|Gene DeAnna (photo by: Abby Brack)
Industry Profile: Gene DeAnna
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Gene DeAnna, Program Manager, The Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
Gene DeAnna’s playground is nearly 90 miles of America’s recorded sound past.
Within the Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, DeAnna heads the Recorded Sound Section.
DeAnna oversees all acquisition, processing, preservation, reference, and exhibition activities related to the Library’s recorded sound collections. He also oversees all archival or curatorial activities for the Library’s recorded sound collection, including acquisition, processing, preservation, reference/access, and outreach.
In addition to copies of every published recording registered for protection in recent decades with the U.S. Copyright Office, the Library of Congress holds nearly 3.5 million recordings in almost every sound recording format available.
The collection includes over 500,000 albums; 450,000 78-rpm discs; over 500,000 unpublished discs; 200,000 CDs; 175,000 tape reels; 150,000 45-rpm discs; and 75,000 cassettes.
Established in 1800, the Library of Congress is tasked with helping Congress in its constitutional duty to further the progress of knowledge and creativity.
In the 1920s, the sound recording archive started when phonorecord companies began to give the Library samples of their records. As well, the Library's Archive of American Folksong then began assembling a collection of field recordings of American music and folklore.
A grant from the Carnegie Corporation in 1940 launched the Library's Recording Laboratory for public and educational purposes.
DeAnna holds a B.A. in English Literature and a Masters in Library and Information Science from the University of Maryland. He began his career with the Library in 1981 as a playback technician in the Recorded Sound Section.
After receiving his Masters, he became an acquisitions librarian at the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and later headed its Technical Services Unit.
DeAnna returned to the Library and the MBRS Division to work on the American Memory Project in 1990. Then he worked in the division's Recorded Sound Section as a reference librarian, and later as head of the Recorded Sound Processing Unit before being named Recorded Sound Program Manager in 2005.
The Library of Congress’ main storage facility for recordings and film is the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation. It is a 45-acre vault and state-of-the-art preservation and restoration facility near Culpeper, Virginia, about an hour south of Washington, D.C.
The facility is kept at 50 F degrees and 35% relative humidity (35 F degrees in the film vault) to prevent materials from degrading.
The site once belonged to the Virginia Federal Reserve. Dedicated on December 10th, 1969, the 400-foot-long, 140,000-square-foot radiation-hardened facility was constructed of steel-reinforced concrete one foot thick. Between 1969 and 1988, the bunker stored several billion dollars worth of U.S. currency.
In 1988, all money was removed to other facilities, and the site was purchased by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation via a $5.5 million dollar grant, done on behalf of the Library of Congress. With a further $150 million from the Packard Humanities Institute, and $82.1 million from Congress, the facility was transformed into the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center that opened in 2007.
Today, the bunkers are a repository containing nearly 90 miles of shelves (not including 124 nitrate film vaults) stacked with reels of film; kinescopes; videotape and screenplays; magnetic audiotape; wax cylinders; shellac, metal and vinyl discs; wire recordings; paper piano rolls; photographs; manuscripts; and other materials.
The collection is available to anyone, free. However due to American copyright law, access is restricted to the Library's reading rooms.
Meanwhile, the collection steadily grows.
Last year, Universal Music Group donated a mile of audio—about 5,000 linear feet—that included 200,000 metal, glass and lacquer master discs dating from 1926 to 1948. The material, from around 1930 to around 1950, marks the first time the Library has received commercial masters from a major label.
Also last year, the Library and Sony Music Entertainment launched a free National Jukebox website of over 10,000 rare historic sound recordings available to the public. Visitors can listen to available recordings on a streaming-only basis, as well as view thousands of label images, record-catalog illustrations, and artist and performer bios.
How many people work in the Library’s Recorded Sound Section?
We have a staff of about 40.
Since 2007, the Library’s primary storage facility has been the Packard Campus located inside Mount Pony in Culpeper, Virginia?
We are completely contained in the vaults in Culpeper. We have a public reading room in D.C., of course. Digitization takes place here (in Culpeper) and we deliver the content through our servers to Capitol Hill.
Where do you spend most of your time?
I go back and forth. My wife calls me the Fuller Brush Man. I’m on the road all of the time.
How large is the Culpeper site?
