A Sound Connection to Our Past

By Alan Gevinson posted

The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan was officially launched yesterday. The publication marks the last step in a 12-year-long project to plan for a national program for audio preservation that Congress, in the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, mandated the Librarian of Congress to achieve. Members of 6 task forces representing nearly 40 leading organizations in the recorded sound community reached consensus on the recommendations set forth in the Plan. Six landmark recorded sound studies, all published by the Library of Congress and CLIR during the intervening years, have informed the Plan. Not only the final step in this lengthy process, the Plan also represents a first step in actually implementing a coherent national program. Already, a number of representatives from archival and recording industry organizations have indicated their willingness to collaborate with each other and the Library in achieving goals specified in the Plan’s recommendations.

I was fortunate to co-author the Plan with Brenda Nelson-Strauss and Sam Brylawski. Brenda and Sam, along with the members of task forces, supplied the expertise. I was able to add an outsider’s perspective to the writing process, that of a teacher and researcher on the margins of the recorded sound community who serves to benefit from a national preservation program charged to expand access to historical sound recordings. “Promoting Broad Public Access for Educational Purposes” (the title of one of the Plan’s four chapters) is an essential component of the overall preservation effort, and the Plan offers eleven far-sighted recommendations for improving access to sound recordings.

I’m sure that many teachers and researchers reading this can relate great stories that attest to benefits they and their students have derived from using sound recordings in the classroom and in research projects. Here are a couple stories of mine.

Prior to my present position at the Library of Congress, I taught history in a master’s program at a Washington, D.C.-area university, one in which a significant number of students were K-12 teachers. For a discussion of the Great Depression, I played radio talks by Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, in which they candidly spoke to the public during the depths of the crisis. Listening allowed students to think about and discuss specific ways in which these leaders addressed citizens about the most challenging and troubling situation of their time. Words on a page can convey only so much. Inflection, emphasis, pauses, loudness, timbre, all can aid a perceptive listener to gauge differences and similarities. The exercise gave students the opportunity to experience these addresses aurally, the way that many Americans at the time experienced them over their radios. The recordings offered students a bridge to the past that supplemented written texts, a corollary way to gain clues to help them think about how the past was different from and similar to the present, a goal that many history teachers strive to achieve.

For a research project during my graduate studies, I listened to material recorded by the Library of Congress as part of an experimental project undertaken to produce radio programs that documented, as the series title put it, “America in the Summer of 1941.” The series benefited from an idea by the Library’s Recording Laboratory engineer Jerome Wiesner (who later become the head of MIT and President Kennedy’s science advisor) to transfer field recordings from discs to celluloid tape. Once on tape, the material, Wiesner reasoned, could be edited and then transferred back to discs for distribution to radio stations (many of which were educational). With repeated listening to digitized copies of both raw recordings and finished product, in addition to accessing documentation about the project, I was able to make informed speculations on the reasons for specific edits. This kind of access to archival materials – to recordings and corresponding documentation about their production – when expanded beyond the confines of the Library of Congress, could become a spur to research and also demonstrate to students the fact that much of what they experience on television, radio, recordings, and over the internet, can be manipulated for various reasons precisely because all of it is edited. Imparting skepticism about things that might seem “ordinary” or “natural,” but actually have complex histories, is another goal of many teachers.

The most recent generation of popular culture scholars have mined television and radio broadcasts, movies, recordings, and other “texts” for clues they might offer about the times in which they were created, clues that can supplement and even challenge interpretations based on evidence received from other sources. “You can always take the pulse of a time by studying its second-rate arts,” the cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer has written, “its western and crime movies, radio and TV shows, its true love magazines, its comic books. They are all close approximations of the fantasy life of the lowest common denominator . . . . To know the true temper of a nation’s people [Feiffer concluded], turn not to its sociologists; turn to its junk.”

Based on a survey published in 2005 by Heritage Preservation, Inc., the nation’s libraries, archives, and museums hold some 46 million sound recordings, much of which, no doubt, could be considered “junk,” in Feiffer’s terminology. This junk, though, corresponds to some 46 million stories that could become available to students and researchers to investigate for clues that may help them better interpret our pasts. Unless these recordings are preserved and made accessible to teachers, students, and researchers, those stories will never be told.

Alan Gevinson is special assistant, National Audio Visual Conservation Center, Library of Congress. The Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan was copublished by LC and CLIR.