Report: Roughly 6 Million Archived Recordings are Rotting As We Speak…

This is a pretty sobering report that comes from none other than the US Library of Congress.  And it reveals that a large percentage of America’s recorded music history has been destroyed, lost, or is simply deteriorating as we speak. “Radio broadcasts, music, interviews, historic speeches, field recordings, comedy records, author readings and other recordings have already been forever lost to the American people,” Librarian James H. Billington relayed.


The Library’s National Recording Preservation Plan is the result of more than ten years of research, and uncovers some pretty stunning stats about our recorded legacy.  The report estimates that half of all titles issued on cylinder are simply gone, while pointing to the loss of major chunks of radio and recording industry history.

“The whereabouts of a wire recording made by the crew members of the Enola Gay from inside the plane as the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima are unknown. Many key recordings made by George Gershwin no longer survive. Recordings by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and other top recording artists have been lost.”

The hard numbers clearly show a recording legacy under attack.  In one survey that canvassed 46 million historic recordings across libraries, archives, museums, and societies, about 6 million works were deemed to be “in need” or “in urgent need” of restoration.  On top of that, another 20 million are in an “unknown” state, suggesting a possible multiple of the 6 million figure.

When it comes to outright destruction or missing content, the reasons are varied.  ‘Acts of God’ like a fire at a studio or radio station, or the recent Hurricane Sandy only compound problems like limited budgets and theft.  But one of the largest culprits is US Copyright Law itself, which often handcuffs preservationists fearful of massive infringement penalties, even on stuff that is simply being left to rot.

Of particular focus are works created prior to February 15th, 1972, the date when copyright law was federalized.  Go past that date, and you’re dealing with a complicated patchwork of state laws, and often, ‘orphan works’ with unknown authors and origins.

“To complicate matters, state laws that prohibit unauthorized duplication of sound recordings make no provisions for duplication for preservation purposes by libraries or archives.”

This all but eliminates the chance of a commercial reproduction, which oftentimes builds the incentive to save a recording from oblivion.  But not if it belongs to someone else, even if the owner isn’t using it and will never use it.  “Many pre-1972 sound recordings will deteriorate long before 2067, the year in which they will enter the public domain under current federal law,” the report continues. “Sound recordings historically have been fixed on media that are much more fragile than many other types of copyrighted works.”

In terms of actions and recommendations, the National Recording Preservation Board has been earmarking important works to preserve.  For example, the recording of “I Have a Dream,” Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” and the last words of the Yahi language, spoken by the last remaining surviver of the Native American Yana tribe.


Beyond that, there are plenty of suggestions for posterity, including concerted efforts to aggregate recordings, create climate-controlled storage facilities, and release archived recordings for academic purposes.  But one of the most important recommendations is to federalize all pre-1972 recordings, a seductively simple solution to a very complicated issue.

hand-left  Library of Congress, National Recording Preservation Plan

21 Responses

    • Elliot Mazer
      Elliot Mazer

      I have visited their facitlies in DC and VA. They have what they need to archive and protect those recordings. Often I hear the Congress does not fund the LOC sufficiently. The LOC has problems with new sound recordings too. To help that initiative, they have a decent web site where people can register their sound recordings and deliver them digitally.

      • Nashville Guest
        Nashville Guest

        Dean, I too have been to their facilities and I think it is about the capacity at those facilities or rather the lack of capacity and funding for human resources to do the work. There are literally rooms full of recordings waiting to be archived and only so much capacity.
        The plan is complex but I beleive it outlines key opportunities to improve the current landscape in things like licensing, born-digital recordings, etc.
        Paul, thanks for covering this; I think it is very important!

  1. david@indigoboom
    [email protected]

    I recall a trip to Cuba in the 1990´s. We were on a “cultural exchange programme” between Norway and Cuba. our guide showed us a huge archive of vintage cuban recordings (Indiana jones style huge) and told us sadly that “this will never be heard by anyone but the guys who work here. We where dying to help them, but there was nothing we could do. Culture crumbling away under the cold hand of detente.

    • Steve

      This sounds cool. I plan on going to Cuba this year. I would love to see this if it is still available. Do you remember where it was? what city or what part of the city?

    • dangude

      That sounds interesting.
      Who organized the cultural exchange programme? Maybe they could have some influence in getting the items preserved.

  2. Joseph Nicoletti consulting
    Joseph Nicoletti consulting

    sad to hear of this !,…
    hard to think this is all TRUE !, but it is, sad to see Lost History…hope the Care takers of this Vauilt find it important enough to Do something about this,…the World is now watching !,…..

  3. Sleego

    Gotta love the government’s attention to detail. Collects heirloom reocrdings from generations and destroys them with neglect.

    • bfunk

      You should not assume that the above image was taken inside the Library of Congress – it merely reflects how many records are stored in private homes and offices, often in basements subject to flooding.

    • Nice Guy Eddie
      Nice Guy Eddie

      I am not being facetious or sarcastic when I say this but libraries that are using copyright law as an excuse to drag their feet on preserving these recordings need to grow a pair, take some initiative and start making copies.
      Make a deal with the devil…..err I mean google…….promise them access to all recordings copied if they will defend infringement suits.
      If that doesn’t work there are probably a dozen or more law firms in each state that would take the cases pro bono. Helping libraries (and the kids of course) would improve their miserable image.

      • Visitor

        The whole concept of orphan work is that there is nobody to sue you, if it is truly an orphan work. But it’s kind of like a landmine, you don’t know when you might step on. And with the very high damages for violating copyright law, no library wants to risk getting shut down over this.

      • Jeremy

        Seriously. The report does not call on the government to “federalize” the sound recordings, as suggested in the post. It recommends that the government “apply federal copyright protection to sound recordings produced prior to February 15, 1972,” in order to facilitate “license agreements for streaming; a shared digital preservation access network for sound recordings that offers a secure location for the storage of derivative files digitized by partner libraries and archives, and a managed licensing system for sharing of access copies” and other tactics within the copyright framework.
        Rather than saying what the author here suggests, the report actually *recommends* broad, consistent copyright protection in order to acheive the Library’s preservation goals.

        • Nice Guy Eddie
          Nice Guy Eddie

          Yes, applying federal copyright law to sound recordings created prior to 1972 would solve the orphan work problem and give libraries the fair use protection they need to preserve these recordings. It seems a win-win scenario for everyone involved – except federal judges whose dockets may be flooded with copyright cases that were previously filed in state court.

  4. Scott Mathews
    Scott Mathews

    I work with The Library of Congress in DC and VA as an expert consultant at the request of the great Dr. James Billington, a man who deserves nothing but praise for his super human leadership. He is a national treasure – by far Ronald Reagan’s greatest appointment (yes, Jim has been there that long!).
    He is the smartest man in any room, an octogenarian with the drive and energy of an 18 year old and an unquenchable thirst for more knowledge and the best way to spread it across the world in the digital age.
    Preservation is a huge concern to us all and it is important to note that often times some of the rarest pieces of our recorded history are sent to the LOC by individuals that ‘found it in the attic’ and have no idea what it is. The fine folks at the Packard Campus have machines that digitize almost anything, even 78 RPM recordings that are delivered in tiny broken pieces!
    Yes, it is sad but very true Congress has clamped down on funding to the Library. Many forward thinking projects I was fortunate to be at the helm of in the Performing Arts area have been shelved and it’s nothing short of heart breaking. But that’s government work…brutal to an independent such as I.
    I must admit, the photo that accompanied this article made me chuckle. If it were only Liberace records being lost there would be very few complaints! Lee was a highly underrated live performer though – OK, that’s another article.


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