On Friday, June 26, 1998 the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) held a preconference to the American Library Association Conference entitled  "The Transformation of Recorded Sound Preservation in the Digital Age". It was held at National Archives Building in Washington, DC and I was honored to be one of the faculty.  Returning home and reviewing the day, I was struck by the lack of progress in finding an accepted standards for media preservation, specifically for audio and video.

Consensus remains that for audio preservation, the at risk material  is re-recorded to analog reel to reel tape. This "consensus" position gives little comfort. The new tape isn't all that long lived, the machinery is becoming obsolete and the inevitable subsequent  re-recording implies further signal degradation.

In 1988 "Audio Preservation:  A Planning Study" was published. The study was conducted by the Associated Audio Archives Committee (AAA) of the Association For Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC).  The report was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) (Grant PS-20021-86). A recommendation of the Planning Study was revisited during the ALCTS Preconference. Its age was brought home when I tried to read my electronic copy from 1988. The locatable form was on nine 5 1/4 inch 360K floppies.

Among the conclusions of the study:

There is no proven archival medium for sound carriers. Development of an archival medium for sound carriers is an urgent priority.

The following statement of AAA Committee policy is hereby adopted: Any medium, format, and equipment combination to be used to  generate archival preservation transfer copies of sound recordings must meet or exceed  the  following criteria in order to be recommended by the AAA Committee:

1.  The recording/reproducing quality of the medium, format, and equipment combination must be satisfactory for professional audio purposes.

2.  The medium, format, and equipment shall have been nationally standardized and accepted by the appropriate national Standards-setting organizations.

3.  Recording and reproduction in this medium and format, and with this equipment, shall be possible in an archival setting.

4.  The medium, format, and equipment shall have been tested and found reliable in an archival setting.

The AAA  Committee recommends the use of professional reel-to-reel analog tape recorders using magnetic tape in analog format for making archival preservation transfer copies of sound recordings at this time. This combination best meets the policy criteria adopted by the AAA Committee, even though neither this nor any other known medium results in a permanent archival storage copy. (my underline)

Going through some of my writings of  1989 I found the following:

The present audio media archive [in 1989][analog] has evolved in a time of relative format stability.  That is not to say that there haven't been many changes but for the most part the formats have evolved with downward compatibility. The technology for reproduction of the media has been relatively accessible and having a recording that could not be played back with the simple modification of available equipment is unheard of. This is not likely to be the case for a while.  It appears that the more appropriate model is that of the video archive. Video recording has seen at least 12 changes in format over the last forty years, over the same time the 12 inch LP and 1/4 inch tape for the storage of audio have endured. The CD and RDAT are consumer media.  While their exact life is not known it is known that they are susceptible to many modes of deterioration and it is likely that they will deteriorate at a faster rate than vinyl LP's and analog magnetic tape. Perhaps more importantly the economical means to play back the new media may well not exist for a time span even approaching the suspect life span of the media itself. There is no longer a consumer electronics industry within the United States.  The consumer playback systems are manufactured offshore and their manufacturers have shown little hesitancy in orphaning an existing format when a newer one arrives. It would seem that the new media will require intervention sooner, at a more technologically complex level, than their predecessors.

The preceding material was written ten years ago. Yet, with little editing the above applies today.

There seems to be a fifth criterion that should be on the list from the NEH Planning Study. That is: The medium, format, and equipment shall be in broad general use. I felt a strong desire on the part of the attendees to be told what to use.  I don't think it is going to happen. Ten years of waiting has brought us no closer to a "comes in a box" buyable system.

My own solution today would be the creation of a preservation recording system using components from the computer data storage industry. There are no technological barriers to constructing such a system. While there are a number of questions to be answered there is activity on most of them. A number of  different kinds of systems could be configured and fully functioning today .  These systems would decouple the encoding system from the storage media allowing each to be evaluated on their own merit.  The access copies retrieved from such a system would easily transfer to the contemporary distribution mediums.

While a standard, the fidelity of consumer audio digital recording has not been universally accepted as sufficient for the preservation of  sound recordings. If this lack of universal acceptance is the case it should be clearly stated and the attributes of an acceptable encoding system sought, described and standardized. My own work on the standards committees tells me that more than one level of fidelity will be required. For example: a high fidelity standard for music and a less stringent one for some spoken word recordings. The goal should be to standardize the attributes of the signal encoding and decoding, the storage media, and the end to end performance of the configured system.

Whatever the solution, "wait and see" isn't working. A change from the present quandary will require action and involvement on the part of the users. Not everyone wants or needs to be conversant with the technical nuts and bolts but they should be supportive of and interact with those who are. An interested professional can participate in committees, discussion groups and technology evaluations. It will take some effort and learning. They must retain their skepticism. An interested person with very little technical background can detect flaws in a presentation of very complex technical systems.  The alternative is continued quandary and a dilution of effort and funds as archives proceed in ignorance.

Any solution that  does come from industry will be market driven. Potential profit will provide the reason for its construction. With an emerging technology a strong voice from an articulate group of  potential users (purchasers) could be the necessary impetus to push a system into existence.

Work is proceeding at archives around the world, copying recordings to a format that will be abandoned. Many archives are expanding, need to buy new equipment, and are caught between popular lore telling them to buy digital recording systems and the recommended practice to use analog. Then next generation  preservation system can and must be found. It requires educated, vocal and energetic action on the part of the archival community.

Copyright 1998 by David Wickstrom