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The libraries and archives of the United States house a large and valuable heritage of audio recordings that span more than a century. Ranging from work songs recorded in the field to whale songs recorded in the Pacific Ocean, from Native Americans speaking in tongues now close to extinction to Holocaust survivors recalling their experiences, these collections of recorded sound are an irreplaceable record of the history and creativity of the twentieth century. These collections are of enormous value for research and teaching. These rare and often fragile recordings, however, are in triple jeopardy: They are frequently not described or inventoried; they are orphaned by obsolete playback equipment; and they lack clearly documented rights that allow use. Making these recordings available to students and scholars can be difficult and costly. As a result, these collections are often underused.

Awareness that our audio heritage is in peril has reached the highest levels of government. In 2000, the U.S. Congress enacted the National Recording Preservation Act (NRPA). Under this act, Congress will make available matching funds to preserve historically important collections. It will thereby join the ranks of other funders, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and private foundations, that make funding available for institutions to improve access to and preservation of historically and culturally significant recorded sound collections. Just as important, the act calls for a series of activities designed to improve preservation techniques and raise awareness of our audio heritage.

The funds provided under the act will become available through a congressionally authorized foundation that will be aimed at preservation. Unfortunately, many factors might make it difficult for a library with important holdings in need of preservation to compete successfully for these funds. These factors range from lack of knowledge about what is in a given collection to a lack of consensus about what materials merit priority for preservation. These are problems that libraries can solve, and knowing that funds will be available for preservation may give them the incentive to address those problems in a timely fashion.

In 2003, to focus attention on this problem and spur discussion on how to resolve it, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) undertook a survey of the state of audio recordings in academic libraries. One purpose of the survey was to inform decision makers in those libraries, as well as in funding agencies, about the scale and extent of barriers to preservation and access. Another purpose was to elicit information that would help the participating libraries assess their own readiness to preserve and provide access to their recorded-sound collections. We also hoped that survey findings would help library leaders and funders determine how best to allocate preservation funds and thereby help ensure access to historically important sound recordings. Finally, the survey was designed to raise awareness within the larger research and funding communities of the value of audio collections and to encourage institutions with important audio holdings to seek support for their collections.

Several surveys and reports have documented various aspects of the problem of ensuring access to audio recordings for research and teaching. In designing CLIR’s survey of recorded sound, we built on that foundation to explore a broader set of issues that affect the ability of collection managers to expand access to their holdings. Our primary goal was to gather information about recorded sound that is of value for research and teaching. We were particularly interested in collections that include rare or unique recordings, both commercial and noncommercial. Yet, we were aware that such collections make up only a small portion of the entire audio collection held in any library. Consequently, this report contains information about general, as well as special, recorded-sound collections.

Because audio collections in academic libraries are known to have often limited bibliographical access and inventory control, we decided to restrict the survey to two distinct sampling groups: the first a subset of ARL libraries, and the second the entire group of Oberlin libraries. We used the same survey instrument in both cases, but our methods of data gathering differed between the group of large research libraries and the smaller academic libraries found on liberal-arts college campuses.

We engaged the services of David Randal Allen and Karen Allen, of The Communications Office, Inc., to design, conduct, and analyze the survey. An advisory group of nine experts helped vet the design of the survey instrument and analyze the results. Expert staff from more than 80 libraries cooperated in completing a survey of materials that were in most cases not easy to quantify or otherwise describe in traditional survey methods. We are grateful to all of these dedicated professionals who made the survey possible.

Scope, Design, and Methodology of the Survey

What Do We Want to Know, and Why?

The goal of this survey was modest: to collect and analyze baseline information about the status of audio collections held by a set of research institutions. Such information will be valuable for several purposes. First, it can help shape the national preservation plan now being developed by the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) and the Library of Congress to preserve “sound recordings that are culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” [Public Law 106-474]. The National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 (NRPA) charges the NRPB to develop a preservation plan that will, among other things, “increase accessibility of sound recordings for educational purposes.” The plan will be based on a study being conducted by the board that will provide a broad overview of the curent state of audio preservation in the United States. The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) sees a special need for research institutions to make available detailed information about the state of their rare and historically valuable audio holdings, since these holdings would be among the most important to preserve under a national plan. Unlike the commercial companies that recorded the great performances of the twentieth century, research institutions have a preservation mission. When academic libraries acquire such commercially published materials, they usually retain and preserve them over the decades; commercial recording companies, by contrast, may not.

The findings of CLIR’s survey can also help managers and decision makers in research institutions develop local plans for audio preservation and access. Having information about their own holdings relative to those of peer institutions will help these leaders assess their institutional readiness to address the challenges presented by audio holdings in relation to peer institutions, to identify what problems they share, and to develop strategies in concert with others to address common problems. Organizations that fund audio preservation and access, from the administration within research institutions to the philanthropic foundations, state humanities centers, and federal agencies that commit funds to expanding access to audio, will also find the information from this survey helpful. Once funds are appropriated, the National Recording Preservation Foundation (NRPF) will join that group of donors. The NRPF was authorized by the NRPA to make matching federal grants to institutions to preserve their collections. Professional associations may also be a source of funding. For example, the American Folklore Society, Audio Engineering Society, Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), Association of Research Libraries (ARL), and others may commit membership funds to projects their members consider timely. An understanding of the state of audio in various collecting institutions and the barriers to ready access should help funding agencies decide which investments in access, preservation, or rights issues would be the most strategic and fruitful at this stage.

