Preserving Audio History through the Work of National and International Sound Archive Associations

Many countries have committed a part of their national budget to the preservation of historical artifacts. This has expanded to include audio recordings. This effort generally includes all genres of music and speech, including all formats, and all periods of history. They promote local, national, and international conferences to discuss the problems and solutions they face, many times having to deal with laws and regulations that interfere with the efforts. They also provide education in the form of literature and periodicals, as well as providing grant funding to pursue further methods of preserving audio recordings.

The British Museum has a section devoted to sound collections that features more than 1 million discs and 185,000 tapes. The importance of such collections is illustrated by noticing that there is a section for oral history and another for dialects of the English language. While written and printed records can be valuable, the variances in dialects and spoken language, even within a single culture, often tell us more about the history than the writings of the time.

Australia has had an organized government effort for the preservation of sound recordings going back to 1935 as part of the Commonwealth National Library. The division of the library known as the National Historical Film and Speaking Record Library became an independent organization in 1984. It contains the National Registry of Recorded Sound. This division is a part of the Sounds of Australia program intended to promote and get the public involved with the country’s sound heritage. To make sound recordings an important part of the culture, each year new sounds are publicly nominated for addition to the collection, and the nominated finalists are decided upon by industry experts for inclusion into the collection.

The United States has its collection of sound recordings stored in its aptly named Thomas Edison National Historic Park in honor of his many inventive achievements. The collection contains an estimated 28,000 disc phonograph records, 11,000 cylinder phonograph records, and 9800 disc metal molds. The disc and cylinder collections, totaling 39,000 recordings in all, are stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment.

Yet these efforts illustrate the problems facing those who want to retain the original recordings, both in space and in technology. The Thomas Edison collection is currently undergoing the transfer of the 9800 metal discs to more modern technology (a conversion to storage on a hard disk). This means the original data will be digitized, and the historical authenticity will be subject to alteration without having the original source available. No chain of custody will be available, as it will end with the digitized copy of the archive, likely to be destroyed after the digitization.

These historical and cultural sound recording libraries play a large part in the education, restoration, and preservation of sound records. Organizations continue to make the recordings available online in a digitized format, giving the public direct access to the history and people of the world. Digitization may be the cheapest way both to store sound recordings and make them available to the public at large, but finding ways to preserve the original media needs to be undertaken in order to ensure the history contained in those recordings remains the same as the author intended.