It is an underground facility that was made from the existing Virginia Federal Reserve structure. It was an underground bunker to house coin and currency and it got closed during the (military) base closings when they were shrinking sites. It was put up for sale. It just happened to coincide with David and Lucile Packard’s support of film preservation at The Library. The conversation began of where we could store this film more securely and in a better environment. As the development in digital preservation, as things were clearly heading in that direction, it became obvious that what was really needed was a new kind of preservation facility that did digital preservation on a scale that we had never done before.
Where had collections been previously stored?
Recorded sound collections were generally in Washington and in suburban Maryland, but the film collections were scattered over five states. The nitrate lab to do film preservation—that is transferring nitrate film to safety film—was located in Ohio at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
The Culpeper facility is kept at 50 degrees and 35% relative humidity, and 35 degrees in the film vault.
Correct. The HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system here is remarkable to see. It’s like you are inside the engine room of an ocean liner. It’s quite impressive. To sustain that environment is quite a challenge.
The Library’s recorded sound collection provides a snapshot of American life.
It really does. And a snapshot from published, mass-produced (music) all the way to the copyright submission made by an individual who had something to say in his song about a topic. We have CD-Rs of people singing about how much they hate (U.S. Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton. There are these very interesting vox populi elements of the collection and there is, of course, the incredible cultural output of the country. Our mission is to support the interest of the U.S. Congress and the interest of the U.S. Congress extends far beyond our borders. So it’s an international collection too. It’s much more international than a national library collection would be.
The Library's Recording Laboratory started in the 1940s.
Staffed by a lot of servicemen. The American Folklife Center, I believe, was the first library entity to start collecting sound. That is where (legendary folklorist) Alan Lomax was.
There are restrictions on how people can access recordings. They have to come to Washington. They can’t go out to the actual vault at Culpeper.
They can’t. It’s true. We are restricted to being able to provide access on the library campus. I would say that one of the big initiatives that we are going to be pushing is to have a library site in all 50 states that we can deliver content to. That’s a new thing. Deliver streaming access.
And working with regional libraries and other institutions?
Exactly. Partner with existing libraries to have a (web) site that the public can go to in all 50 states. The taxpayers have paid for this. This is work done on their dime. If you can’t have at least that level of access, you are kind of out of the conversation. Travel is a challenge (to view the archives). You aren’t always going to travel to the reading room to listen to three things in the NBC collection. You will just make do without it. So you ignore it, and the collections aren’t in the conversation like they should be.
What do you consider the Mona Lisa recording in the collection?
In the entire Library collection? Boy, that’s a tough one. When you are looking at a metal master (“mother”) in our Universal collection, holding a (Louis) Armstrong session in metal, and you think about it being a mint copy, I can’t think of anything more Mona Lisa than that. Something like that gives you perspective, and gives you a reason to come to work every day.
[A metal master or “mother” (meaning mother recording) is actually a negative. Press it into wax, and you get grooves. A metal master has ridges instead of grooves. The Library uses a special "saddle styli" that can track these metal masters by riding on top of either side of the ridges the way a single stylus rides inside the grooves of a 78 rpm disc or a vinyl album.]
What is your favorite recording that you have discovered?
There are some spectacular Tin Pan Alley things here. Jerome Kern certainly wrote some wonderful music. I also love “After You’ve Gone” (composed by Turner Layton, with lyrics by Henry Creamer). You hear Marion Harris singing this originally (on the Victor label in 1918), and you know why they (buyers) picked it up. It’s a great song. It became a standard. Everybody has recorded it.
Do you often sit down and soak up an era by listening to recordings?
I do. I’m always learning something new about this collection. What I try to do is because it is so huge is that I try to go back into the old acquisition files, and read the correspondence between donors, and the old heads of the archives—the chiefs of the music divisions—about the collections.
You get a better sense of what is really there.
You really do. You find out what the first collectors were trying to do; and what the first curators were trying to do with the collections. Their goals were so different, and more circumscribed than what we are trying to do now. But they acquired some fabulous things. What they had to struggle against was a real bias against media and print. It was really considered an ephemeral collection. Of course, it was part of the Music Division; and the Music Division was a printed music collection. The records were kind of there if someone wanted to come in and hear a piece that they were working on. That was fine. Just take the original off the shelf, and put it on a turntable and play it. That’s a long way from where we are now.