Why a Survey?

When CLIR decided to gather information by which to benchmark the current state of audio collections in a key set of repositories, it had few well-researched sources to consult. Many experts, however, offered anecdotal evidence that, if aggregated, would provide a solid basis of information and indication of trends.

Anecdotal evidence about the state of audio collections abounds. It points to such problems as insufficient bibliographical control, which impedes both access to and in-house knowledge about the content of the collections (music libraries are one exception to this rule); lack of staff expertise in audio formats and genres; confusion about privacy and intellectual property rights and acceptable practice for fair use in an academic setting; and, above all, limited financial resources. The survey sought to gather evidence that would speak to the validity of these perceptions.

The survey designers sought to gather quantitative information whenever possible. However, audio collections lack the standard descriptive practices that exist for published text collections. Consequently, the data that organizations gather about audio holdings, whether published or unpublished, do not approach the depth, specificity, and uniformity of those available for the published print record. In designing the survey, the challenge was to complement the quantitative data that could be obtained through a structured survey with qualitative information that would allow a nuanced and valid interpretation of those data. Because previous surveys covering some of this territory had produced low response rates, we knew we would also need to conduct interviews with staff at some of the institutions surveyed.

What Have We Learned from Other Surveys?

Lessons learned from a previous survey of original audio recordings

CLIR is one of several organizations that have tried to establish baseline information about recorded sound. In 2000, CLIR worked with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the American Folklore Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities on a program called Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis. Its aim was to identify the problems in preserving folklore collections and inform the development of plans to mitigate those problems. The program coordinators agreed that, given the primitive state of description for most original folklore recordings and the rights issues inherent in the content, any plan to preserve these collections must start by defining and overcoming the access and rights barriers to preservation. The scope of the preservation challenge, in other words, extends beyond the inherent physical limitations resulting from fragile analog (or digital) carriers.

As part of the Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis program, some partners surveyed constituencies believed to have custody of mostly unpublished ethnographic audio collections. These constituencies ranged from libraries and archives to state and local humanities councils and members of academic folklore societies. The goal of the survey was to create a fact-based picture of the state of folklore collections and the infrastructure that supports them.

The survey was valuable in highlighting the many barriers-technological, financial, legal, and institutional-that stand between recordings and the ability to access them, both now and in the future. Unfortunately, it failed to achieve a critical mass of respondents and therefore did not produce enough data to be statistically valid. Instead, the results demonstrated a “functional and intellectual disconnect between those responsible for creating the collections and those charged with caring for them.”1

Investigation of other audio surveys

Other surveys of recorded sound collections include the following:

  • a report by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), published in 1998, that focused on key institutional collections held by recording studios and audio archives
  • the annual survey by the ARL of library holdings, which include audio collections (but at a high level of generality)
  • the Heritage Health Index, a pending survey of audio and other media in cultural heritage institutions soon to get under way

More information about these and related surveys, including conclusions drawn from the surveys as a whole, is provided in Appendix 1.

Although these surveys asked questions about the content of audio holdings, their bibliographical status, their state of preservation, and so forth, none attempted to look at the entire suite of issues that might be considered crucial to management. Such issues include staffing and resources, the level of expertise available on rights issues, and the establishment of institutional policies on these and other aspects of recordings.

Why This Survey?

In developing our survey instrument, we tried to determine what information managers would find most important when making decisions about funding and policies for their audio collections. In preliminary discussions, some of these managers cautioned us that their staffs are asked many times a year to participate in surveys led by various worthy bodies. A key incentive for these staff to supply data-which are often difficult to assemble-would be the opportunity to see aggregate data from other similar institutions. That aggregation, the managers noted, would create a preservation landscape in which individual institutions could place themselves. Although direct comparisons would rarely be possible, aggregation would enable the managers to identify patterns of problems and to determine where collective action may provide leverage on some key problems, such as descriptive standards or reformatting strategies.

To avoid the possibility that our survey would yield insufficient quantitative data to create a nuanced picture of the state of audio collections and of challenges to their preservation and access, we decided to develop a set of qualitative queries in those areas where quantitative and comparative data might not be available. During our pilot testing of the surveys, we encountered enough responses in the order of “unanswerable” and “it depends” from larger libraries that need for a dual approach-qualitative as well as quantitative-became quite evident. We found that respondents were willing, even eager, to provide qualitative answers.

Why Survey Academic Libraries?

Annual ARL surveys confirm that research libraries have large audio holdings-indeed, some have very large and well-known audio archives. Nonetheless, there is no reason to conclude that libraries hold most of the nation’s preservation-worthy audio collections. Even collections created in the course of university research do not routinely end up in libraries. The creators of ethnographic collections, for example, usually retain possession of them, even when they are no longer mining them for evidence. Many libraries routinely turn down offers of such collections from faculty because the materials are likely to be out of their scope or are not sufficiently described to allow a useful assessment of their research value. (The inconclusive survey conducted by the Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis project supports this evidence.) Moreover, commercial recording companies, historical societies, scientific institutes, symphony orchestras, conservatories, radio stations, and many other organizations that create audio materials are likely to be the primary holders of their assets (although their commitment to preserve the materials and to provide access to researchers varies greatly).

Surveys by other agencies reveal the extent to which audio collections exist outside of research institutions. For example, state folk arts programs and others are working on inventorying their holdings. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) has done a survey of valuable or endangered published materials found among the professional (studio) holdings.

