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Scan of Recorded-Sound Surveys

by David Randal Allen
The Communications Office, Inc.
January 2003

All URLs were valid as of August 10, 2004


Before planning and implementing the CLIR Survey of Recorded Sound, our first step was to review surveys that, at least in part, had already investigated the status of special collections, including recorded sound. The oldest survey was conducted in 1995; the newest is still in progress. Most of the surveys attempted in some manner to quantify the inventory of recorded sound held by a specific constituency of collections; however, there were a few overlapping inquiries. All the surveys attempted to answer different questions for widely different purposes.

Of the surveys reviewed and described in the following pages, three exclusively investigated aspects of recorded sound in collections, proving useful to planning for the Survey of Recorded Sound:

  • Survey of Endangered Audio Carriers. This survey looked at quantities and conditions of recording media (that is, carriers) from 1890 to the present. It did not include information about content.
  • Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis. The objective of this survey was to develop a baseline data set of the nation’s original audio recordings in organizational and individual folklore collections. The survey did not gather enough data to achieve this objective. The survey report further notes that its inventory data are flawed because most respondents did not understand the difference between an “original” or “preservation master copy” and a “listening copy.”
  • National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Survey of Master Recording Libraries. This survey investigated master recordings held in recording studios and audio archives. It looked at the quantities, formats, ages, cataloging, conditions, and evidence of rights of primarily commercial recordings. It did not further investigate the content of the holdings.


On the basis of our review of the surveys, we offer the following conclusions:

  • There is no authoritative dataset describing the content, location, and preservation status of recorded sound held in special and private collections in the United States. Furthermore, there appears to be no single approach to gathering such data.
  • Dedicated budgets for the management of recorded-sound collections are limited or nonexistent.
  • Most collections lack supporting materials, such as releases or other information, necessary to resolve intellectual property and copyright questions that pertain to their holdings.
  • Proper storage conditions for recorded sound are understood, but collections are not always stored accordingly.
  • The most widely held format in the sound collections surveyed appears to be magnetic audiocassettes (compact audiocassettes). Note: This is not believed to be the case for original sound holdings that the CLIR survey investigated.
  • The range of views concerning the need, techniques, and emerging standards for preservation of recorded-sound collections may be well understood by preservationists, but not always by collections managers.
  • While some formats of recorded-sound media are more urgently in need of preservation than others, all formats are in some need of preservation, identification, cataloging, or reformatting.
  • The costs and requirements for preserving and offering access to a recorded-sound collection may not be well understood by those responsible for creating such collections.

Reference of examined surveys

Survey of Endangered Audio Carriers. Conducted by the International Association of Sound Archives (IASA) on behalf of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 1995.

This survey investigated the condition of a wide variety of sound carrier media, including cylinder recordings, direct cut acetate discs, shellac discs (commercial 78 rpm), vinyl discs (33 rpm and 45 rpm), acetate tape (1/4-inch audio), polyester tape (1/4-inch audio, compact audiocassettes, and R-DAT tapes), PVC tape, compact audiocassette, R-DAT tape, compact discs, and a few other rare carriers.

The survey results were based on information provided in 133 replies from a variety of institutions, as well as small private collections, from 35 countries. The report concluded that there is some deterioration among all formats, but that acetate disc and tape recordings are at the highest risk of loss and in most urgent need of migration to more stable formats.

Additional information is available at the University of San Diego Web site at

Folk Heritage Collections In Crisis. Conducted by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in partnership with the American Folklore Society (AFS), the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), and the Council on Library and Information Resources. December 2001.

This was a nationwide survey of original recorded ethnographic audio collections (original masters or field recordings) held by institutions and individuals. Two thousand surveys were mailed to the membership of AFS and SEM and to other collectors; 297 responses (178 organizations and 119 individuals) were received.

The survey gathered some interesting information but did not meet all its objectives. Pointing to the need for access systems and preservation planning, the survey report concluded that there is a “functional and intellectual disconnect between those responsible for creating the collections and those charged with caring for them.” It further concluded that (1) there is a need to educate those responsible for creating ethnographic audio recordings about archival terms and basic practices; and (2) there is a need for infrastructure support and funding for “small- to medium-sized collections located at state arts agencies, museums, and similar cultural organizations.”

The survey report noted that not enough data were gathered to fulfill the objective of the survey to establish “a baseline dataset about the nation’s recorded folklore.” Instead, the survey succeeded in revealing “where the state of knowledge ends and ignorance begins.”

The report is available at

National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Survey of Master Recording Libraries. Conducted by REDA International on behalf of NARAS/The Grammy Foundation. June 1998.

The 87 respondents to this survey included 51 recording studios and 36 audio archives. Areas covered included age, size (masters and nonmasters), location, cataloging status, and copyright status of collections; access to professional specialists; types of media in collections; markings; growth of collections; safety copies; conditions of master recordings; preservation efforts; staffing; training; maintenance; quality control; information management; budgets; disposal of collection items; storage locations; temperature, humidity, air-filtration, and fire-control systems; and formats of safety copies.

For more information about the survey, contact the Grammy Foundation, 3402 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405.

Ethnographic Thesaurus Working Group Questionnaire: Survey of Potential Stakeholders. Conducted by the American Folklore Society in collaboration with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and George Mason University. Supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. March 2002.

The purpose of the Thesaurus Project was to “assist folklorists, archivists, and catalogers working with folklore and folk music collections by establishing consistent subject terminology for the description of ethnographic materials.” Survey results were reported in April 2002 at the Ethnographic Thesaurus Working Group.

A total of 180 surveys were mailed and 70 replies were received. The questionnaire asked respondents whether or not sound recordings were included among a list of eight other collection formats. Fifty-six respondents noted that their collections included “traditional music,” and 54 respondents reported “oral history” titles in their collections, without indicating the quantity, condition, or audio format.

The survey data are being used to build an online thesaurus located at

TAG (Technical Assistance Grant) Technical Assistance Report: Database Needs Assessment for Folk Arts Programs. Conducted by the Folk Arts Group of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA). 2001.

This survey was conducted as a needs assessment and focused on information management requirements. Approximately 125 surveys were distributed to folk arts collections, and 43 responses were received. Only one of the 70 questions on the survey dealt with audio. It asked respondents to identify the “forms of audio media” contained in the archive but did not ask for the number of records or information on their conditions.

More information about NASAA can be found at

Association of Research Libraries: Special Collections in ARL Libraries. Sponsored by ARL Research Collections Committee. 1998. The survey report, published in 2001, was written by Judith Panitch of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This survey took a wide view of special collections. Questions covered the changing role of the research library in higher education; the effects of digitization; the challenge of selecting, preserving, and making available the cultural record of the nineteenth century and beyond; and the potential for cooperative action.

Audio collections are one of 10 special collections categories profiled in the appendix of the survey (Table 1: Collections, p. 77). They are viewed from the perspectives of collection type, location, and number of records. No specific information is provided concerning content or audio preservation status.

Survey results are available at

Heritage Health Index. Sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Getty Grant Program, The Bay Foundation, and Peck-Stacpoole Foundation.

The survey has been distributed to 15,000 potential respondents across the nation. The sampling will be from among a “randomly selected group of archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, and research collections.” The survey aims to “document the condition and needs of U.S. artistic, historic, and scientific collections held by archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, and research collections.”

The 12-page survey is designed to investigate a range of special collections materials, including recorded sound. It asks about four categories of sound media: grooved media; magnetic media; optical media; and other. The survey asks respondents to provide the number of units in each of the categories and the preservation condition in each category.

Data collected in preliminary tests of the Heritage Health Index can be found at


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