In 2000, the House of Representatives passed the National Recording Preservation Act; a landmark law in preserving American recordings.
It was. It was a line in the sand—that this (preservation) is important. This is our cultural heritage. It is a legacy that is at risk and we have to start now. Time is short. It’s a ticking clock.
[The House of Representatives on July 25, 2000 passed the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, landmark legislation that would establish the first nationwide effort to preserve American sound recordings and would create a National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress here.]
Copyright remains a sticky issue with preservation while there might also be limitations put on collections by donors.
Without question copyright is an impediment to preservation. Copyright law for sound recordings is an impediment. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (in 1998) restricted the number of copies that we can make in the preservation process. If you look at the language, it actually says that the recordings have to be deteriorating which is a violation of any principle of archiving. You want to reproduce something it before it deteriorates.
The law itself is one of those “don’t ask; don’t tell” type of situations. They (lawmakers) understand what we are doing. I could certainly argue that every analog recording in the collection is deteriorating to some extent. But clearly what they were saying is that it has to be damaged before you can transfer.
The restrictions on access for historical sound put us in a position of having to compete with other formats needing preservation; whether it’s in still images or rare books or maps, whatever it might be that have less restrictive (stipulations); or have a public domain (status). We don’t have a public domain for sound. So when organizations have collections that they’d like to preserve and they go to NEH (National Endowment For The Humanities) for a grant, and they say, “Well, we want to digitize this incredible collection of early radio broadcasts. We can’t distribute it on the internet. If anybody wants to hear it, they have to come to us and listen to it on a site.” That’s not helpful.
[Before using any prerecorded or printed material, librarians must first evaluate whether the use falls under one of the Copyright Act’s specific exemptions or those described in the voluntary guidelines.
For librarians, a major headache is deciphering the exceptions provided for them under the fair use provision. Fair use allows for the use of copyrighted material without permission. However, the fair use concept is very loosely defined by the law.
The Copyright Act, for example, does not specifically address the rights of copying for reserve. General practice among libraries rests on the assumption that the library reserve room functions as an extension of the classroom and, thus, is permitted to provide copies of copyrighted works related to the rights of copying for purposes of teaching.
Purpose, in fact, plays an important role in determining whether a use is fair. The law suggests several possible fair uses, such as criticism, comment, teaching, scholarship, or research. Other factors considered include: the nature of the work, the amount used, and the effect on the market for the work. The guidelines allow librarians to make a single recording of a performance of copyrighted material for educational or archival purposes. Beyond that, a license is required. Penalties for infringement can run from $750 to $30,000.]
While, there is a public domain on songs in the U.S., there isn’t for recordings.
Correct. So if you are a library, and you are thinking about how you want to allocate funds, are you going to allocate to the collection that no one is going to see on the internet or on the web or are you going to give it to this incredible photo archive that can be put right up because they are all in the public domain?
There are many, many problems with copyright and preservation. (Preservation) is not a market decision. Everybody knows that. It’s not about profit. (The law) needs to be fixed. Just getting agreements with record companies now to do things is only a band-aid. We really need to bring pre-’72 (recorded music) copyrights under federal control. That’s obviously what has to be done.
[In a report issued Dec. 28, 2011, the U.S. Copyright Office recommended that sound recordings made before Feb. 15, 1972 be under the federal government.
Under the proposals in the report, all rights and limitations of Title 17 of the U.S. Code covering post-1972 sound recordings would also apply to pre-1972 sound recordings. Title 17 covers public performance rights for digital transmissions, fair use, ephemeral recordings for broadcasters and transmitting organizations and safe harbor for Internet service providers.
Pre-1972 recordings are now subject to numerous state laws, but under federal law they would fall into public domain in 2067.]
Also legalizing orphan recordings should be done.
I agree. Once you get that federal copyright coverage then you can start looking at orphan legislation; you can start looking at “fair use.” Until you are covered by federal law, those kinds of exemptions that are there for archives for the public don’t apply. So again the way that pre-’72 sound, in particular, is controlled by state, common law and anti-piracy laws—instead of a federal copyright law—put us at a real disadvantage. We don’t have those exemptions available to us for broad access (to our collections).
Ironically, despite its considerable access, the internet offers challenges for archivists. There’s no systematic archiving of much of what goes out over the internet in terms of music. So much is being lost.