That said, many libraries have collected audio that is primarily of educational value (i.e., cultural, historical, or aesthetically significant materials). Research libraries have collected rare and unique materials, many acquired through archives of eminent individuals or organizations. Because libraries are more likely than most other repositories to follow common schema for bibliographic control, they should be better positioned than others to assess their collections and to develop appropriate preservation and access strategies.

Many public libraries have large audio reference collections, but reference collections were not within the scope of this study. While certain public libraries have extensive research collections that include rare and significant audio collections (New York Public Library most notably), we chose to focus on campus-based libraries to increase the comparability of the institutions under review. A survey of research audio collections in public libraries would be of great value.

Why Survey These Academic Libraries?

We surveyed two groups of academic libraries-18 research libraries (the ARL group) and 51 Oberlin Group libraries. As these libraries identify themselves, they are comparable in mission, collection scope, and, often, in size. Both groups share assumptions and vocabularies about collection care and management. We had a natural desire to look at libraries with the richest collections. However, to get a sense of the landscape of audio collections across a wider spectrum of academic libraries, we decided not to survey only-or even primarily-libraries well-known for their audio holdings, although some institutions in the two sample groups do hold preeminent audio archives.

Who Designed the Survey?

CLIR engaged The Communications Office, Inc., to design the survey. The firm has extensive experience in survey work, including surveys of libraries and library organizations. The company’s principals also have expertise in broadcast media and audio. To assess the survey design, advise on the selection of institutions to be surveyed, and aid in interpreting results, CLIR formed an advisory group comprising a mix of the expertise needed for such a broad-gauged survey. It included library administrators, preservation managers, audio curators, and archivists. A list of advisory group members is provided in the front matter.

How Was the Survey Conducted?

A pilot survey was conducted among four libraries in July and August 2003, before the two survey groups were identified. Respondents included two ARL institutions, one land-grant institution and one liberal arts college. The results confirmed our hypothesis that large libraries would not be well served by data gathered only through an online survey. Their collections tend to be heterogeneous and dispersed among several administrative units that follow different practices for counting, describing, serving, and so forth. Large libraries also reported difficulties in interpreting key words; even the term “unique” sometimes required clarification. By contrast, the response from the liberal arts college indicated that, even with valuable original collections to report, its staff felt comfortable responding to a Web-based survey instrument.

We refined the survey instrument on the basis of what we learned from the pilot surveys. We eliminated some questions and changed the sequence of the questions. The final survey asked 100 questions (84 objective “yes/no” or multiple-choice questions and 16 open-ended questions) focused on five areas related to sound recordings: access, rights, preservation, funding and resources, and policy. The surveys asked the same questions of both ARL and Oberlin Group libraries. Two survey formats were used: one-on-one interviews were used for ARL, and a Web-based survey form was used for the Oberlin Group libraries. The survey was conducted between September and December 2003.

The Oberlin Group agreed to send the Web-based survey to its 72 member libraries, 51 of which responded. To survey the ARL libraries, we settled on a sample of 22 private and public libraries to interview in-depth by phone; of these, 18 responded. A list of respondent institutions is provided in Appendix 2.

A total of 82 survey data sets were received, including the pilot surveys. The survey group of ARL institutions resulted in 27 survey interviews from the 18 responding libraries (five of the ARL institutions offered as many as three units with sound collections to be surveyed). The survey of Oberlin institutions resulted in 55 electronic responses representing 51 institutions.

All respondents were promised confidentiality of their answers. One exception to this was requested: that examples of collection information useful to the reporting process could be cited with attribution upon permission from the institution concerned.

At ARL institutions, survey questions were given to the library director or head librarian. That individual then assigned responsibility for information gathering to the staff member(s) most able to respond. The survey interviewers established contact with each institution and set up telephone appointments to conduct the surveys. The telephone interviews were recorded and the tapes were transcribed. This provided additional subjective information and facilitated cross-examination of responses.

At Oberlin Group libraries, survey questions were also provided to library directors, who then delegated the task of responding to the Web-based survey to an appropriate individual on their staff. An assistance telephone number and e-mail address were provided on the entrance page to the survey. Several respondents made use of these communication options to ask questions.

Summary of Findings

This section presents a summary and an interpretation of the survey responses. It highlights overall findings, notes similarities and disparities between the ARL and Oberlin Group libraries, and identifies noteworthy results within each study group. The full results are provided in Part 2.

The survey shows that recorded-sound research collections on campuses are rich and diverse, ranging from performances to field recordings and including unique ethnographic and scientific data, spoken word, and rare items of local and national significance. Most campuses report increased demand for the use of audio in teaching and research. But with few exceptions, barriers to such use are high and institutional readiness for improving the condition and accessibility of audio holdings is low, especially for rare and unique materials. The reasons are complex, ranging from a restrictive rights regime that discourages investments in preservation of even the rarest materials to a lack of effective and cost-efficient bibliographical-control schemes that meet the special needs of recorded-sound collections.

