The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The man behind Library of Congress’s recorded sound collection

Matt Barton is the curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress. (Jennifer Chase for The Washington Post)

Matthew Barton, 61, is the curator of recorded sound at the Library of Congress, where he has worked since 2003. He lives in Fairfax, Va.

Your job sounds amazing to me.

Yeah, well, it is a great job. Parts of it can be a little tedious or redundant at times, but I am working with this amazing collection of recordings of all types. And not just music; there’s speeches, poetry, sound effects, radio broadcasts, all kinds of things. It’s a great array of types of recordings, but also formats. So it takes in the whole history of recorded sound, how it’s been done over the years from cylinders to the digital recordings of the present.

Is there something you consider the most essential recording in the collection?

Oh, gosh. I mean, the collection is 3.8 million recordings. So I guess I can’t zero in on one thing. I have my favorite bands, my favorite artists. But it’s really the totality of it. We do have things that take you far beyond just the sound bites of history that you usually get. Like the raw, unedited interviews that we have from journalists and radio producers and sportscasters. We’ve got some great sports collections of recordings of not just games, but in-depth interviews with players. And that includes the legends, but it also includes people or athletes who are a lot less legendary, but nonetheless very interesting.

Today there are billions of ways that people can create and collect sounds. How do you decide what gets in the collection or not?

Yeah, it just seems to increase exponentially all the time. We are just now getting our arms around the whole podcasting phenomenon. That’s a situation where we’re trying to do two things: Get the early podcasts that do survive somewhere and trying to collect a representative sample of the podcasts being created. I mean, we could probably hire several full-time curators just to work on that if you wanted it to be comprehensive.

If you just had a free morning to listen to whatever you wanted to in the collection, what would you seek out?

It would probably be something in the broadcast collection. Very early in the pandemic, when we were figuring out what to do as we were teleworking, I listened to about 12 hours of coverage that we have from CBS News covering May 6th and May 7th, 1945, the end of the war in Europe. And that I found absolutely fascinating. I learned a great deal of history that was not in the books anymore. There were reports, true, of the German surrender [that] were not confirmed for more than 24 hours. So meanwhile, the war goes on. People started to celebrate because there had been an official announcement on German radio, but it was not confirmed by any of the allies.

There’s probably no chance that there’s 18.5 minutes of Nixon tapes buried in the collections?

[Laughs.] Well, those tapes are with National Archives, so you can ask them.

What percentage of the collection is available to the public online?

Very little. We do have a number of things online. There’s the National Jukebox, first of all, which are pre-1925 recordings, most of them in the public domain, so we can do that. And there are some of the interview collections.

What do you listen to on your commute to work?

All kinds of things. Most days I carpool, and yeah, I am the one who usually brings in stuff to listen to. Yesterday I was listening to something with some local significance, which was a box set called “R&B in D.C.” It’s a multi-disc set tracing the history of rhythm and blues and gospel and other styles recorded in Washington, D.C., from the ’40s to the ’60s. And there’s some well-known people in there, but then there’s people who never had anything except maybe some local renown. But it’s a fantastic collection of of music.

Okay, my big question: Why is the collection important?

Well, one of the nicest and most perceptive things that anybody has ever said to me about our work came from a gentleman who said, “You know, I think this place, the work you do here, I think it’s like the national parks.” And I thought: Ah, well, that’s it. This is the national parks of culture, of history, of memory.

This interview has been edited and condensed. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.

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