Working Against the Clock to Preserve Time-Based Media

Wire recording from 1940s being digitized. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

Imagine if some of the most important sounds and moving images recorded from the last ninety or so years suddenly disappeared: speeches, music, performances, documentaries, and news and entertainment programs of every kind.

That threat, unfortunately, is a real one.

Since the inventions of visual recording in the 1830s and audio recording in the 1870s, humans have documented vital cultural, political and societal aspects of life, including moments of high scholarly value. However, much of that content is recorded on media and by machines that are actively degrading or now obsolete.

“Not only are the recorded materials and the playback equipment at the end of their lives, but so are the experts in these media,” explains Donald J. Waters, senior program officer for scholarly communications at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “And so if we want to do something about it we have to do it soon. It’s urgent.” 

Our future record of relatively recent history is, as historian Abby Smith Rumsey writes in her 2016 book How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future, at risk of being “riddled with large-scale blanks and silences.” With audio-visual media, Rumsey explains there is “an abiding tension between the commerce of making, creating, and circulating culture and knowledge and then the obligation that this knowledge be kept available for generations.”

With future generations in mind, first Mellon helped quantify the scope the conservation challenge; it funded a 2014 study that revealed that US cultural heritage organizations house more than 537 million sound recordings, of which almost half are in need of preservation—particularly the approximately 80 million recordings on grooved and magnetic media, which are especially fragile. Every day, the preservation need increases because audiovisual materials are the fastest growing segment of our nation’s archives and special collections, according to a 2012 report from the Library of Congress.

Now, Mellon has funded major grants across five very different institutions who are working both independently and in concert to lay the foundation for saving what conservators call “time-based media,” for all time. 

Recordings at Risk

A Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) grant program is supporting the preservation of rare and unique audio and audiovisual content of high scholarly value.

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Racing Against Time

The New York Public Library is taking a comprehensive approach to digitizing 700,000 audio and video recordings across multiple collections.

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Saving Sounds of the South

The Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is working to preserve rare recordings of folk music greats.

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Preserving AV Materials Across the Atlantic

The British Library’s innovations can be adopted by a variety of organizations, increasing AV preservation and allowing greater access.

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What if History Were Lost in Translation?

To protect America’s audio-visual patrimony, NEDCC provides services that take greater care and concern for materials than commercial automated processes.

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