While respondents tended to identify lack of funding as the greatest barrier to access, a closer look at the survey results tells a more complicated story. Other commonly cited barriers included the following:

  • the absence of appropriate standards and tools for cost-effective inventory and bibliographical control
  • the lack of effective and cost-efficient means of treating and reformatting analog originals
  • the absence of clear mandates about how to provide access to valuable collections the rights to which are ambiguous or unknown
  • the lack of staff who are sufficiently trained and conversant in the genres, formats, and rights issues unique to recorded-sound collections

The scope and extent of these challenges make it clear that merely spending more money on the same approaches will not lower the barriers now facing the users of audio. This is especially true given the short time remaining to rescue some of the most endangered collections. New approaches to intellectual and inventory control, new technologies for audio capture and automatic metadata extraction, new programs of education and training, and more aggressive access policies under the fair use exemption of the copyright law for education are necessary before most of the rare and historically important audio collections on campuses can be taken off the endangered cultural-resources list.

1.0 Access

With audio resources, as with other archival collections, there is a delicate balance between supply and demand. If collections are hidden from the view of users because they are undescribed or otherwise hard to find, demand for access will be low. If collections are difficult or expensive to process and stabilize for service, there may be little incentive to make them available, because demand might then increase in ways that would stress the library’s resources.

Providing access to audio collections, even bibliographical access, presents greater challenges than does providing access to print- or text-based special collections and archival collections. If audio resources are not linked to a written identifier (such as a record jacket or tape label), determining their content can require labor-intensive, real-time “browsing” (that is, listening) and can require specialized playback equipment that is not readily available.

The survey was designed to answer the following questions about access:

  • What audio holdings are found in library collections, and what are their strengths?
  • What collections are valuable but inaccessible, and why?
  • Where on campus besides the library are there significant audio collections, particularly of original or rare materials?
  • How do staff members define “significance” and “originality” in audio items?
  • Is the demand for access to audio increasing, as anecdotal evidence suggests? If so, what is the nature of the increased demand?
  • How ready are libraries to meet the demand?
  • How do users find out what audio items libraries have?
  • In what formats do users prefer to get access to audio items?

Respondents were able to identify significant original or rare audio collections in nearly all the institutions surveyed. Most respondents also identified original and significant collections held in academic units that were not part of the library. Few respondents claimed to have adequate bibliographical or inventory control over their audio assets. Most claimed that a significant portion of their holdings were “hidden.” Nonetheless, and somewhat paradoxically, nearly all also claimed that the demand for access to audio was growing on their campuses.

Staff identified collection strengths that ranged widely from campus to campus, as one would expect of special collections and archival holdings (question 1.1). These strengths included music, live music performances, and ethnomusicology; historical spoken word, some large and unique, some described as a part of a special collection, some tied to a campus’s departmental strengths; oral histories, both of major national figures and of important local and campus figures; recordings of campus events; recordings from campus radio stations; and a variety of audio components of larger special collections.

Asked to name “collections or items of high importance which are currently not accessible, and why” (question 1.2), respondents offered a diverse list, citing specific recordings or collections. In most respects, the categories mapped closely to the responses for question 1.1 on major strengths. Reasons given for inaccessibility were overwhelmingly related to a lack of bibliographic control. Other reasons frequently cited included physical fragility (such as sticky-shed syndrome, which renders tapes unplayable without preparatory treatment) and lack of playback equipment for obsolete formats. Respondents also reported access restrictions imposed by donors and staff concerns about privacy rights. Summarizing the situation at one institution, a respondent said that there is “no, or minimal, bibliographic access because of limited staffing, the receipt of large collections, and the inability of traditional cataloging and methods of archival description to deal with processing very large collections of musical and other sound recordings.”

Not all libraries reported accessibility problems. At both Oberlin and ARL libraries some respondents said that “everything is accessible.” It is unclear, however, whether such responses reflect a policy (“Everything is accessible to faculty, staff, and students” was one response) or a description of the collections’ bibliographical and physical readiness to be served. Among respondents claiming that all audio holdings are accessible were those who, in another section of the survey, reported that large portions of their collections are uncataloged. Others reported that their access policy is to make everything available by doing preservation on demand, but at the same time they reported having obsolete formats (for example, Dictaphone recordings, cylinders, lacquer discs in bad shape) that they are not able to stabilize or transfer to another medium in order to play back. Several Oberlin libraries reported few or no rare audio holdings, and they reported that their collections are fully accessible.

Seventy-eight percent of those who responded to the question “Are you seeing any increased demand for recorded sound in teaching?” (question 1.3b) replied “yes.” The evidence that ARL respondents provided in follow-up interviews suggests that the increase comes from interdisciplinary demand, that is, use beyond that generated by music courses. One respondent reported, “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the use of music, just as we have of video.” Beyond materials in the music library, the recorded-sound holdings kept in the special collections library “are being used more and more in history classes, in English literature classes, French literature, anthropology, sociology,” and others. In some cases, staff noted not more demand per se, but an increased use of audio assets because Intranet access made them easier to use. One respondent mentioned that the library served about five rare titles a week, but that since putting “a small collection online that got about 17,000 downloads in the first year, perhaps it was more accurate to say that rare materials get 305 uses a week.”

To learn what lay behind any reported increase in the use of audio, we asked how the institutions promote such resources (question 1.3a). Few respondents reported undertaking special promotions of audio holdings. Most said that word was spread through existing catalogs, by word-of-mouth with faculty and students, and through Web sites that advertise their holdings. Several respondents noted the successful use of newsletters and announcements, particularly when reporting new acquisitions.

Answers to questions about the size of collections and how collection items are counted (questions 1.4a, 1.4b, and 1.4c) reflected a lack of uniformity of practice among libraries and the inherent difficulty in assessing the size of unprocessed collections. Oberlin respondents reported smaller collections, from a few hundred items to as many as 50,000 items. Most ARL respondents reported collections of more than 100,000 items, and some reported as many as 200,000 to 350,000 items.

