Brett Moss is gear and technology editor.
Have you ever seen that show “The Hoarders”? The show about people who can’t say “no” to gifts, piles of almost perfectly useful goods sitting along-side of the road (aka trash), etc. The hook is that collected items eventually overwhelm the kind souls who rescued those very items from the trash heap. (I descend from a long line of hoarders and have the hoarding gene in my genetic makeup.)
I flashed on that while reading the latest Library of Congress press release about the fabulous, “largest ever” donation of more than 200,000 “master recording” tapes, metal and lacquer discs made to the library’s audio division by record company Universal Music Group.
Before everyone hits “Comment” I’d like to make it clear that I think it’s a nice gift, and no doubt a couple of the items (well, more than a couple) probably are worth libraryhood.
But I’m going to play the Devil’s Advocate (once again!).
The library’s press release giddily noted that the mass measured “in excess of 5,000 linear feet.” That’s near a mile in length — no doubt measuring the thin sides of everything. Unspool those tapes and lay the discs end to end and it probably reaches to the moon or some crazy-long measurement like that.
The point? That’s a lot of audio to be listened to, catalogued, “digitized” and maintained for permanent relevance. Somebody’s got to do that work. That somebody costs money. Taxpayer money.
In case you’ve been under a rock, there’s a continuing national debate about deficit spending at the federal level (state and county as well) going on. That will include the Library of Congress.
In these tightening times, the library needs to examine increases in its collection closely. Its current audio collection numbers around 3 million pieces, so this represents a clearly measurable increase in the collection.
Going by the press release there are several library-worthy recordings: a Bing Crosby “White Christmas” amongst works by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Les Paul, Louis Armstrong, et al. But the majority of the recordings are from lesser acts. The release also notes however that there are a number of “unreleased” recordings in the pile. The works covered labels such as Decca, Mercury and Brunswick, roughly dating from the 1920s to the late 1940s.
Music history scholars could spend a great deal of time happily fishing through all of this. No doubt there are a few historical gems buried in there somewhere, waiting to be found (the ultimate goal of every true hoarder!).
Universal Music Group, obviously, made a decision to clean out a few vaults of “old stuff.” Probably a bean counter calculated that the costs of maintaining the hoard was greater than any commercial reissue value it could ever generate (though I suspect that it wasn’t well-catalogued and no one fully understood what was in it). It was considerate of Universal to not immediately rent a fleet of dumpsters and start shoveling. Yes, I am aware there probably is a nice tax write-off lurking …
Yet now the library has to make room for the gift, detail personnel to handle it and maintain it. Are they going to keep it all? Even take 15 of Shimmy-Sham and his rendition of “Who’s in the Strawberry Patch With Sally”? From an album that was never released?
My editor tells me that even in the fiscally conservative circles of broadcast technology, mine is a contrarian view — that many people lament the largely unreported loss of archival radio and audio content (as well as equipment) that takes place regularly, and that those folks are happy when organizations, even government ones, make efforts to preserve it. The Librarian of Congress says, “It is certainly within the national interest to acquire this recorded collection, and all its accompanying materials, for custodial care.”
Be that as it may, there will come a point where the library is going to have to start making decisions. Will it try to keep a copy of everything that makes it into general release, similar to its putative mission with books? Or does it seriously think it can preserve every audible sound ever recorded? Open-ended missions tend to fail.
Is the library going to warehouse every vault dump from every recording group as those groups move to efficient and cheaper digital storage? What will happen when the timeline reaches the Baby Boomers and their beloved 1960s? As the clock moves forward, the amount of material available to be preserved increases, probably exponentially. In the year 2049, will the library annex the state of West Virginia to store in abandoned coal mines all of the “antiquated” MP3s ever recorded? Hannah Montana songs downloaded by pre-teen girls alone could fill a couple of shafts.
And what will be the budget of this ever-growing Topsy-like behemoth?
It’s easy for us in the industry to ask the government to save our legacy, our past. We think it’s important and part of our national heritage. Bits and pieces of it might actually be; but all of it? A lot of other industries think their stuff is important too. I say that if we deem our past important, it is incumbent upon us in the industry to save our legacy rather than expecting a third party to do it.