There really isn’t (systematic archiving). It is ironic that music being produced and being distributed today that is on the internet is digital, and it could turn into to the most poorly represented archives. At least for the first years of this because we are sorely behind in having the tools, and the kind of infrastructure to be systematic with our acquisitions. We are much better at bringing in CDs through the copyright registration and deposit system that is long established here since ’72 for sound recordings, and working with collectors who collect cylinders and 78s; and filling the gaps in our holdings that way. Yeah, it’s a very nebulous world with born digital (not from an analog source). We know we are losing things.
Previously, there was a physical copy in front of you.
That’s right. You can put it on a shelf, and you can come back to it. But a file in a register in a hard drive, that’s something else. We’ve all lost files in our personal lives. If you are not systematic about it; if you don’t have an understanding of backups; and you don’t have all of the safeguards in place if you are bringing in files, you are going to lose things.
The CD-R itself is a poor long-term preservation format as are portable hard drives.
They are. They are inadequate. But with all of the great potential, and I am not arguing that digital preservation, I would never say that it’s not the way to go.
But it’s expensive to do it properly.
It’s incredibly expensive and it’s a continually expensive proposition. It gives you great benefit but there’s a tremendous amount of cost. Small archives and other memory institutions or organizations that are collecting and acquiring sound recordings are confronted with these really bad and horrible choices for storing their digital content.
In the face of reduced purchasing power as well as with the continuing robust pace of print publication—especially music scores—and greater demand for digital materials, an issue for music librarians has become what to collect or what not to collect.
It’s an overwhelming challenge.
Only a small part of the Library’s collection has been digitized.
That‘s true. We have over three million sound recording in the collection, and we’re probably digitizing…last year we digitized 15,000 carriers.
But less than 1% of the Library’s overall sound collection has been digitized.
I would say that we are probably hovering around that. We could do a total count, but it’s certainly a blip on the radar at this point. It really is. It is slow going. With the Universal acquisition last year, we acquired over 200,000 recordings and we digitized 15,000. So you kind of do the math. You have to stabilize your physical copies, and store them well. They will last. We have lacquer discs that are certainly not getting better, and we have magnetic tape and we have equipment obsolescence.
[Lacquer discs were used to record in studios before the adoption of reel-to-reel tape. Final metal pressing masters were created from these lacquers.]
The collection has 75,000 cassettes.
(Laughing) One of the great developments here at Culpeper is that we have multi-stream capture capability. One of the formats that it works for is cassette. We run six (digital) decks at a time. We can capture a lot of content from cassette but there’s not much you can do on the playback of a cassette. It generally plays or it doesn’t. If it’s peaking, we have some error-checking software and we will work with that. But in general, cassette is a cartridge-controlled speed format, and we feel pretty good about doing this. So the engineer is not monitoring 100%. We do recognize that there is a risk. He’s periodically clicking through every channel and he’s using software to check peaks.
What can you do with my 8-track collection?
I’ve told someone that if we want to set up play-back for 8-tracks, we should just pull a van into the parking lot.
Most major labels have preservation programs and haven’t been making analog backups for nearly a decade.
I think that they are all doing digital preservation, and archiving.
To some degree.
To some degree.
With a lot of analog master tapes that labels have, there were problems with the binder formulation. Still a problem?
When we confront those tapes from those manufacturers in those eras, we still have to bake, and transfer it (to digital). The sticky shed syndrome is still a problem. The good news is that we seem to be recovering really good sound. Sonically, the recovered tapes, the files from the recovered tapes are very good. It doesn’t seem to be as destructive as you think it would be. The baking works, and there has been no scientific evidence of significant fidelity loss after one baking.
[In the early '80s, the music industry discovered that many analog tapes of master recordings were unplayable because of a chemical flaw in their binder formulation.
The binder is the layer that holds the recordable oxide material to the plastic polyurethane base. Over time, it takes on moisture from the air, rising to the surface of the tape in a sticky or shedding state.
If these unstable tapes are played, they may be permanently damaged or ruined.
Technicians, however, developed a dehydration "baking" method for restabilizing the tapes for anywhere from several days to a month during which time the recordings could be recorded to digital.]
There had been concerns of the long-term effects of the baking.
