The Utopia Of Records: Why Sound Archiving Is Important

Sound is not permanent, and much of the recorded recent history of humanity is currently disintegrating. Robert Barry reports from the British Library Sound Archive and Internet Archive to find out what's being done to preserve these audio records, and explains what you can do to help

We may not know for sure who shot JFK, but most people are pretty clear on who recorded the shooting. It was Abraham Zapruder with his Bell & Howell Zoomatic, standing on a concrete pedestal up on Elm Street. Over 486 frames of 8mm Kodachrome, Zapruder shot maybe the most famous, the most studiously examined 26.6 seconds in all of cinema. It’s been used in countless documentaries, late night specials – even Oliver Stone’s (1991) feature film JFK.

Often you’ll see the footage with what seems like synchronised sound. But a Bell & Howell Zoomatic doesn’t record sound.

That soundtrack you sometimes hear comes from two sources, both of them police radio channels recorded onto Gray Audograph and Dictabelt formats. The Dictabelt recording was released as a free flexidisc by the adult magazine Gallery with its July 1979 issue. But only in 2005 did archivists set about properly digitising and restoring it at the National Archives in Washington. As of 2008, the task was still ongoing.

The Dictabelt was never intended as a format of record. Introduced in 1947 by the American Dictaphone Company, the device was the beneficiary of wartime research into magnetic recording and dry-cell batteries. Looking rather like a home label printer, the Dictabelt was designed for non-specialist use – for office workers to take memos and so forth. It scored sound waves onto a brightly-coloured, three-and-a-half inch-wide plastic film that could be folded, paper-clipped, popped in an envelope, and sent in the post. Optimised for sending and sharing over sound quality, it was pretty much the mp3 of its day. Its output was expected to be ephemeral.

But imagine you had a Dictabelt of a famous author, statesman, or poet. Wouldn’t you be curious to hear John Steinbeck free associating the first draft of East Of Eden?. Nelson Mandela’s 1963 trial at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria was recorded on a Dictabelt. That recording was eventually brought to the British Library Sound Archive because they had one of the last Dictabelt machines in the world. By 2001 those recordings had been smoothed out, cleaned up, digitised and restored before being returned to the South African National Archive. You can hear extracts online including Mandela’s defiant closing remarks in which he declared himself prepared to die for a "free and democratic society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

The British Library Sound Archive, housed on the ground floor of the annex to the Library’s main building on Euston Road, London, is like a museum of dead media. The corridors are clogged up with Soundmirror tape machines from the late 1940s and military-grade wire-recorders from even earlier. Cupboards are crammed with dat players and ADAT machines. "The difference between us, in sound, and the guys in books and manuscripts, is that we have always required technology to access the content," Will Prentice, the Library’s head of technical services in sound and vision, told me. "We’ve always needed a machine." Therein lies the problem. The machines keep dying.

The Archive holds over a million-and-a-half discs and tapes containing some seven million recordings. That’s about a hundred years of continuous listening, day and night. Even with their five engineers and support staff, with studios containing multiple machines running simultaneously, Prentice estimates it would take another 48 years to digitise the whole collection.

Unfortunately they don’t have 48 years. Their best guess is maybe 15.

About five years ago Prentice was in Holland where he heard the head of Vienna’s Phonogrammarchiv, the oldest sound archive in the world, mention casually, "we’ve got about 20 years in which to digitise all this stuff. After that, the equipment will be gone. It will have degraded." Alarm bells started going off in Prentice’s head at that point. When he got home he initiated a year-long study to work out the size of the holdings at the British Library. That led in turn to the current 15-year plan.

"You can still buy a turntable," Prentice explains. "You can still buy styli for them. You can still buy circuit diagrams to repair them. Should you need a manual to tell you how to use them, that’s all present and correct. For quarter-inch tape machines – or even cassette machines – that’s not the case. You cannot buy a professional quarter-inch tape machine. There’s sort of one cassette machine that’s kind of professional available. That’s it. Nobody’s making the heads to replace them, really. There’s one guy, near retirement, in Belgium, making quarter-inch tape heads. Possibly someone in the States. But that’s really it."

"It’s a finite system. The expertise required is dwindling. When people retire, you can never really pass on the completeness of what they know and the younger generation will never get their hands dirty with analogue media in the same way that the old guys did, because there just isn’t the ecosystem around anymore."

Prentice first visited the Sound Archive in his early 20s. He lived in Edinburgh at the time but he’d "always been fascinated by sound and music" so one way or another he had come to hear about this vast repository, the Aladdin’s cave of obscure recordings. It was "the very late 80s or the very early 90s" and he was off to London to visit friends. "It was quite a big deal to come to London," he tells me. "Quite a drag, finding the time to come down." But he wanted to do three things: see his friends, check out Chris Cutler’s legendary Recommended Records shop, and visit the Sound Archive.

