Speak, Memory

By Charles Henry posted

Today, CLIR and the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) released the ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation, which was commissioned and sponsored by the National Recording Preservation Board at Library of Congress. The observations and  recommendations that flow across its pages are articulate and urgent. A national crisis of impending loss confronts us, and we must collaboratively address this challenge. The guide serves as a rigorously detailed handbook that documents the myriad, often intricate problems in preserving, maintaining, and safekeeping our recorded sound heritage. It describes the many complex formats upon which this cultural legacy resides, explains the historical background of these media, and makes cogent recommendations for moving forward.

For all of its specificity, the guide is framed in more philosophical terms. In his foreword, J. Mark Sweeney of the Library of Congress writes that our recorded sound legacy represents "an audio DNA of our culture: how we experience entertainment; how our national mores have continually evolved; how creativity and passion expressed through the arts have helped push us to new heights and social progress; and, finally, how they have united us as a nation even with a population as diverse as the sounds that emanate from formats large and small.”

While this legacy of recorded sound entails sophisticated technological solutions to keep it viable and accessible, the music, words, and other instances of articulated expression define us both emotionally and intellectually: it is this transformative power that we wish to ultimately safeguard. We can collectively work on restoring early twentieth-century wax cylinders; what we are also restoring is the joy of listening to an early jazz improvisation, or a slap-happy vaudeville song that would otherwise be lost in a deteriorating composite of physical elements.  

While the guide will undoubtedly prove to be a document of lasting influence, its definition of our recorded legacy as a unifying force that transcends time, ethnic background, and individual taste strikes me as profoundly important. Earlier this month I was privileged to participate in an international summit meeting in Cairo, bluntly titled, “Cultural Property Under Threat: The Cultural, Economic and Security Impact of Antiquities Theft in the Middle East.” High-level ministers from ten Middle Eastern and North African countries attended, including Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Libya, Lebanon, Qatar, and Sudan—an unprecedented show of unity in a fractious region.

In addition to the ministers, small not-for-profits such as CLIR were present. The conference was organized and structured by The Antiquities Coalition and the Middle East Institute, an unusual and potentially historic role for NGOs working productively with national ministries. Also in attendance were Interpol, the Manhattan prosecutor for antiquities theft, consultants on the criminal repurposing of art works, and UNESCO. 

I will write a more detailed summary and analysis of this conference next month; the most important result of the meeting was a document called the Cairo Declaration, signed by all ten countries, that each pledged to work together to combat and deter the horrendous destruction, looting, and illicit sale of the region’s cultural heritage by the several armies of the night bent on eradicating this legacy. The Cairo Declaration is testament to the unifying power of culture that transcends borders, sectarian allegiance, political parties, and national sovereignty. The books, statues, mosaics, icons, manuscripts, tiles, and precious ancient objects unearthed daily at archeological digs belong to all of us, and it is our collective responsibility to step outside our bounded selves to preserve this legacy, make it accessible, and sustain it over time. Without this cultural memory we would be consigned to a static present much diminished of spirit—an absence of ideas and passion that would impoverish the future as well.

The conditions that instigated the Cairo conference are horrific and heartbreaking. The conditions described by the ARSC Guide also intimate the possibility of catastrophic loss, but at a pace and scale that we can collaboratively manage and redress. It would be against our nature not to do so.