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The Library of Congress today announced the largest donation of audio recordings it's ever received. The gift came from Universal Music Group. The material dates from around 1930 to around 1950 and includes some true American classics. It also marks the first time the library has received commercial masters from a major label.

NPR's Tom Cole reports.

TOM COLE: The place where all of these recordings will wind up sits on a hill in Culpepper, Virginia. Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section of the Library of Congress, leads the way into one of the many rooms where recordings land before they get into the library's vaults.

Mr. GENE DEANNA (Head, Recorded Sound Section, Motion Picture, Broadcast and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress): And this is where we first receive collections and do the first initial counts.

COLE: It's a room lined with shelves. An eight by 10 sheet of paper marked simply Universal Collection hangs over a set of shelves.

Mr. DEANNA: So here's a Louis Armstrong "Ain't Misbehavin'" mother. And when I say mother, I mean metal recording. It actually has the negative. It's actually a negative, press it into wax and you get the grooves.

COLE: It has ridges instead of grooves.

The Library is waiting for special styli that can track these metal masters that were used to press the commercial 78 RPM release of Louis Armstrong's recording.

(Soundbite of music, "Ain't Misbehavin'")

COLE: So far, the library has received about 50,000 metal masters, a tractor-trailer load a week, about 20 to 25 pallets of metal discs, since November.

Mr. DEANNA: The majority of the collection are the metal masters, about 200,000. Then there are going to be another 8,000 to 10,000 tape reels and probably twice that, maybe 15,000 lacquer discs.

COLE: It'll take about four months to get all of the material here. Then, DeAnna and his staff of 35 will begin the nuts and bolts work of figuring out what they've got, cleaning it, and digitizing it. The process will take years.

The negotiations and legal agreements took about two years to complete. Universal had been storing the discs and tapes at a commercial facility near Boyers, Pennsylvania.

Mr. DEANNA: They've been investing in a half-a-century of storage for some of this material, and it hasn't been touched since it was first issued.

COLE: Most of it is not worth Universal's time and money to even consider releasing to the general public.

Mr. DEANNA: Ninety percent of what we're taking in here are not commercially viable materials for them. That is, to go through the tremendous effort and time to re-master these materials to sell to a very, very small market, it would be probably a losing cause.

COLE: Universal has already issued what'll sell. In fact, only about 14 percent of the music that was released before 1960 is commercially available today.

(Soundbite of song, "White Christmas")

Mr. BING CROSBY (Singer): (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

COLE: The Library got the masters for Bing Crosby's 1947 recording of "White Christmas," the second time Crosby recorded the song.

Mr. ROBERT BAMBERGER: The reason why Bing had to re-record it in 1947 is that the song sold so well that Decca was no longer able to strike copies from the 1942 master.

COLE: Robert Bamberger is a retired policy analyst for the Library of Congress and the co-author of a study last year on the state of audio preservation in the United States, which is in dire condition.

He says Universal made the right decision to donate its masters to the library.

Mr. BAMBERGER: The best interests of preserving recorded sound heritage is by relinquishing these master recordings and placing them were we can all exhale because we know that industry models come and go, corporations come and go, but we hope the Library of Congress will be forever.

COLE: For his part, the library's Gene DeAnna is most excited about what he doesn't know he's got.

Mr. DEANNA: There's so much possibility here of discovery of recordings that really have just been off the sonic landscape of America for so long, and important recordings, familiar sounds but long gone. It's just going to be a treasure to mine for many years for the archive.

COLE: Universal's agreement with the Library of Congress allows for non-commercial streaming on the library's website, a site which the library hopes to have up this spring in collaboration with another major label, Sony-BMG, in a project called the National Jukebox.

Tom Cole, NPR News.

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