordings that are integral to the creative process and 2) recordings that document some aspect of the creator’s life and work. Examples that might fall into the first category are Norman Mailer’s edits to his novel The Executioner’s Song that he dictated and sent to his secretary to transcribe; New York Times critic Mel Gussow’s numerous interviews with emerging and established actors, writers, producers, and directors used for his column; and the story sessions between screenwriter Ernest Lehman and director Alfred Hitchcock. Examples that might fall into the second category are Gabriel García Márquez’s Nobel Prize speech, novelist Denis Johnson’s appearance on KCRW’s Bookworm broadcast, and the music photographer David Douglas Duncan listened to while working.


Side view of a wire recording
Side view of a wire recording

Time is not on our side

Over a decade ago, the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives released a report that stated it is “imperative” for institutions with audio holdings to have “a clearly defined hierarchy of priorities for digitizing to avoid, for example, stable materials being transferred first, while in the meantime, unstable materials deteriorate to the point where they become irretrievable.” Determining intellectual value for sound recordings is particularly challenging, not only because it’s a subjective process, but also because assessment requires enough information about a recording to make an informed judgment. Although the Ransom Center’s recordings are cataloged, the descriptions are often taken verbatim—and only!—from the labels on the recordings, resulting in descriptions that can be misleading, incomplete, inaccurate, vague, and sometimes non-existent. A great (and extreme) example is a label on a reel-to-reel tape belonging to film director Nicholas Ray: “Good sounds of feet in mud.” Or, a description by poet, artist, and Andy Warhol-collaborator Gerard Malanga: “Drug party.” How can one evaluate the content with such descriptions? Even with coherent and informative labeling, one cannot truly be certain of the content until the recording is actually played and heard.


However, because aging sound recordings are often very fragile, it is not advisable to play them on historical equipment until professional audio preservation personnel are prepared to digitally transfer the sound content. In other words, we many get only one shot at playing the recording—during its preservation.


How did we finally address this dilemma and assess our priorities? Find out in Part 2 of this story.

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Deadline: 2028—Countdown to preserve audio materials

National Endowment for the Humanities awards grant to preserve and enhance access to sound recordings

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