The Collection You Own but May Never Hear...

AR-2000-Library-of-Congress.jpgThe LA Times published an article about the Library of Congress' digital transfer project. Sequestered as near to the middle of nowhere as you can get in Virginia, the US government has "nearly 100 miles of shelves stacked with 6 million items: reels of film, kinescopes; videotape and screenplays, magnetic audiotape; wax cylinders; shellac, metal and vinyl discs; wire recordings; paper piano rolls; photographs; manuscripts; and other materials." Called "the Packard Campus," this $250-million site with its 45-acre vault may be our best hope of preserving our early cultural and media arts history.

Naturally, when you have things of value you have conflict. The problem here is that the best, most important materials are mired in the maze of copyright law. Much of the recent "donation" from Universal Music Group came with strings attached, including no "commercialization rights." Some collections, such as "The Savory Collection" which consists of live radio broadcasts by many jazz greats, is so mired in legal issues that it will take years for curators and lawyers to sort out. Meanwhile the recordings will remain safely sequestered on the library's high-security shelves.

The library began archiving analog onto digital media in 2001 using DAT. That caused problems. According to preservation specialist Mathew Barton, "I love to give the example that the cylinder from 1900 may be easier to play back than the DAT [digital audiotape] from 2001...but, there are a lot of DATs that just won't play now." The article doesn't mention what technology the library uses for current digital transfers, but whatever format used, it will hopefully be more archival.

According to the library's conservation experts, the library's analog originals stand a much better chance of being around in a couple of hundred years than the current sate-of-the-art digital storage. Fortunately while the library moves forward in its digital transcription projects, it still retains the originals for future generations. And it may take a couple of generations for some of the most commercially viable recordings to be enjoyed freely by its "owners," the US public.

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