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The Library of Congress has unveiled a new plan to help preserve the country's audio archives. As you can imagine, recordings from the earliest days of the music industry are deteriorating. And even some digital recordings are in danger because rapid technological changes have made their formats obsolete.

As NPR's Tom Cole reports, that's where the National Recording Preservation Plan comes in.

GENE DEANNA: This is where video is preserved.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Gene DeAnna, head of the Library of Congress Recorded Sound Section, leads the way into a large room with several equipment racks.

DEANNA: See those blue boxes? Those are tape robots and they're loaded with video cassette decks. And they are able to operate independently of staff once they are set and loaded. And it's something that recorded sound does not have.

COLE: A standardized format. For audio, formats range from something that looks like the cardboard center of a toilet paper roll.

DEANNA: These are actually brown wax cylinders from the 1890s. One stands out particular, a William McKinley campaign song from 1897.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) It was down in old...

TIM COLE, BYLINE: To a fragile 16-inch disc recorded by NBC Radio in 1939, essentially a giant LP.

DEANNA: It's the original lacquer from Marion Anderson's concert recital at the Lincoln Memorial.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COLE: And then there's a more modern format that presents its own preservation challenges, says Sam Brylawski. He's the chair of the National Recording Preservation board, which was established by Congress in the same 2000 law that launched this whole project.

SAM BRYLAWSKI: You hear stories about things recorded on hardware and mixed on hardware, or I should actually say software, things like ProTools editing software ten years ago, but the new version of the software isn't compatible with the digital files that were made 10 and 20 years ago.

COLE: The problem with digital files is that archivists often don't know how they were recorded, and Brylawski says that puts them in just as much danger as those old wax cylinders. So the National Recording Preservation Plan proposes that anyone making digital recordings today encode that information with the sound file. But beyond the technical considerations, there lies a bigger hurdle, access.

Tim Brooks is the president of the Association of Recorded Sound Collections and the author of a book called "Lost Sounds" about the earliest black recording artists.

TIM BROOKS ASSOCIATION OF RECORDED SOUND COLLECTIONS: The reason so many of the sounds from the very earliest days of recording are lost is not because the recordings are lost, but because we have very expansive copyright laws in this country that essentially lock them up and make them unavailable.

COLE: For two reasons, the rights holders to those recordings can't be found or the rights are now owned by the multinational corporations that absorb the record labels and who have no reason to bother with stuff that won't make them money. But that assumption is short-sighted, says Dr. Peter Martland, a professor at Cambridge University and the author of two books on the British recording industry. He spent nearly a decade researching the archives of EMI Records and saw the label capitalize on its vast holdings.

PETER MARTLAND: If this material has a commercial life, no matter how old - and some of the material goes back to 1906 - then they will digitize it, and that means it is much more readily available for future exploitation.

COLE: And this too is one of the National Recording Preservation Plans recommendations - collaborations between the public and private sector can benefit both and make recordings available for everyone to hear. But in the end, Sam Brylawski says the plan is, well...

BRYLAWSKI: Only a plan and Washington's full of plans and studies which have been done over the last 200 years. But I think this one could be effective because it is, in effect, a roadmap of how we might approach audio preservation and assure that as much as possible is here for posterity.

COLE: Tom Cole, NPR News, Washington.

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