Across the nation and over several generations, folklorists, oral historians, ethnomusicologists, and community documenters have been collecting and recording the American cultural legacy on audiotape, videotape, and film and in still photography. Many of these efforts have become the foundation for larger professional, university, and library archives that are repositories for the nation’s folk heritage collections. Both the local documentary sound materials and professional archival audio collections are at risk of deterioration and terminal neglect as America enters a new century.

The American Folklore Society and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress collaborated on a conference, Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis, held on December 1-2, 2000, and gathered experts to formulate recommendations for the preservation and access of America’s folk heritage sound collections. They were supported in their work by the Council on Library and Information Resources, National Endowment for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities. This report represents the collected expertise, experience, and wisdom of the participants and proposes a strategy for addressing this crisis in a collaborative way.

The problems that had first moved the American Folklore Society and the American Folklife Center to convene this meeting appeared to relate overwhelmingly to preservation. These were familiar challenges of media degradation and format obsolescence that have eluded effective remediation for at least a generation. To capture living traditions on documentary media, field workers have been using a variety of media formats, none of which is favorable for long-term preservation and each of which has presented new problems of storage, longevity, and hardware dependencies. From the wax recordings of the first part of the twentieth century to the Ampex audio tape favored in the 1970s and the digital audiotape formats used in the 1980s, these media demand preservation intervention to ensure long-term access. The goal of the conference, it was believed, should be to develop and propagate best practices for preservation to ensure that our national folklore is accessible for future generations.

But preservation, as the experts pointed out, is just one end of the preservation and access continuum. Without a clearer understanding of what kind of access is desired by whom, preservation actions would remain undifferentiated, without priority, and therefore likely without funding. Many collections are poorly documented, making it difficult for researchers to know what materials are available. Librarians and archivists also pointed out that access issues in the field of traditional art and knowledge are complicated by rights issues: the right to use, even the right to record, is not always clearly documented in many of the folk heritage collections most in need of preservation intervention. Too often the various intellectual property rights, moral rights, and privacy concerns of the subject, fieldworker, or repository are difficult to determine or merely ignored for the sake of convenience, yet how can an institution give priority to treating materials without accompanying documentation that would sanction use?

For all these reasons, it became clear that the only way to find effective answers to the problems of preservation would be to look for innovative ways to simultaneously address the contingent issues of access and rights management. Folk Heritage Collections in Crisis enlisted experts from all communities that offered to be part of the solution to these complex matters. Archivists, librarians, scholars, recorded-sound technicians, preservation and media specialists, intellectual property lawyers, and recording company executives joined the effort to look at these familiar problems from a new perspective.

To facilitate informed discussion at the conference, the organizers commissioned papers on three major factors affecting the long-term accessibility of folklore collections: preservation, access, and rights management. The papers, reproduced here with the discussions they provoked, were sent to participants before the conference and formed the basis for discussion at three sessions. (The authors were given the opportunity to revise their papers after the conference.) On the second day of the conference, participants crafted recommended actions that are also reported here. As background information for the conference, a survey was conducted of the holdings of the members of several folklore societies and major repositories. A summary of the survey results is provided in Appendix II.

Among the significant achievements of the meeting, perhaps none was as important as the conversation that began among those whose professional interests are aligned but whose professional lives rarely intersect. Bringing together engineers and preservation experts, librarians and archivists, and community folklorists and faculty led to the cross-fertilization of ideas that will be necessary for all those interested in access to heritage materials to move forward. We needed to find new approaches to these old problems, not just call for more money to go at these problems in the same ways as before. Preservation demands tough choices, flexible working methods that allow for rapid integration of new technologies, and scalable approaches. Because fieldworkers and folklorists are themselves constantly making choices about the recording, rights management, and storage of their documentation, they are as intimately involved in these tough choices as are the so-called professionals in archives and libraries. Everyone who has an interest in the long-term accessibility of heritage materials must embrace responsibility for those materials or the recordings will perish.

The meeting occurred within a month after the president of the United States signed the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, establishing the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. This act supports the preservation of historic recordings and directs the librarian of Congress to name sound recordings of aesthetic, historical, or cultural value to the registry; establish an advisory national recording preservation board; create standards for audio preservation; create and implement a national plan to ensure the long-term preservation of and access to the national audio heritage; and establish a national foundation to fund that work. To ensure that folk heritage collections find their proper place in this nationwide effort, the work begun at this conference must continue in an ever-widening series of collaborations across the country, engaging all those whose own heritage is at risk of perishing.