According to WUWF, we’re in a race against time to preserve audio recordings for the future. The Library of Congress is just one of many thousands of institutions that are making efforts so that their recordings are available for future historians, and even archaeologists. There are millions of national recordings out there, and there’s been a multi-decade effort to preserve them.
Why is it a race against time? Nothing lasts forever, and this is especially true of old recording formats. Preserving audio can be expensive, time-consuming and intricate. Wax cylinders, which were used in the 1890s, can crack just from the heat of your hands touching them. Records made from glass during World War II are so fragile that even with proper handling, they sometimes break.
Gene DeAnna, the head of the Library of Congress’s recorded sound section, says that cassette tapes are both common and perpetually risky “no matter how well it was recorded, by whom, on what equipment… it’s just a terrible format for archiving.”
According to a 2010 Library of Congress Study, some radio recordings are already gone forever, including the works of master artists and copies of important cultural moments. The library can only digitize audio recordings as fast as they can play them — an incredibly 15,000 a year, but that’s still just a small fraction of the queue.
Interestingly, although it’s technically a medium less susceptible to the wear and tear of time, digital isn’t always the best preservation method. Without consistent re-formatting, in a quick 10 years computers might no longer recognize a digital file.
“Things that were written on stone 1,000 years ago we can still read. Things that were written on books 100 ago we can still read. Most things that were written on computer 20 years ago we can’t read,” points out Alexander Rose, director of Long Now Foundation, which seeks to maintain cultural continuity over the next 10,000 years.