clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


So you've been collecting records since you were in high school? And you've still got some breakable (actually, probably broken) 78 rpm shellac discs in an old brown album?

And no way to play them.And your box of 45 rpm golden-oldies got stored next to a furnace pipe and Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train" looks like a fluted salad plate with an awfully large hole in the middle?

Does any of this sound familiar?

And the 7-inch and 10-inch LPs don't finish playing because your $1,000 turntable/arm mechanism slips into the "return" cycle before the grooves run out?

To say nothing of the problems you've had with stylus size (you discovered too late that a monaural stylus can wreck a vinyl stereo disc) and reel-to-reel tape deterioration - and cassette jamming, CD laser-tracking, and your inability to find parts to repair the 8-track playback box you bought 20 years ago.

Don't despair; it may alleviate some accumulated frustrations to know your problems are not unique.

And, although you're even now wondering if perhaps you should shift from compact discs (CD) to digital audio tape (DAT), there seems to be some talk that eventually we'll all be storing sound (because that's what you're doing, isn't it?) on the big platters we were calling "videodiscs" only a few years ago.

Hours and hours of sound compactly stored on one thin disc, digitally indexed with instant retrieval. But, of course, you have to set up the track order - as you will have to do if, and when, means come for rerecording on a CD.

But how many years will that thin disc last before strange things start happening to its chemical and electromagnetic composition? And what's that you're hearing about problems with laser-tracking technique?

If you think you've got problems, or even if you're undecided about what equipment to buy, what direction to take when it comes to recorded sound, perhaps you'd like to console Gerald Gibson of Rockville, Md.

Gibson knows of every problem attendant to the storage or preservation of recorded sound, let alone the difficulties of reproducing sounds that are imbedded in the brown wax of, say, the Columbia Gramophone Co.'s 5-inch cylinders from the turn of the century or the rubber compound onto which Emile Berliner pressed the first disc-recordings, nearly 100 years ago.

Gibson began as a private record collector. Unlike most collectors, however, Gibson is also a librarian - and he's got the biggest record library in the land.

In this case, our land is his land.

Gibson is in charge of the Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress in Washington and he is as concerned about the problems of recorded sound preservation, storage and indexing-filing as any other collector.

Except, of course, he has to "go public" with his problems since his million-unit-plus collection, now housed in cavernous new subterranean vaults somewhat to the south of The Library, is a public trust.

Contrary to popular belief, neither the Library of Congress nor any other public holding (library, museum, archve, etc.) has been storing or archiving recorded sound for very long. Although the LOC accumulated recordings (most of them gifts) in the early 1900s, they generally were field-recordings or academic reference items - African tribal chants, American Indian dance rhythms, songs, sometimes speeches by those who felt themselves prominent citizens.

Unlike the case of printed matter, the LOC was not instructed, or ordered, by an act of Congress to file a copy of every recording made for commercial use. Thus, they filed nothing. It wasn't until the 1930s, when President Franklin Roosevelt's administration encouraged relief programs in the arts (photography, music, painting, the theater, films, etc.) that the Library of Congress - suddenly inundated by thousands of field recordings produced by folk music archivists John and Alan Lomax - began to pay attention to all recorded sound, commercially recorded, privately transcribed, whatever.

Since the 1960s, when Americans finally awakened to the fact that there is a lot of social history in those grooves, the Library of Congress (and, thus, many public libraries) has been in the business of soliciting recordings - from private and public sources - for its vaults.

In the process they have amassed quite a collection - commercial recordings back to Edison's earliest issues; folk and ethnic stuff by the ton that still needs investigation and documentation. Full sets of radio broadcasts of old, of electrical transcriptions, of small label outputs.

I've walked through the Library of Congress's vaults - stack after stack of 16-inch transcriptions recorded throughout the South by the Lomaxes, and others; the complete Jelly Roll Morton narrated History of Jazz; dozens of discs by Woodie Guthrie, by black and white prisoners in the South.

And, as expected, full runs of the major companies' stuff - up to a point.

Gibson and the Library of Congress aren't the only possessors of extensive record collections. Besides a number of private collectors (and they are the backbone of the whole movement) there are extensive recorded sound archives at Lincoln Center's Rodgers & Hammerstein Library collection in New York, Donald McCormick in charge; at Stanford's Archive of Recorded Sound, where Barbara Sawka is in charge; at Yale, under Richard Warren's supervision, and at a number of other locations.

There has been, in addition, an astonishing expansion of interest in recorded sound by libraries, schools and various historical societies around the country. Private collectors, record enthusiasts most of their lifetimes, are working with the big public collections - advising on preservation techniques, on specific discographical information, and on eventual use of the millions of recordings still in private hands by the public sector.

At a recent Association of Recorded Sound Collections convention in Toronto, where the Associated Audio Archives committee also met, well over a hundred concerned, recorded-sound devotees discussed mutual problems (many of them the same that any private collector encounters) and set some firm groundwork for audio preservation.

Any recordings made on plastic tape with certain chemical and magnetic characteristics will eventually deteriorate. How long does it take? No one knows, for sure. But certainly in the 10-20 year bracket. Vinyl discs lose their oomph faster than the old-fashioned 78 rpm shellac jobs - but the modern vinyl surface is considerably quieter than the old shellac pressings and the disc doesn't break as readily; but the plastic is much softer than shellac.

What to do about deterioration, about irreplaceable equipment? How about computer techniques applied to the listing of a record collection?

Working together, the public and private collections should - by the century's end - have a nationwide cataloging of all American recordings ever issued. It's a vibrant field of investigation, all this recorded stuff, and marvelously rewarding to any who pursue it.