A New Effort to Save the Sounds of American History
Preserving Audio Treasures From Birth of Jazz to MLK
By Rob Ferrett
A new public-private project is working to find and preserve audio recordings that tell the story of American culture and history.
The National Recording Preservation Foundation was created by an act of Congress; the group works in cooperation with the Library of Congress and private companies to provide grants and assistance to preserve and digitize audio.
Gerald Seligman, the group’s executive director, says preserving sound is a race against the clock in many cases, because a lot of audio is in formats that degrade over time, from wax cylinders to acetate-based tapes.
While music, including early recordings of jazz and blues artists, will be a priority, Seligman says news and public speaking are also important parts of the project. “We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Washington,” he said. “Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, and all the speeches that were made on that famous day were all on recorded media, so we need to preserve these things,” he says. “50 years later we’re moved by this material, and it’s really important for our history and our sense of ourselves. We have to make sure it’s going to be around for another 50 years and another 50 past that.”
He says one of the group’s first priorities will involve audio endangered by Hurricane Katrina, which threatens recordings vital to the history of American music. “For example, Allen Toussaint, one of the great patrons of New Orleans: ... his tape vault was underwater for two weeks. A lot of it was damaged. His son told me some of it beyond repair, but some of it can be repaired.”
He says another next step will be working with people and institutions to survey their audio archives to find material in need of preservation.