Audio Recordings of U.S. History Fading Fast
British soldiers parade in Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, Thursday, June 14, 2012, as Falkland Islanders commemorate Liberation Day paying homage to British soldiers who died in the 1982 war against Argentina. It snowed heavily as locals gathered to mark 30 years since the day British troops forced Argentina to give up its occupation. (AP Photo/Derek Pettersson) / Derek Pettersson
Even recent history - such as recordings from 9/11 or the 2008 election - is at risk because digital sound files can be corrupted, and widely used CD-R discs only last three to five years before files start to fade, said study co-author Sam Brylawski.
"I think we're assuming that if it's on the Web it's going to be there forever," he said. "That's one of the biggest challenges."
The first comprehensive study of the preservation of sound recordings in the U.S. being released by the Library of Congress also found many historical recordings already have been lost or can't be accessed by the public. That includes most of radio's first decade from 1925 to 1935.
Shows by singers Duke Ellington and Bing Crosby, as well as the earliest sports broadcasts, are already gone. There was little financial incentive for such broadcasters as CBS to save early sound files, Brylawski said.
Digital files are a blessing and a curse. Sounds can be easily recorded and transferred and the files require less and less space. But the problem, Brylawski said, is they must be constantly maintained and backed up by audio experts as technology changes. That requires active preservation, rather than simply placing files on a shelf, he said.
The study co-authored by Rob Bamberger was mandated by Congress in a 2000 preservation law.
Those old analog formats that remain are more physically stable and can survive about 150 years longer than contemporary digital recordings, the study warns. Still, the rapid change in technology to play back the recordings can make them obsolete.
Recordings saved by historical societies and family oral histories also are at risk, Brylawski said.
"Those audio cassettes are just time bombs," Brylawski said. "They're just not going to be playable."
There are few if any programs to train professional audio archivists, the study found. No universities currently offer degrees in audio preservation, though several offer related courses.
A hodgepodge of 20th century state anti-piracy laws also has kept most sound files out of the public domain before U.S. copyright law was extended to sound recordings in 1972. The study found only 14 percent of commercially released recordings are available from rights holders. That limits how much preservation can be accomplished, Brylawski said.
The study calls for changes in the law to help preservation. As it stands now, Brylawski said, copyright restrictions would make most audio preservation initiatives illegal, the authors wrote.
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