The nation’s libraries, archives, and museums hold some 46 million sound recordings, millions of which are in need of preservation. Millions of additional recordings, often unique and also in need of preservation, are held by record companies, performing artists, broadcasters, and collectors. In the digital age, new technology offers great promise for preservation initiatives. Transitioning to digital audio preservation, however, has created significant technical, organizational, and funding challenges for those institutions responsible for preserving recorded sound history for future generations.
The National Recording Preservation Plan has been devised to provide a blueprint to “implement a comprehensive national sound recording preservation program,” as mandated in the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000. Congress specified that the program established by the Librarian of Congress under this legislation “shall … increase accessibility of sound recordings for educational purposes.” Preserved recordings can benefit the public only if they are made available for listening. Technological, institutional, and legal impediments to broadened access create daunting challenges for the national preservation effort. This plan identifies the audio field’s most important preservation and access problems and offers recommendations for surmounting them.
Congress recognized that a national sound recording preservation program should be implemented through a concerted effort involving, in addition to the Library of Congress, “other sound recording archivists, educators and historians, copyright owners, recording industry representatives, and others involved in activities related to sound recording preservation, and taking into account studies conducted by the Board.” This plan, derived in large part from landmark studies commissioned by the National Recording Preservation Board and published as a result of the National Recording Preservation Act, emphasizes that coordination among public and private stakeholders in the recorded sound community will be essential for achieving a successful national sound recording preservation program.
The National Recording Preservation Plan’s recommendations for implementing a coordinated preservation effort fall into four interrelated categories: preservation infrastructure, preservation strategies, access challenges, and long-term national strategies for preservation and access. Some recommendations can be achieved in the near future. Long-term initiatives may take a generation.
Most of the nation’s audio collections are stored under conditions that contribute to their deterioration. Many endangered analog formats must be digitized within the next 15 or 20 years before further degradation makes preservation efforts all but impossible. Coordinated efforts are needed to expand the physical infrastructure necessary to store recorded sound collections at low temperature and humidity in order to slow down the deterioration process. Developing digital reformatting and storage capabilities sufficient to meet the preservation challenge can be achieved only through coordinated efforts to use existing facilities more efficiently and to develop new ones.
Educational programs must be created to train specialists to work in these facilities. An Audio Preservation Resource Directory website will support educational initiatives, keep professionals informed of latest developments in the field, and increase public awareness about recording history and preservation challenges. A coordinated research agenda must be maintained to support the development of new technologies in order to meet some of audio preservation’s most difficult challenges.
Digital audio files have become the accepted preservation format for analog recordings at risk of deteriorating. The nature of digital files and digital file storage necessitates ongoing, active management that begins early in the lifecycle of files and requires continuing attention. Collection managers will need strategies, models, and guidelines to help them adhere to best practices, determine priorities for digitization, and form public-private partnerships to allow them to cost-effectively engage in expensive reformatting initiatives. New tools, implementation models, and efficient workflows will be needed to help engineers and managers from a variety of organizations meet standards and best practices for creating preservation-quality digital files and testing the performance of systems. Hardware and software developers, working with guidelines established by the preservation community, can aid the preservation effort by incorporating standardized metadata schemas that are cross-platform and enduring, and creating digital audio files that are “born archival” (i.e., files formatted for archiving at the time of their creation). Open source audio preservation software can play synergistic roles in relation to core systems developed by commercial entities. The preservation community should collaboratively develop management strategies and practical operational procedures to help recorded sound collection managers and technicians meet the challenges of digital preservation. These goals can be furthered through resources included in the Audio Preservation Resource Directory website and by efforts led by other national organizations.
In the digital age, many technological barriers to access have disappeared; yet, expanding access to audio recordings remains problematic. 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 idiosyncrasies in the U.S. copyright law. Federal copyright protection does not apply to recordings produced before February 15, 1972, leaving them subject to a complex network of disparate state laws. For so-called “orphan works,” copyright owners cannot be identified or located. Many rights holders have not permitted researchers or members of the general public to listen to recordings they legally control outside the limited scope of research facilities maintained by research institutions. Secure streaming to distant locales for research purposes could offer a solution to these problems, but institutions rarely can provide this service because of the challenges of licensing audio for research purposes efficiently and economically.
Investing government resources in the preservation of audio recordings is rarely perceived as being in the public interest when access to the preserved recordings is severely restricted. Broad access to historical recordings thus generates support for audio preservation. Such access can be achieved through developments along three avenues. First, the plan recommends improving the processes of discovery and cataloging through collaborative efforts to create a national discography and directory of recorded sound collections, and establishing best practices for audio cataloging. Second, copyright legislation reform should be enacted to apply federal copyright protection to sound recordings produced prior to February 15, 1972. This will create a legal framework for libraries and archives to copy and disseminate orphan works and for revising section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Act, which grants crucial exceptions to the exclusive rights of copyright owners and thus allows libraries and archives to reproduce materials for purposes of public access to further private study, scholarship, and research. Third, organizational initiatives should be undertaken to facilitate broadened legal public access to recorded sound collections. Such initiatives include license agreements for streaming; a shared digital preservation access network for sound recordings that offers a secure location for the storage of derivative files digitized by partner libraries and archives, and a managed licensing system for sharing of access copies; a labels ownership database to facilitate obtaining authorizations to stream recordings; broadened access to sound recordings that have been digitized by the Library of Congress; and codes of best practices to help clarify libraries’ and archives’ fair use rights to preserve and make sound recordings available to patrons.
Long-Term National Preservation and Access Strategies
To assist the Library of Congress in coordinating and implementing an effective long-term national preservation program and to raise public awareness about sound recordings and preservation, the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board must expand its activities and responsibilities. An advisory Executive Leadership Committee on Recorded Sound Preservation, comprising top executives from recording companies and heads of sound recording archives, will ensure that a commitment to assist the Library of Congress in implementing recommendations in this plan will continue throughout the years it will take to achieve the goals of the national sound recording preservation program. A coordinated national collections policy will help ensure that a greater number of significant published recordings are acquired and preserved by the Library of Congress and partner institutions through the Copyright Office, including works published only in online versions. The collections policy will encourage statewide and regionally based programs to collect and preserve locally produced recorded sound, and will develop strategies and tools to collect and preserve radio broadcasts. Licensing agreements for downloading recordings must be amended to allow for educational use. Fundraising initiatives must be developed, encouraged, and coordinated. Progress in achieving the national sound recording preservation program should be assessed on a regular basis.