The long term effects of the baking—we just assume that it is bad. If you bake you are not going to get as good of a copy. Anything that we would bake for any reason—say we needed a quick copy of something—we would put it through a preservation process while it was still not sticky.
That’s what I mean. If we had to bake a tape for any reason whatsoever we would want to digitize it on that first bake.
Artists owning their masters may not have the knowledge of how to preserve them. This could be a growing problem.
Right. That is going to be a problem. That’s a train that is coming down the track. It really is. We acquire collections of composers and artists pretty regularly. But these are the analog collections that we are getting. We are seeing estate collections. We are not seeing the rock musicians’ collections coming in that way yet. I am projecting that the challenges we are going to face are going to be tremendous. What kind of file formats are they going to be in? Are they going to be multi-track? How are we going to preserve multi-track without the kind of session data that we would need? Preservation engineers are not mastering engineers. It’s a different aesthetic; and it’s a different skill set. So it’s really challenging.
Last year, the Universal Music Group contributed over 200,000 recordings. Did the company figure you can take care of this archive better than they can?
There’s no doubt about that. They didn’t do this to the detriment of the company. Obviously, what they have to do is look out for the company’s interests. This is essentially a mile long collection. The storage costs for that are enormous especially given that the chances are of any of it being released are slim to none. Very, very slight. A small percentage would ever be commercially released.
And that is basically why Universal wanted to unload it. Also, Universal would be faced with mounting deterioration issues with the archive.
And it would deteriorate. It was just being held at Iron Mountain (a vault near Boyers, Pennsylvania). (Deterioration) is a ticking clock, and it’s going to get worse. Not necessarily have a disaster there, but it’s just going to deteriorate and it’s going to become unplayable. Metal masters are already a challenge. Getting the styli to play a fathered disc with reverse grooves, you need a “saddle stylus.” That’s an obsolete piece of technology that we have to have custom-made for us to be able to play these things.
[Universal had been storing the discs and tapes at a commercial facility near Boyers, Penn. They had been investing in a half a century of storage for some of this material and it hadn’t been touched since it was first issued. Only 14% of the music recorded between the advent of recorded sound in the 1890s and 1960 is commercially available to the general public today.]
Was most of what Universal gave to the Library metal masters?
Most of the stuff was metal masters. We had a very large collection of lacquer masters. We are really excited about the lacquers. In our facility, we can do (transfer) lacquers. That’s where we are going to start this work.
The Library now possesses the largest collection of Bing Crosby recordings in the world?
Bing was prolific. We are seeing a lot of Bing. It’s phenomenal. I was talking to our curator Matthew Barton recently, and he was telling me about this box of lacquers, and I said, “What did you see besides Bing?” and he said, “How did you know that?” I said, “Well, there’s a lot of Bing there.”
[Bing Crosby, who died in 1977, recorded exclusively for Decca Records from 1934 until 1955. The Decca catalog—of 1,200 Crosby recordings—later became owned by Universal Music Group.
Crosby has sold close to one billion recordings, cassette tapes, CDs and digital downloads around the world. He may be the biggest selling recording artist of all time. Crosby had sold 200 million records by 1960 and the figure had doubled by 1980. The Guinness Book of World Records reports worldwide sales for his recording of “White Christmas” at over 100 million copies.]
There’s a lot of classical recordings there as well including by Andrés Segovia, and Jascha Heifetz?
That’s exactly right. That’s what’s in there. They had an artist centric classical repertoire as opposed to composers and pieces.
Deutsche Grammophon is part of Universal Music Group but its catalog remains in Germany?
That’s not in this collection. I’m sure that’s in the conversation that we can talk about because they have mono classical, again about the least likely material to be ever re-released. There are some exceptions. Think about the size of the market that classical is, and you take away the appeal of a new digital release with great sound, you take out the stereophile market and it’s really getting to be a very small market.
The other appealing thing about the classical (for us) are works that are in the public domain. The composition. So if Universal says, “Sure you can put the material up; we are fine with that.” I think that we can have that conversation to do that. I would be very comfortable having the conversation and I think that they would be open to talking about it. We might be able to put that material up on the internet. That would be fabulous. An online library of classical music.
The National Jukebox website seems to be the start of what you are talking about with Sony giving the rights for records where the publishing copyright was public domain.