For both groups, counting collection items was a problem. Most respondents said they count by item, not by title (see question 1.4b). Among those who count by item, respondents were divided on their preference for counting a four-disc set as one item versus four items. Concerning duplicates, respondents typically asserted that their preference was for not counting duplicates in collection totals. But when asked whether their estimates for the number of objects of recorded sound in their collections included duplicates, the respondents allowed that some duplicates were necessarily included. One respondent, for example, after further questioning, said that his initial count of total items (about 60,000) would probably be reduced by as many as 10,000 items if duplicates could be identified and excluded.

The survey revealed that collections of potential significance to the college or university are often held outside the library (question 1.5). These range from research and teaching collections in academic departments to records of campus events held in administrative and special-events offices. One university reported that its main visual-resource library, serving a school of art and architecture, includes oral histories of many significant twentieth-century architects, for example. Another university reported that its schools of business, medicine, and law each had significant collections (for example, tapes of trials, lectures, and conferences). It was not clear how these materials were being stored, preserved, and made accessible, if at all. Such collections may be falling through the cracks on many campuses. There was no way to determine whether the answers given to this question were comprehensive, as there may well be campus collections that are “hidden” even from the library.

To gauge how many collections of preservation-worthy audio there may be in academic libraries (and by implication how ready libraries would be to identify them for funding opportunities), we asked about their rare and unique collections and the bibliographic status of those collections. Respondents were asked to identify percentages of “unique and nonduplicate recorded-sound objects” in specific categories, such as original music masters, field recordings, and so on (question 1.6). Respondents were then asked to place percentages on the bibliographic status of their collections (question 1.7), selecting from six choices: item-level, collection-level, finding aid, accession record, no cataloging or inventory, or other. The response to question 1.6 indicates that commercial recordings make up a large percentage-more than 75% on average-of recorded-sound collections. From there, the numbers drop to less than 25% and include, in descending order, original-music masters; oral history; other spoken word; commercial, but rare, recordings; field recordings; and natural history. Questions 1.6 and 1.7 were clearly difficult for many of the respondents in both survey categories. One responded noted that the given answers were guesses, saying they “do not have statistics.” Another said his institution has “not done serious cataloging since the 1970s. We have what we call Ôa list.'” Yet another noted, “Cataloging is our biggest problem.”

Responses indicated that there are more similarities than differences between the two groups with respect to access questions. Both ARL and Oberlin groups, for example, acknowledged that cataloging is a major obstacle to overcome before preservation and use of rare, nonduplicate recorded-sound objects can move forward. Both groups selected “lack of bibliographic control” as their number-one concern when asked to rate a list of possible barriers that users face (question 1.12). Furthermore, the respondent groups collectively selected “lack of funding” and “lack of staffing” as the two barriers that most often prevent their libraries from having a full inventory of their audio holdings (question 1.8). Respondents cited other barriers, including rights. For example, one respondent said that her institution is “unclear [about] copyright status of recordings . . . of lectures, readings.” Another said that “[providing] a detailed inventory . . . is a low priority.” Another respondent noted a scarcity of the most important resource: time. “Other priorities continually bump cataloging projects,” this individual noted.

Time is a crucial scarcity, given the inherent difficulties presented by audio. With current technologies, the sole method of determining the content of unique or unlabeled recordings is to listen to them. In certain genres, such as oral histories, the amount of time it takes to determine the content can discourage use, because one must often “wade through” lots of tape to find the sections of highest value to the listener.

Respondents were asked how often rare, nonduplicate titles are requested (question 1.11). Answers indicated that requests for these materials are low, and one may assume there is a direct correlation with preceding answers indicating problems with bibliographic control, numbers of unprocessed collections, and lack of promotion. Seventy-five percent of respondents answering this question said that only 1 to 10 titles are requested per year. ARL respondents reported a higher number of weekly requests than did Oberlin respondents, who overwhelmingly reported that requests could be counted only on an annual basis. Some guesswork was called for, as more than one respondent replied that they do not keep statistics. One respondent put the problem in perspective, saying, “By not cataloging, there is no access if the piece is unprocessed or [has] never been cataloged. The rare, nonduplicate titles are probably the most underreported.” But some respondents took issue with what they saw as incorrect assumptions behind the question. They argued that rare or special collection items are not heavily used, regardless of their format, and they expressed concern about making an equation, even implicitly, between demand for use and inherent value.

Barriers facing users were the focus of question 1.12. Respondents said users are impeded by, in descending order, lack of bibliographic control, lack of funding, lack of playback equipment, lack of reference staff, lack of reference copies, intellectual property rights, lack of space, lack of technical expertise, lack of technical staff, and remote storage. Asked to list any other barriers, one respondent said “lack of bibliographic control and concern for preserving originals.” Other comments were “deterioration of magnetic tape” and the need for “technical staff to make copies from damaged originals.” One respondent offered this analysis of the situation: “Funding would solve everything, so it is number one. Unclear property rights is two, because it does not make sense to catalog anything until we are sure that we will be able to use it. So, bibliographic control is logically three. We often have trouble finding a place to sit, so I decided that lack of space should be a four.”

