TOPICS > Arts

Keeping America’s Heritage of Sights and Sounds Fresh for Future Generations

May 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
These days it may seem like you can find any movie, TV show or song you want online. But a vast amount of America's cultural treasures is in danger of extinction. Jeffrey Brown reports on conservation efforts at the Library of Congress, which holds the largest audio and visual collection in the world.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: movies, music, and more helping define and preserve our cultural heritage.

The 1894 silent film “Annabelle Butterfly,” created by none other than Thomas Edison himself in his New Jersey studio, now one of the oldest movies ever restored. As with other films from this period of experimentation, when frames were mostly colored by hand, restoration like this is a painstaking process.

It’s all part of the work done here at the Packard Campus of the Library of Congress, the largest audio and visual collection in the world.

PATRICK LOUGHNEY, National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, Library of Congress: Movies and sound recordings were an essential glue that helped create and form American culture, just as important as any other cultural aspect in America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Patrick Loughney heads the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, millions of recordings and films on some 100 miles of shelves.

The 45-acre campus is nestled in the hills of central Virginia, a state-of-the-art modernized facility that once served as a Cold War-era outpost for the Federal Reserve Bank, designed to withstand a nuclear blast. Today, the treasure being protected is cultural, an effort born of a growing concern that audio and visual recordings were disappearing, in some cases misplaced, ignored, or forgotten, in others due to film and tape literally disintegrating.

Gene DeAnna, who heads the vast Recorded Sound Section at the Library of Congress, says cylinders invented by Edison in the 1800s were the very first mass produced sound format.

GENE DEANNA, Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress: If Columbia Records, who manufactured these, wanted to make 10 cylinders, they would have to have 10 recorders, and the singer or the band or the speaker would speak or sing into the horns and make 10, and then they’d reload and do it again. And these would be mostly heard not in private homes, but in nickelodeons.

JEFFREY BROWN: One example here, President McKinley’s 1896 campaign songs recorded on wax cylinders.

Years later, technology had evolved. This 1936 Louis Armstrong recording was made on a nickel-plated copper disc. The goal here is to extract as much of the sound or sonic information as possible from the old format in order to create a new high-quality digital version that can be preserved for the future.

We watched that process, stripping off the audio DNA in a sense, undertaken on a lacquer disc of Arthur Smith’s “Guitar Boogie” from the 1940s, and American composer Roy Harris’ “Duo for Cello and Piano” from the 1970s.

But a tremendous amount of material has been lost, even historic recordings by the likes of George Gershwin, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland. The Library was mandated by Congress to develop a new audio recording preservation strategy, and brought out a plan earlier this year, among its goals: create a publicly accessible national directory of collections; develop a coordinated policy, including a strategy to collect, catalogue, and preserve recordings; construct storage facilities for long-term preservation; and simplify and clarify disparate copyright laws governing historical recordings.

It’s not an easy task, says James Billington, the librarian of Congress, but it’s a necessary one.

JAMES BILLINGTON, U.S. Librarian of Congress: There are all kinds of obscure places where things have been preserved, sometimes in people’s attics. It’s detective work reassembling what the original product was, as close as possible and as permanent a new material of reformatting as can be made.

So, you look at the recorded sound one, it’s so diverse, it’s so interesting. It’s not just music, or it’s a lot of music. It’s also comedy, and it’s the sounds of — that we no longer hear, even the sounds of a foghorn or a distant train whistle. All of this is the soundscape of our world, and our country has been very — a very noisy participant and a very creative one.

JEFFREY BROWN: When it comes to film and TV, the loss is also great. A recent study, for example, estimates that 80 percent of motion pictures made before 1930 have been lost.

At the Conservation Center, technicians work on those that have managed to survive, however damaged, in an effort to bring them back to a form that can be copied, preserved, and shown once more. That can entail cleaning of the old film, repairing of sprockets and splices, and resetting exposure levels.

LUCILLE BALL, Actress: Oh, you great big Latin lover, you.

JEFFREY BROWN: More recent films and video require repairs as well, episodes of “I Love Lucy”; the only appearance by the rock band The Doors on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; and a 1975 documentary on the Memphis blues, a technician rescanning the film version, toggling between the grainy original and the tweaked vibrant version of blues great B.B. King.

The 1940 film “Road to Singapore,” with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour, is taking months to fully mend. Of course, technology has changed again, as video and music are delivered digitally. But even in the Internet age, Patrick Loughney says, the nation must take care to preserve its cultural heritage.

PATRICK LOUGHNEY: There’s a belief among the younger generation that everything has been digitized that ever existed before or will soon be and will be available on the Internet. And that’s factually not accurate.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, a constant flow of new treasures, about 150,000 sound and moving image recordings, continues to be taken in each year at the Packard facility.

And there’s a renewed focus on helping preserve the rich material held by other institutions.

PATRICK LOUGHNEY: There are vast amounts of audiovisual history in the United States that are — have not been preserved, that are being held by institutions or private collectors who should be acknowledged for recognizing the importance of those materials, but they need help.

JEFFREY BROWN: To that end, the Library has created a foundation to raise public and private funds to award grants to smaller archives for their preservation work.

And, online, you can see and hear more about the preservation efforts. That’s all on our Art Beat page.