Librarian of Congress James H. Billington demurred yesterday when asked if he is a particular fan of "The Message," a 1982 rap hit by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. But he assured an audience at the library's Madison Building that the song came with all the requisite bona fides to secure a place on the library's new National Recording Registry.
The registry, which began life yesterday with 50 inaugural inductions, is meant to call attention to the problems of preserving this country's recorded legacy. The registry was assembled using input from the public (mostly from the library's Web site) and the advice of the National Recording Preservation Board, an advisory panel that includes representatives from all aspects of American musical life.
The recordings chosen include significant troves of folk music, famous speeches, ethnographic recordings and a few representative classical, jazz and pop selections that are already widely familiar to audiences. The recordings were required to be more than 10 years old and be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Those selected include singers from Enrico Caruso to Aretha Franklin, poetry recitals by T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, a speech by Booker T. Washington, fireside chats by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and radio broadcasts such as Orson Welles's infamous "War of the Worlds," which terrified the gullible in 1938.
The new registry mirrors the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, created in 1989. Like that honor roll, it is meant to highlight the problems of archival preservation.
Billington also announced that former National Endowment for the Arts Chairman William Ivey will become chairman of the board of the National Recording Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit group created by Congress with legislation passed in 2000. Congress will provide the foundation an as-yet-unspecified amount of money for matching grants to help the foundation raise funds for addressing issues of sound preservation throughout the country. Congress will also provide up to $250,000 for seven years to help the library preserve the recordings on the registry and initiate a study to address the technical issues of sound archive preservation at the Library of Congress and across the country.
To demonstrate the problem, Billington held up a plastic bag containing an old wax cylinder, an early recording medium. The cylinder was covered in mold and its contents are irretrievable.
"You can't clean off the mold and play the recording," said Billington, who estimates that 50 percent of the wax cylinders made before 1902 have been lost. He ran through a short litany of other materials already lost: A recording of Mark Twain from the 1890s; recordings thought to capture Duke Ellington playing during his radio broadcasts from the Cotton Club in the late 1920s; and vast quantities of radio broadcasts made from the 1930s to the 1950s.
"We are a throwaway society," he said.
The Library of Congress's efforts to preserve recorded material also includes an effort to make its vast collection, estimated at 2.6 million sound recordings, available to the wider public. Rights to use much of the material, including Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," are still privately held. With the Supreme Court's decision earlier this month to uphold the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended copyright protections to 70 years after the death of the author or artist, giving the public full access to the library's holdings is impossible. But Billington says he hopes that individuals or corporations who hold copyrights will work with the library to find compromise. Without their cooperation, the library's plans to use the Web as a means of greater public access will be limited.
The full list of the National Recording Registry's inaugural selections is available at www.loc.gov/rr/record/nrpb/nrpb-2002reg.html.