Question 1.13 asked respondents to identify their users. “Undergraduates” was the largest group of users, identified at 60% to 80% (by 27% of the respondents). All other categories were identified at less than 20%of their users. In descending order, respondents reported public (53% of respondents), faculty (46%), visiting scholars (45%), graduates (40%), alumni (40%), and media/corporate (37%).

Question 1.14 asked how libraries make recorded-sound objects available. Such objects were available, in descending order, on analog media (80% of respondents), on CD-R (53%), on CD-ROM (32%), on the Internet (31%), on an Intranet (29%), and on DVD (27%). One respondent noted making copies to digital audiotape. Four respondents mentioned use of electronic reserves.

2.0 Rights

The laws governing copyright of recorded sound differ in significant ways from those governing published sheet music, books, journals, and other print-based collections. The primary difference is that federal copyright statutes did not protect recordings until 1972. All sound recorded before that year is protected by state code or common law. When the older recordings became covered by federal law, they automatically gained many additional years of copyright protection. As a result, most audio, even that recorded before 1923, is under copyright protection until well into the second half of the present century. In addition, audio items usually comprise a complex bundle of rights, many of them so-called underlying rights that adhere to performers, composers, and distributors and that are difficult to untangle and trace for purposes of clearance.

Although the right to preserve and the right to make accessible are legally distinct, preservation reformatting is so labor-intensive that it makes sense for institutions to do it only if access is foreseen in the near term. Because digital output is the preferred medium for preservation reformatting, some digital distribution rights are therefore necessary to provide incentives for preservation investment. In the academic setting, that means distribution for fair use.

Despite its brevity, this section of the survey took a disproportionate amount of time to formulate. Because the subject of rights is so charged, it was important to phrase questions in a way that would ensure that respondents would feel comfortable answering truthfully. We were interested in determining how perceptions of rights influence decisions about preservation and access. Whether or not respondents’ perceptions about copyright and privacy rights were correct was beyond the scope of the survey and, to a large degree, irrelevant. Our goal was to find out whether the uncertainty widely reported in the library community about preservation and access is having a deleterious effect on libraries’ core missions of preservation and access for educational purposes.

In framing questions about the rights to preserve and provide access to audio collections, our primary interest was to determine

  • levels of understanding of the law for sound recordings
  • to what extent perceptions about rights influence decisions about preserving recorded sound
  • to what extent perceptions about rights influence decisions about making sound recordings accessible

In answering question 2.1, which focused on challenges relating to rights and compliance, few respondents expressed confusion about their right to preserve materials. Eighty-six percent said they had no challenges with legal compliance with respect to preserving unpublished holdings, and 75% reported no challenge with respect to commercial recordings. A small majority replied that they had no challenges with respect to the privacy rights of oral history subjects (64%), no challenges with respect to offering access to commercial recordings (52%), and no confusion about their rights to offer access to unpublished recordings (64%). Nonetheless, many interviewees reported confusion about what the law provides for, and this confusion was sufficiently widespread to give one pause about what these responses really mean. One respondent reported that “lack of clarity of copyright law is the biggest issue.” Another said that “in many cases, determining copyright holders of particular sound recordings is not possible with our current resources.” Some respondents, however, expressed no special concern, asserting an understanding of their rights and how fair use can be claimed in an academic environment. “There are no challenges [with legal compliance] based on our understanding of fair use,” said one.

Some of the consternation expressed about the lack of clarity regarding both privacy and intellectual property rights was reflected in the answers to question 2.2, “Estimate the percentage of your recorded-sound collections that includes documentation that could be useful in sorting out ownership of copyright issues.” The largest percentage of respondents answering this question reported that less than 20% of their collections had such documentation.

Concerning posting audio materials on the Internet (question 2.3), 69% of the respondents reported that they are confident they have obtained all necessary permissions or clearances. Half of the respondents indicated that they sought legal consultation before posting audio materials on the Internet.

3.0 Preservation

Given that many audio collections are under the direct supervision of people who are not trained primarily as recorded-sound curators or as audio engineers, we wanted to learn how prepared those collection stewards were to identify historically valuable audio holdings and make a compelling case for their preservation. We also wanted to determine whether they were following best practices for the preservation and service of fragile items.

In the section on preservation, we asked respondents to identify

  • what makes audio preservation-worthy
  • what percentage of their collections they identify belonging to that category
  • what actions libraries have taken to preserve their audio holdings
  • how many libraries follow what is viewed as best practice, i.e., the creation of duplication masters and listening copies for analog materials

Both ARL and Oberlin libraries identified the same features that make audio worthy of preservation (question 3.1). The features cited were, in descending order of frequency, uniqueness or rarity, historic value, significance of content for research and teaching, format and condition of the original, significance of the performer or performance, aesthetic documentation or value, and local or regional value.

Question 3.2 asked respondents to estimate the percentage of their preservation-worthy sound recordings that are (a) original or master recordings and (b) rare commercial recordings. With respect to original or master recordings, the highest number, or 28% of the respondents, estimated that less than 20% fall into such a category. Concerning rare commercial recordings, the highest number of respondents, or 48%, likewise said that less than 20% of their preservation-worthy sound recordings fall into this category. Forty-five percent of the respondents answering question 3.3 said less than 20% of their preservation-worthy sound had been copied to duplication masters. Half of the respondents answering this question said that less than 20% of their preservation-worthy holdings had been copied to listening copies.