He came specifically for some Glenn Branca (which he found – a rather obscure release on John Giorno’s Giorno Poetry Systems label) and some La Monte Young (which they also had, but couldn’t be retrieved from storage in time for Prentice to listen to it). Later, studying for a masters degree in ethnomusicology, he would return for recordings of music from central Asia. Finally, about fifteen years ago, he got a job as an engineer in the technical services department.

Prentice arrived at the Sound Archive in the midst of upheaval. The Library’s current building in central London was only opened in 1998. But more profoundly, the digital era had brought about what Prentice calls a "paradigm shift" in archivist thinking. "For centuries all archives have preserved things by storing them on long-lasting materials like vellum, permanent ink – so far as it existed – and keeping them in secure locations at the right temperature and so forth. Everything was invested in the everlasting carrier," he explains.

Today, the dream of the everlasting carrier seems further away than ever. Records may be lasting ok, but if you leave a CD-r out in the sun for a fortnight, the dye-layer would fade and render it unreadable. It’s been five years since anyone made a dat machine. And as for minidiscs… At a certain point, Prentice concedes, "you have to look the devil in the eye and say, alright, we’ve lost the battle for the everlasting carrier. We just need to concentrate on everlasting content."

Eternity is now guaranteed by saving everything on Wav, a file format so basic, Prentice tells me, that you could print it out and read it off the page. They keep four back-up copies of each file: one on the library’s servers in London, one in Edinburgh, one in Yorkshire, and one in Wales (presumably this is just in case someone decides to bomb London or wave a massive magnet over Scotland). Automatic systems are constantly checking for the tiniest fault in any one of these copies and if one is detected it is immediately back-up from the other three. "It’s like a body with replaceable parts," Prentice says. Or, I suggest, like Trigger’s broom in Only Fools And Horses. The handle’s been replaced 14 times and the head’s been switched 17 times, but it’s still the same trusty old broom.

There’s a similar logic at work behind the Internet Archive. The IA’s Michelle Krasowski calls it "preservation through distribution" and if you run a net label, you should be paying attention. When I was a teenager I had a few songs on a website called, a little later I put some stuff on, and after that myspace. None of those websites exist anymore (and I’ve changed computer several times) so those songs are long gone now (actually, in the particular case of my old tunes, it’s probably for the best). Using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, it’s possible to take a look at old webpages as they looked five, ten, or fifteen years ago. Generally, however, any files stored on those pages wont be accessible (so my songs are still gone).

But the IA does offer a service to net labels looking for a limitless, ad-free place to back-up their discography. "It provides a little extra comfort," Krasowski told me via Skype from the Archive’s San Francisco head office, "that this is a non-profit and we’re here for a more cultural perspective than just a website that’s put up to provide a service that is ultimately reliant on somebody’s private funding or advertising."

As I spent more and more time talking to Michelle Krasowski via Skype, or wandering around the British Library Sound Archive with Will Prentice, looking at mould-encrusted wax cylinders and miniature vacuum cleaners mounted on turntable tonearms, I began to see sound archiving as an enormously utopian task. Krasowski talked about the IA’s intention to "try to archive everything in the world." She knows it’s impossible, but the point is to try. In the meantime, she’s particularly keen to make sure that "communities that are already marginalised in the digital divide do not remain so as we transfer to the digital formats."

The Internet Archive is a non-profit. As Krasowski put it, they see themselves as the "grassroots" of the archiving world. In some ways, the British Library Sound Archive’s aims seem – at first – to be a little more modest, but if anything they’re even more comprehensive. "We’d like to get everything published in the UK," Prentice told me, along with some "potentially significant stuff form outside the UK that has a significant impact on the UK." But where the Internet Archive is largely concentrating just on music, the British Library is concerned with "everything you can hear."

Right now, the Save Our Sounds programme they have running is hoping to speed up the process of digitising all that stuff. But it’s far more than just a fundraising drive. They’re looking to build a national radio archive to preserve as much as possible of whatever gets broadcast in the British Isles. They’re also compiling a directory of significant sound collections from throughout the UK. "It could be large or small, it could be in public hands or private hands, it could be genuinely private where the owner doesn’t even necessarily want anyone to know who they are and what they’ve got, but we want to know what they have if they’re willing to share it with us so we understand the breadth and the diversity and the richness of what we have in the UK."

They’ve already had over a million submissions to this national sound census, from journalists’ collections of interviews to "people who have made it their life’s passion to record church bells or collections of foghorns." The thing is: it just keeps growing. "Even up to when I was a kid," Prentice tells me, "a cassette recorder was a fairly rare thing. Now, for the first time, there are more recording devices in the UK than there are people." With so much being recorded every day, even hoping to keep up with it seems almost perversely quixotic. It’s precisely that, I think, that makes the archivist’s job so laudable. Like all of us who are obsessed with music in one way or another, they’re chasing an impossible dream, building castles out of sound.

Listen to sounds from the British Library collection and submit your own recordings here

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