Library of Congress Preserves Historical Audio Recordings

March 7, 2007 at 5:15 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: The Library of Congress in Washington wants Americans to hear history, through an effort to preserve important recordings. This week, an eclectic mix of 25 new items was added to the registry. They range in time from 1904, with a monologue by humorist Cal Stewart, to 1986, with Paul Simon performing “Graceland.” In between, there’s “The Lone Ranger,” from 1937, and the Velvet Underground in 1967, John McCormick in 1916, Sarah Vaughan in 1973, and there’s much more.

We first took a look at this effort last year. The librarian of Congress, James Billington, is back with us to tell us more about the latest additions to the National Registry of Recordings.

Welcome back.

JAMES BILLINGTON, Librarian of Congress: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: We always hear this is a throw-away society. Remind us what the effort is here. What are you trying to preserve?

JAMES BILLINGTON: We’re trying to preserve the creativity of the American people, in all its richness and variety, all formats, all of which really, since about the mid-19th century, have been on relatively fragile, perishable material, often hard to find, often impossible to play back or to read, even, because of brittle paper and so forth.

So we’re trying to record this, and we’re trying to save it for future generations, as a big part of the American story. Congress has preserved the creativity of our private sector more than fully than really any other government agency, let alone legislature, has done by putting Copyright Office and the Copyright Deposit in the library and gathering in this immense amount, but it has to be preserved.

And because it’s on perishable materials and materials that are hard to replay in the audio-visual world as time goes on and technologies evolve, this is a test that has to kind of be done nationally, although there are a number of institutions that collaborate with us in this effort.

The selection of the list

JEFFREY BROWN: The list in the registry is generated partly by experts, partly by the public, as well.

JAMES BILLINGTON: Partly by the public. We have an open, online receptivity to popular nominations by people from all over the country, all kinds of recorded sound, not just music, but the spoken word and so forth.

So since recorded sound began in the late-19th century and the radio picked up in the 20th century, there's all kinds of formats, but we have the popular nomination. And then we have an expert board, representing all different forms of recorded sound and all different kinds of expertise.

But in the last analysis, it's my responsibility to pick the list from the recommendations.

Preserving FDR's speech

JEFFREY BROWN: And, again, you've picked a list that has history, it has music. The first one I want to play is an iconic historic recording, FDR, the day after Pearl Harbor. Let's listen to that clip.

FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT, Former President of the United States: Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, everyone probably has heard that or many people have heard that, but does even something like that need to be preserved in a kind of systematic approach that you're taking?

JAMES BILLINGTON: Most emphatically. It was originally on a sort of a plastic kind of record that was used, not the long-playing ones, or even the 78, but a very fragile kind -- it was transposed to tape. And all tape, all forms of tape are highly perishable after 30 years.

It's a roulette game whether it's going to survive or not. So this has to be transposed into a digital form. All of our preservations are in digital form now at the Library of Congress, and generally this is usually the case. But people would think that would be on some sort of permanent recording, but it really is very fragile, as all tape is.

Voices from the civil rights era

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. The next one I want to move to, popular culture. We move to 1965. This is one of my choices, Sam Cooke. Let's listen to that. "A Change is Gonna Come," 1965. Tell us, what's the story here? Why did you want to preserve that?

JAMES BILLINGTON: Well, that's a very moving story, because it was written on a bus. He left Durham, North Carolina. He'd been present at a sit-in. And he composes, actually, on the bus. And it was performed only posthumously, because he was killed shortly thereafter.

But it was a moving sort of anthem of the civil rights movement, written and sung in a very original style, as you just heard. And like so many of these things, it's important to remember and to hear it.

We also put on the Pete Seeger concert in which "We Shall Overcome" was changed from "I Shall Overcome," as it originally was, to "We Shall Overcome," and became a kind of further hymn to the civil rights movement and to the expectation of bringing people together in this important national effort.

So it's historically important, as well as the artistically moving, qualities of many of these pieces that we try to save.

A rise in interest in oral history

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of response do you get? Do you sense that Americans are more involved or interested in this oral tradition, this oral history?

JAMES BILLINGTON: I think so. Oral history, in general, is rising. We've had poets. We've had various kinds of storytellers. Oral storytelling is becoming very popular. Congress commissioned us to do a veterans history project, which is already the largest oral history project in American history.

And people all over, young people, are getting older veterans of wars in the 20th century to tell their stories. And there's a great deal of interest, because the recorded sound humanizes history.

In our Web site, which is American Memory, with a great of deal of this, we're putting more and more of it on, and we're finding more and more interest in it. There's a storytelling. Business is growing, with these caravans around the country.

I think, yes, I think people are interested, not just in the content of a story, but in the way it's told, particularly if it's told by somebody. For instance, we have Cole Porter singing, "You're the Top," singing himself.

So you want to humanize the human record. And recorded sound does the human voice, and the way the humans interact with instruments, and with other kinds of historic moments, so I think, yes, there's a definite interest. And people want to know what it sounded like then.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the National Registry of Recordings. James Billington, the librarian of Congress. Thanks again.