A Year in the Life of Audiovisual/Media Preservation in Illinois: Audio

Greg MacAyeal, Northwestern University

For those of us gifted with the ability to hear, it’s hard to imagine a world without sound. Meaning is carried in the listening of our loved ones voices, the music we consume, and in all the other sounds we are surrounded with every day.  Recorded audio is the mechanical or digital capture of meaning – the rich experience of humanity. As stated by Rob Bamberger and Sam Brylawski in the introduction to The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age (Library of Congress, 2010): “Recorded sound is more than music and entertainment; it encompasses the sounds of the streets, of nature, and of the vanished folk heritage of indigenous and transplanted cultures, as well as of important national events and precious moments in our own personal lives.” It’s easy to understand the impact of audio. Reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous address on the Lincoln Memorial steps is inspiring indeed, but hearing the speech is altogether unforgettable. Everyone deserves the chance to hear “I Have a Dream”.

LP, CD, audio reel, and cassette

Library collections both large and small are likely to have some captured audio, whether it’s in the form of a CD, a cassette tape or one of the many other formats. It’s not uncommon to find digital audio tape (DAT), open reel tape, LP phonodiscs, and 78 RPM phonodiscs. Special libraries and archives will additionally own wire recordings, microcassettes, and Dictaphone belts and tapes. Of course, in 2016 most captured audio is in a digital format, of which there are many versions and kinds. Sound recordings, in all their variety, can be found throughout circulating and non-circulating collections. An inventory will be incomplete if it only makes consideration for sound formats contained in music collections.

The carriers of recorded sound are as subject to environmental influence as is paper and other kinds of material commonly found in libraries. The expected usability of a CD or DVD is thought to be 25-30 years if kept in ideal conditions, for example. Once this format begins to degrade, no information is retrievable. There is no slow progression toward unplayable – it simply falls off a cliff. Tape suffers greatly from environmental influence as do vinyl and shellac discs. Most libraries are unable to store any of their collection in ideal conditions, and therefore most sound formats have already suffered some degree of degradation.

If the format itself is not degrading, the playback equipment is hard to find and difficult to repair. There are fewer technicians experienced in working with playback equipment needed for older formats. There are few replacement parts available and virtually no current manufacturing. For born digital collections, we have been slow to realize the need for a reformatting plan. Current file formats may not be used in years to come, and the problem then resembles the problem faced by analog formats – there will be a scarcity of needed equipment.

Begin by conducting a self-assessment. The UIUC Preservation Self-Assessment Program is an excellent tool for making condition assessments. The tool may be used specifically for sound recording formats by selecting Audiovisual Media from the Format ID guide pulldown menu.

Simply meeting the need of ensuring the longevity of audio collections is a large challenge, and one complete with a time sensitive deadline. With the estimated 46 million sound recordings at risk[2], action is needed now.

Case Study

As part of the Preservation Committee’s yearlong look at two libraries, Anne Thomason (Donnelley and Lee Library at Lake Forest College Library) and Patrick Brown (Morris Library at the Southern Illinois University - Carbondale) discuss their audio collections. Their actions can inform all of us.

For Anne, the archival audio collection consists of cassettes that were produced as part of campus events. These interviews are an important part of the Lake Forest College history. As good records of campus events, Anne is committed to keeping this collection stable. While the library has the capability to reformat the cassettes, performing this work is subject to the availability of the equipment which resides in another department. Anne states “Ideally, when audio items are accessioned into the archives, we would have a workflow in place that would include the automatic reformatting of cassettes and other types. This might mean having a lab located in the Archives for such reformatting, rather than depending on the technology resource center.” This approach is very forward thinking in that the content is removed from the at-risk format at the time of accession. Managing the digital copy will of course be important in this model, but it negates the impact of tape degradation and the scarcity of playback equipment.

Patrick reports the library at SIU Carbondale has audio in both the general circulating collection as well as the archives. The general collection is mostly CDs supplemented with a small cache of LPs. Archives holds many audio formats which are part of their respective collections. With more staffing devoted to archival recordings, transcriptions could be created and made available online. This would entirely remove the content from the format, allow it to be used in new ways, and be accessible to more patrons. In a manner similar to the Lake Forest College Library, the content is removed from the degrading carrier.

For day to day use and storage of audio collections and equipment, please see the Library of Congress’ guide, “Care, Handling, and Storage of Audio Visual Materials”: http://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/record.html​​

If we can take proactive measures and follow the lead of our colleagues at Lake Forest and SIU Carbondale, we will keep our audio legacy available for the next generation and beyond.


  1. Byers, Fred. Council on Library and Information Resources. "Care and Handling of CDs and DVDs: A Guide for Librarians and Archivists”.
  2. Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress. "The State of Recorded Sound Preservation in the United States: A National Legacy at Risk in the Digital Age".
  3. Library of Congress. "Care, Handling, and Storage of Audio Visual Materials".
  4. University of Illinois Libraries. "Preservation Self-Assessment Program".

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