That is exactly what happened there. We have released the site with only Victor but Sony owns Columbia as well and Okeh Records which is very exciting. So we are now working on the Columbia side. We are starting in the ‘20s with the Columbias because I really want to get the (Louis) Armstrong Hot Five. I want to get Mamie Smith, and the Burt Williams up. I am really excited about getting those first and adding them to the Jukebox. We are starting in the ‘20s and working our way back.
The thing about the early discs, they are trickier (to preserve digitally). They are more unpredictable with speed. There’s more wear. The stylus sizes were varied so an engineer has to do a lot more changing between discs than later on (in the music industry) when things got more standardized.
[The agreement with Sony Music Entertainment for the National Jukebox grants the Library of Congress usage rights to Sony’s pre-1925 catalog of recordings produced by Columbia Records, OKeh, and Victor Talking Machine Co. among others.
Works by Fletcher Henderson, Al Jolson, George M. Cohan, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Alberta Hunter, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Stokowski, Arturo Toscanini, and opera stars Enrico Caruso, Nellie Melba and Geraldine Farrar are all covered.
Among the original recordings are the Paul Whiteman Concert Orchestra's 1927 version "Rhapsody in Blue" with George Gershwin on piano (the first electronic recording of “Rhapsody in Blue") and Nora Bayes' 1917 recording of George M. Cohan’s World War I classic, "Over There."]
Would you like the National Jukebox to be a template for a multi-label archive and could be accessed by libraries across the country?
I would. If you compare the data that is behind (the National Jukebox), it’s really the foundation of the site. It is really quality discographical data. It’s from the ledgers of the company. It’s authoritative. There’s a powerful search and retrieval capability that really takes advantage of what digital retrieval and storage can do. It meets the mark; and it sets a standard for what we would like to do. And it is streaming. I recognize that it’s not downloading and I won’t disagree that in an ideal world that you should be able to download copies of these things as well. But it’s what we think that we can do with a level of comfort for rights holders about a large percentage of historical recordings that will never be published otherwise.
“If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it...” if nobody hears this music, does it exit? So what if the collection is there, if nobody is listening, right?
That’s right. I’ve always felt that art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Art is a process of building—what came before, reacting to it, and absorbing it, even subconsciously absorbing it. If that is cut off, and if musicians are not hearing what came before, then there’s a problem with the continuum, and we need to fill that. We need to make sure that this stuff is out there for them to react to. And also for people, non-artists, to listen to and to enjoy.
Much of America’s music heritage has been on radio. But a lot of the broadcasts are untraceable. We may know they were done but who has them?
It’s an interesting field. You have this expert collector community that holds some real treats; that are in private hands. They have their internal collector networks. They trade and acquire things and they buy and sell. But the public doesn’t know about them; and we don’t know about them generally unless they are more public through an association with recorded sound collections and things like that. You are right, they (broadcasts) are hidden away. Some of them are hidden away in the basements of radio stations, and college stations.
The John Miley Sports Broadcast Collection is the type of thing you are talking about?
That’s exactly the type of thing that I am talking about. Miley being an obsessive, excessively-focused sports collector and an amateur I should point out; he would plug his deck into the back of his television with the audio off of a television feed. He did it when nobody else was doing it. He would also edit down (broadcasts) to get highlights of games which is unfortunate. I think that today a professional now would not now worry about saving tape and just get the whole game and not worry about who scored which runs.
[John Miley of Evansville, Indiana was a junior in high school in 1947 when he began taping sporting events as a hobby with a $165 wire recorder that his father bought from Sears & Roebuck. His collection of 6,000 radio and television recordings spans the years 1920 to 1972 and represents the largest and, perhaps, the most significant collection of sports broadcasts in America.]
So many producers engineers and collectors edited tapes. Recording tape was so expensive.
Right. It was a common practice. Our own Recording Lab, which was doing preservation, would squeeze as much as they could onto their compilation preservation tapes. They wouldn’t sacrifice sound quality but they would squeeze as much as they could on the tapes which present challenges to us now when we are trying to catalog all of this stuff. It was all about saving tape which wasn’t cheap.
The NBC Radio Collection is considered the most comprehensive recorded collection of network programs.