Concerning accessibility of preservation-worthy sound (question 3.4), 42% of the respondents said that 80% to 100% of their preservation-worthy sound is accessible. Asked what percentage of their preservation-worthy holdings do not have listening copies but were available for use (that is, in the original, question 3.5), 71% of respondents said that very few items (less than 20 percent) were not served. The lack of appropriate playback equipment (question 3.6) was not a barrier to access. Eighty-one percent of respondents reported that less than 20% of their collections were inaccessible because they lack the equipment to play them.

Question 3.7 asked whether respondents had undertaken a recorded-sound preservation project in the past five years and, if so, for what reason. All ARL libraries answered, and most reported that they had undertaken such projects. Some ARL libraries described specific projects for which they had secured special funding; others explained that their policy is to do preservation on demand and thus that activities are ongoing. One respondent noted that his institution’s digitization program “is viewed more as a service to the school of music and faculty and students, but it is indeed preservation.”

Specific preservation projects cited by respondents included rerecording Edison recordings, outfitting a conservation laboratory that will include digital audio equipment, preserving deteriorating recordings of an important music festival, reformatting open-reel tapes, transferring cylinder recordings to other formats, processing tapes with sticky-shed syndrome, reformatting spoken-word poetry LPs, reformatting 1,000 hours of Eisenhower-era political histories, surveying the state of an audio collection to provide a foundation for future preservation work and grant applications, processing collections of 2,000 theatrical transcription disks and placing them in acid-free containers, and creating duplicate cassettes and reel-to-reel copies of original cassette recordings of unique theater personnel interviews.

Of the 19 Oberlin group libraries responding to this question, only 6 replied that they had undertaken a recorded-sound preservation project in the past five years.

4.0 Funding and Resources

The following questions were asked about funding and the other resources required to preserve recorded sound and make it accessible:

  • How much staff time (i.e., full-time employees [FTEs]) is available for audio collection activities?
  • What type of expertise is available?
  • What is the budget for preservation and access?
  • What are the funding sources for audio-related expenditures?

At all but a few ARL institutions, staffing for recorded-sound collections is minimal, with few full-time positions cited by respondents (question 4.1). Even curator positions, when averaged among respondents answering this question, came to 0.9 FTE. The only position average to exceed 1.0 was that of student staff.

Funding for preservation of and access to recorded sound (question 4.4) differed greatly between the two survey groups. ARL respondents reported average annual spending of $51,600 per institution, whereas Oberlin respondents reported average annual spending of only $1,500 per institution. These answers seem predictable, in view of the relative size of library budgets and reports about the size and rarity of audio holdings in the two library types. However, it is hard to draw any meaningful conclusion about differences in spending because of the various ways in which funds for these kinds of activities are allocated and reported.

Only a few institutions appear to formally budget for their sound collections. Most work from grant money or allocate a portion of employees’ time. Of all respondents, only three ARL institutions reported that sound recordings were given a line item in formal budgets (question 4.2). Thus, the annual spending numbers (from question 4.4) may be even lower than stated.

5.0 Policy

Listing 10 common policies considered useful for managing collections of recorded sound, the survey asked respondents to indicate whether or not their institutions have written policies for any of these policies. Eighty percent of those responding to this question said they do not have a written policy concerning the preservation of recorded sound, while 72% said that they have one for bibliographical control; 69% have collection-development plans for recordings; and 80% have policies for disaster preparedness or recovery. Some commented that policies “vary from unit to unit” or that “general policies of the library apply.” One respondent said, “Anything not covered by a written policy is covered by a blanket policy.”


Providing easy access to audio in its analog form has always been a challenge. Recorded sound depends on playback equipment for access, and the rapid development and obsolescence of recording formats and playback equipment have resulted in an unending progression of recorded sound that is stranded on superseded media. It takes significant resources—time, money, and technical and curatorial expertise—to transfer recorded-sound content from obsolete and decaying formats onto newer ones.

Perhaps for this reason, audio has taken a backseat in the research and teaching resources that academic libraries routinely provide to their users, despite its undisputed value in archives and libraries. In this sense, audio is similar to the other media collections, such as moving and still images, that constitute a primary source of information for specific disciplines (for example, still images for art history, moving images for film studies, and recorded sound for music, folklore, and ethnomusicology) but that are seldom used in other fields.

Digital delivery of information is changing all that. The same infrastructure that maintains and delivers digital text objects maintains and delivers audio and visual digital objects. So, it is the same servers that keep bits, the same computers that deliver content, and the same licensing regimes that regulate distribution of commercially available materials. This common infrastructure will inevitably erode any distinctions between media that are currently defined by mode of access. As has been the case with other special collections that receive little use while in analog formats, demand for audio has been shown to increase dramatically once it becomes available digitally. This spike in use of “rare” and “special” collections has been amply demonstrated by the Library of Congress’s American Memory site, which offers millions of digitized special collections items free over the Internet.

Before drawing any conclusions from CLIR’s survey of audio collections, it is important to bear at least two considerations in mind. First, one must recall the survey respondent who mentioned that his library serves only about five rare titles a week in the reading room but delivers 300 downloads of rare titles in that same period. This instance is more indicative than representative, because few other libraries surveyed reported putting rare materials online. It does, however, point to a strong correlation between easy access and increased use—a correlation that we have seen time and again when other rare collections have been put online. In the digital realm, where ready access drives demand for use, putting more audio online must be one of the core strategies to drive the demand for preservation.

Second, the amount and type of quantitative information that we could glean were limited by the lack of common metrics for measuring various aspects of audio collections. Even determining what academic institutions have, how many items they hold, and how those items are used has proved difficult.

