Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Fragility of Youth

Today is UNESCO World Day for Audio Visual Heritage 2010 and its theme is: "Save and Savour your Audiovisual Heritage - Now!" Though Hoover's audio collections pose unique problems, our specialists are rising to that challenge.

For some, audio preservation is a black art, and I am not going to help that. From a certain point of view, I’m more concerned with preserving a tape from 2003 of Kid606 than I am a recording from 1971 of Milton Friedman calling the Mont Pelerin Society. Am I being facetious? No. Am I being provocative? Absolutely. Another blog entry has already acknowledged the shock of the familiar in photographs, and in audio recordings there is the fragility of youth.

We’ve got more than 100,000 unique sound recordings in our stacks. How do we decide which recordings to migrate and preserve? As was mentioned in an earlier blog, there are two dominant factors: the stability of the medium and the importance of the recording. With stability, it’s not always intuitive.

The list from relatively stable (there are no stable audio recordings) to at-risk (yesterday): vinyl discs, cassettes, mini- and microcassettes, polyester open-reel tapes, acetate open-reel tapes, MiniDiscs (MDs), digital audio tapes (DATs), and lacquer discs.

I’m willing to bet a lot of readers may be scratching their heads right now. Many would consider vinyl discs more obsolete than microcassettes, and the word digital in DAT most likely set off a few flags as well. Because audiophiles and hip-hop DJs are keeping alive an interest in the turntable, great turntables are still in production and vinyl discs are remarkably stable. (What’s old is new again, right?) Meanwhile, digital audio tape is incredibly unstable. No company is making new DAT machines, and once those 1’s and 0’s rust particles have fallen off that thin strip of plastic, the recording is caput. MDs are also digital/magnetic devices and are similarly at risk.

Thus on any given day, one might find me digitizing Crusade for Freedom lacquer discs from 1950 and migrating DAT tapes and MDs from this century. Yes, it’s odd.

P.S. For the record, the content of a recording absolutely influences our priorities. That Friedman phone call was digitized years ago. We also make special efforts to digitize things such as Radio Free Europe’s coverage of the Romanian revolution and, on the advice of our curators, a lot of audio on cassettes in collections.

Commonwealth Club of California Records, Hoover Institution Archives

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