NBC gave us their files. The NBC paperwork files and the NBC programming files are included. My library geekiness comes out here but they are the most marvelous databases that I have ever seen. It’s the catalog to end all catalogs. It is so wonderfully organized. They put so much effort in documenting the details of these shows, and organizing (files) and cross-referencing them with these card files. It’s a wonder. We have kept (the archive) intact in the original cabinets and we have them available in the reading room downtown for people to look at.
[From 1935 to 1970, NBC Radio's collection includes 150,000 16-inch lacquer discs from the 1930s-1980s. It covers tens of thousands of World War II-related broadcasts, radio coverage of the Depression, World War II, post-war recovery, and a rich catalog of radio drama and comedy shows.]
Look at the artist cards, and you see every appearance by the artist on NBC. You can look and see the entire history of NBC, and every appearance by performers like Jack Benny. They had cards on what they called “colored” artists. You see just an amazing list of black (Afro-American) artists with handwritten comments.
There the history of the World War II broadcasts; it’s a textbook on the events of the war and exact date and times of things and the first announcement of things. It’s a chronology. It’s really a great thing in itself.
V-discs from the World War II era are difficult to find.
They are hard to find. We have a comprehensive collection of V-discs. It’s a 100% numerical run. And we have Armed Forces Radio and Television (archives) During World War II, it was obviously the Armed Forces Radio Service. A lot of those are 16-inch vinyl transcription disc that were played to troops overseas and distributed that way. That’s a unique collection as well.
[The Library’s Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) collection consists of 300,000 12- and 16-inch discs from 1942-1998. Twelve-inch V-discs recordings of popular artists were recorded by special arrangement between the American government and various private U.S. record companies during the World War II era.]
You started as a playback technician at the Library?
What attracted you to working there in the late ‘70s?
Well, I was in a rock band. My brother had done some work for the library showing movies to Congress. I got an interview. I didn’t know much about the recorded sound collection until the interview. I got walked through the vaults in the Thomas Jefferson Building and my jaw just hit the floor. I just couldn’t believe this collection that was here. There were just a couple of guys in the dark in the cold in this vault in the Jefferson Building. They would spend mornings up in the reading room playing records on a turntable like a DJ—or playing tapes—to listeners in the old reading room. This would include listeners in the American Folklife Center, and also people coming in to listen to published music.
What’s not to like about this job?
Exactly. And one of the great things about the playback area was that I was right smack in the middle of the preservation lab. So I could hear it all. Everybody was in a cubicle and doing their own preservation work on some incredible collection. They weren’t in sound proof rooms. I could just hear them and I would just walk around and sit by the engineer and just hear the most fabulous things being transferred from lacquer to tape.
I learned more about the collection in the few years that I was there doing that than anywhere else. It was really something. Every day there was just a treasure being copied to tape which we thought for preservation then; but, in the end, that was the first task to make these things playable and listenable for researchers and others.
You played guitar in a band while in high school and university.
Oh, a terrible band. A cover band. Mostly we were interested in the girls. We would hook up with soul guys too and try to play James Brown things. We started off, we were the Peace of the Rock; then we were the Devil’s Dance Band.
With a Masters degree in Library and Information Science, you obviously knew what you wanted to do in life.
I did. I really loved the library. It’s a frustrating, big organization, but for someone like me to be immersed in a collection like this, and with the books and everything, that was it for me. I didn’t really feel like I had to move on. I had found my place. I figured that if I was going to be here, then I should get the degree and see where it takes me.
Annually, The Library selects 25 cultural, artistic and historical recordings to ensure that they always be available to the American public. A program to raise awareness of the Library?
That is exactly what the point of the program is. It is to have these fantastic, amazing and, in some cases, little-known examples that are representative of much larger bodies of works that we still need to get to. But we are reminding people that these wonderful works are in trouble and we need to digitize them. People love lists, and they love arguing about who should be on the list, and when and all of that. It makes for a great conversation; and it gets audio preservation into the forefront for awhile. We get good press coverage. It works so well with film; and we just modeled it after the film program.
[Under the terms of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000, The Library of Congress annually selects 25 recordings that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," and at least 10 years old. Among those selected in 2011 were performances by Nat "King" Cole, Les Paul, Blind Willie Johnson, Sons of the Pioneers, Steely Dan, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, De La Soul, and Al Green. Also included were Edison Records staff announcer Edward Meeker's "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" from 1908 on Edison; and Voice of America radio broadcasts by jazz producer Willis Conover.]
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”