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WASHINGTON– New digital recordings of events in U.S. history and early radio shows are at risk of being lost much faster than older ones on tape and many are already gone, according to a study on sound released Wednesday. Even recent history – such as recordings from 9/11 – is at risk because digital sound files can be corrupted, and widely used CD-R discs only last three to five years before files start to fade, said study co-author Sam Brylawski. “I think we’re assuming that if it’s on the Web it’s going to be there forever,” he said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges.”

The first comprehensive study of the preservation of sound recordings in the U.S., released by the Library of Congress, found many historical recordings are already gone….

Root Causes are Inadequate Knowledge of Technology’s Limitations and The Recurring Theme, Copyright Law

Digital files are helpful because sounds can be easily recorded, transferred and compactly stored. However, they are much less physically stable than the older analog formats. Analog recording media can be set on a shelf for decades. Both digital files and analog recordings are subject to the same critical requirement: they must be maintained and backed up as technology changes. “Those audio cassettes are just time bombs,” Brylawski said. “They’re just not going to be playable.”

The study was mandated by Congress in a 2000 preservation law and makes several actionable recommendations. Some will be implemented as a government-sponsored preservation plan developed by the Library of Congress.

I wonder why this study was mandated a full ten years ago, yet completed now? Perhaps funding was not available until recently, although the time that elapsed between identification of a need for the study and release of the findings was so lengthy that recordings during that interval e.g. events of 9/11, were lost in the interim.

The study calls for much more active archiving. Currently, no universities offer degrees in audio preservation.

The study also calls for legal reforms, specifically changes in copyright law, to enable more preservation. “The more copies of historical recordings are out there, the safer they are,” Brylawski said. As it stands now, Brylawski said, copyright restrictions would make most audio preservation initiatives illegal.

It isn’t clear how much visibility the audio preservation problem will have, once the Library of Congress’s plan is released later this year, according to the announced schedule. However, I’m expecting audio preservation will be the next stakeholder to enter the fray of “Pirate versus Copyright”.