That said, possible implications of the survey results for various sectors of the educational and cultural communities—campus-specific, national, and professional—are summarized in the paragraphs that follow.

Campus-Specific Policies

Academic libraries, dedicated to the education of students and to research in the humanities and sciences, have a unique role in American society. Along with archives and museums, they are positioned to develop, protect, and extend the reach of research and cultural resources that constitute a public good. That is why they have a special role to play in preserving and making accessible the audio heritage of the past. Given how little is known about what audio exists, and where, on campuses, the most important thing that these libraries can do is to undertake campus-wide audits of recorded sound. They might start with what is in their libraries, but they should not stop there. Knowing what audio recordings—from musical performances and oral histories to historic speeches and linguistic tapes—are held on a campus, and where they are located, would allow an academic administration to undertake a risk analysis of these information assets and to develop a strategy for preservation of and access to sound holdings that are critical to their research and teaching missions.

It would then be important to put such maps of local resources side by side with those from other institutions and to develop plans to act collaboratively—or at least in complementary ways—to preserve and make accessible locally held collections. Our advisory group cautioned that while many of the most significant audio collections have been developed outside the teaching needs of faculty (or the research needs of current faculty), use-driven preservation is an effective strategy for selection at this early stage of action. In addition, it is important to pay special attention to those materials most likely to be unique.

National Policies

A survey of rare and significant audio held in private hands is especially important, because of its wealth. While the ARSC does gather information annually on the collecting interests of its members, it does not attempt to survey what is in private hands per se. One of this project’s advisors believes that private collectors purchase much of the rare audio that goes to auction every year; he has observed that a large percentage of pre-World War II rare materials on CD reissues appear to be from private collections.2

Another need that is best addressed at the national level is for the development of tools that would automate key activities in preservation that are currently performed manually and thus are highly resource-intensive. Two salient needs have emerged. One is the need for techniques for noncontact extraction of sound from audio carriers;3 the other is for automated metadata extraction from sound that has been digitized.

Perhaps the highest priority on the national agenda is the need to harmonize the monopoly rights of copyright owners over audio content with the public good of preserving recorded sound for its eventual passage into the public domain. Many people in the library field are uncertain about laws covering access in the digital realm. They seem to be waiting for case law to clarify what is permissible. The trend so far has been to move digital content out of the realm of copyright and into the realm of licensing, so that there is unlikely to be a body of case law to inform policy. Moreover, even where the law might apply, libraries and archives are generally not eager to establish legal precedents in the area of copyright. What is needed is not simply a clarification of the existing law but an ongoing assertion by libraries of fair use for educational ends. Without the constant assertion of fair use, it is likely that a marketplace will eventually grow up to meet the increasing demand for audio, thereby rendering the notion of fair use invalid, even on campuses. As one member of the advisory group noted, it is better for librarians to beg forgiveness than to seek permission.

Others are taking actions to clarify and improve the law as it influences access to the audio heritage. The National Recording Preservation Act calls upon the NRPB and the Library of Congress to study how current laws affect access to audio for educational purposes and to recommend changes to the law when it is found to have deleterious effects on access. That study is currently under way. An important issue to be addressed is how to enable libraries to share digital audio files so that rare materials can be more accessible. This is essential for a cost-effective means of preservation to be scaled across a network of preserving institutions.

Professional Issues

Responses to the CLIR survey indicate a wide variety of staff expertise at the institutions surveyed. Libraries with large audio collections, often housed both in the main library and in special archives dedicated to spoken word or traditional music, tend to have one or more staff highly qualified as audio curators. Few, if any, college libraries have such staff. Only five colleges reported having full-time audio engineering expertise available. This situation corresponds to that found in library schools, where only two or three North American library and information postgraduate education programs offer some form of training on audio archiving and preservation in any given year. Library staff have few opportunities to undergo training in the field. Several members of the advisory group recommended developing for audio the kinds of internships that are now common for conservators. These internships should be located in institutions with strong audio expertise.

Respondents also concurred on the need to enumerate the core skills that are necessary in both audio curatorial and audio preservation-engineering practices. Preservation audio engineers are needed in academic libraries with important collections because very few vendors to whom preservation work is currently outsourced are in the business of preserving antique formats. Most of them are production and restoration engineers and are not trained to perform much of the work needed in archival preservation. The development of regional audio-preservation facilities that could serve many libraries and archives, modeled on the facilities that now serve paper and photographic collections, would also serve a need that cannot be met locally.

Audio archiving is a field of cultural- and information-resource management that is far from mature. This is perhaps the root cause of the lack of standards and standardized ways of describing, counting, processing, and providing access to both published and unpublished audio. There is as yet in audio nothing comparable to the professional association in the moving-image community, the Association of Moving Image Archivists, which is often seen as the force behind the rapid growth of the moving-image archival profession. Such a natural coalition of professionals is likely to emerge as those engaged in audio and currently clustered in various professional organizations such as the American Library Association, the Society of American Archivists, and ARSC organize themselves to take on various pressing problems. The list of issues confronting them is a long one. We hope that this survey will help them identify opportunities for action and cooperation.


1 Council on Library and Information Resources. 2001. Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources. Page 60.

2 David Seubert, private communication, May 13, 2004.

3 See, for example, the work undertaken at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab to develop noncontact methods of recovering mechanically recorded sound at

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