The Sound of Silence in the National Library

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26 Responses to “The Sound of Silence in the National Library”

  1. DJBudSonic says:

    We have family just down Route 3 and I have also been there.  We got a peek into the hole when they were doing some initial excavation, and that place is seriously huge, and deep.  I swear it went down 20 stories…  I always wondered what was going to become of it, since it was just around the corner from that ‘listening post’ facility.  I understand that area is filled with underground facilities. There is a decent Thai restaurant in the old hotel downtown.  One time we were lucky enough to be visiting on the anniversary of the Wilderness Battle, and they had all the houses open to the public, including the property where Stonewall Jackson’s arm is buried.  The inside of the house, which switched hands many times during the Civil War, and was used as headquarters and hospital, had graffiti on the walls from those who stayed there during the war.  And let me tell you, they had great penmanship back then.

    • Adam Thaxter says:

      Not quite 20 stories, haha. Our vaults are located on only 3 levels. Our office building is 3 main levels with a 4th level expansion area.

  2. mindysan33 says:

    What an excellent article!  Thanks for posting this. 

    You mention why maintain the original, when we have the digital recording. I’m not sure it’s as much a philosophical as a practical question, at least for me. When you are looking at these things as a source, it’s more than just the recording – you want to look at the physical record itself, as that is an important source as well. While having the music itself matters, how these items looked, feel, what they say on the album itself matters, too.

    Also, as this is funded in part by HP, I wonder if this is going to be the wave of the future – museums and archives in a private-public partnership. I’m also thinking of (is it?) Paul Allen’s museum projects (Experience Music and didn’t he found a sci-fi or a computer museum?). What does this mean for access for academics, journalists, ordinary joes, etc, if museums/archives are partially in private hands? I know that corporate archives are at times hard to get into and then there tends to be expectations that you won’t write anything negative about the company. Coupled with that is the tough time that public archives are under. Here in GA, we have an ongoing issue with the state archives being possibly closed, with accessing only being by appointment. There was an outcry and a petition drive, which the governor responded to, but there is still some uncertainty about the whole thing.

    Also, has anyone read David Suisman’s Selling Sounds. It’s an excellent study of the early recording industry.

    • Not funded by HP directly — by money that came from HP. That’s why David Packard is so humble. He wasn’t stating he had any special grace to have the money to pay for a chunk of the facility. Rather, the work of HP employees made the stock have value that led to the foundation’s having capital to contribute to the public good.

      • mindysan33 says:

        I see the distinction. Thanks for the clarification. However, I do wonder what role private money has in such endeavors in the long run.

        • Michael Biel says:

          There are many other reasons for maintaining the original after digital copying, not the least being the fragility of many digital formats.  I’m surprised at the return to tape-based systems.  The Library itself will admit that most digitization being done is at a “reference” level which is very basic with little or no processing on the majority of items.  IF a user needs a better quality transfer, then it can be done on an individual basis later on IF the original has been maintained.  So many of the recordings in the National Jukebox are at the wrong speed, and the streaming does not allow for speed correction.  And there are so many other problems with the recordings that U of Cal-Santa Barbara outsourced — and if you knew how those transfers were being done you would know why.  Finally, we researchers often need the original disc for the real information.  The catalog info is often useless for anything but title and artist.  Broadcast lacquers are never identified by which studio recorded it, what city — important for network broadcasts for quality — manufacturer of the lacquer blank, disc size, speed, if it is an uncoated aluminum disc or lacquer, if it is glass base,  and other things that strongly affected my research.  The people at LC know that I can often tell more about a recording by looking at it than listening to it.  I gathered a lot of info going thru the collection back in the 70s when it was still in the Madison building. A record is more than the sound on it.  Film researchers often have to look at the film itself on rewinds to see how it was printed, what defects are printed in or on this specific print, are the splices printed in or on this print, what sound recording system was used, and other things never noted in the catalogs.  The originals MUST be maintained.. 

  3. Scott Rose says:

    Culpepper has a lot of other interesting data centers there too.  The DNS Root Zone key is stored in an ICANN space there (along with one in LA) and a lot of other US Federal data centers.  Plus there is a historic distillery not far from the historic downtown. 

    The rumor was it was deemed “far enough” from a nuke blast in DC to survive so the DoD had backups stored there. Probably not true, but makes a good Cold War story.  

    • Adam Thaxter says:

      Actually, the bunker we’re located in could withstand a nuclear attack on DC and the surrounding area. It could also keep dozens of people alive for approx. 2 years without opening the door. Before the renovation, the doors here weighed several hundred pounds and could crush you if you stood in the way while opening. Also, there were arrowslits in the walls outside of the main bunker for gunners as well as a shooting range for survivors to practice.

  4. robcat2075 says:

    What is the 190 year-old audio format (mentioned in passing)?

    1823… all I can imagine might be some sort of mechanical construction with pegs like a music box or holes like a player piano.

  5. Adam Thaxter says:

    Just FYI, Glenn. The discs we digitized for the Jukebox project were primarily shellac 78′s, not wax discs.

    • Interesting! When I’ve talked to Gene about it (and on the site describing it http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/about ) we talked mostly about the fragile wax, and I must have made the assumption that was the majority of what was converted. (I’ve updated the story.)

      • Adam Thaxter says:

        Not a problem and I didn’t really mean to nitpick, haha. I think the confusion there is that the original recording–when the musicians/singers were there in the studio–is made of wax because you needed a material pliable enough to etch the sound into the grooves. Those discs were then used to make the molds and masters to pump out the mass produced shellacs for sale. These are the discs we used in transfers. While we have collections of wax materials (mostly cylinders), they are usually not for playback since it is likely that if we were to play them back in any analog manner, it would effectively destroy the item or render it useless. While IRENE is very promising and gives hope to the idea that we may be able to capture audio from materials not fit for playback, it is still very infantile and may be several years for any real breakthrough. Sadly, there isn’t much monetary interest in investing in this kind of technology.

        Also, I forgot to say this earlier: wonderful story! It’s always a treat to see press on our mission here. Thank you very much for the interest.

        p.s. I am in no way authorized to speak on behalf of the Library, its policies, or mission. I am simply writing as a fellow audiovisual enthusiast/copyright philosopher and loyal BB reader. (Had to cover my hindquarters lest HR or OIG come down on me!)

    • mindysan33 says:

      Sort of related, I found the switch over to vinyl from shellac rather interesting. I was reading old Variety and Billboard issues from the end of the second WW, and this was a big deal. The industry had been collecting shellac records, and melting them down to press new records (since shellac supplies came from SE Asia, which was of course occupied by Japan during the war; also collectors were kind of upset about so many records being melted down, but it probably increased the value of the ones that were left). It was largely due to government internvention that vinyl became preferred in the postwar period, at least that’s how I interpreted the sources I found. The records sent overseas for Victory Records were vinyl (much less fragile). And I read about how the government began to help subsidize vinyl for record labels around this time, too. Prior to that, vinyl was generally only used in records for radio stations – at least according to the sources I read on the matter. They kept saying it had been too expensive. But by early 1950, it was clear that shellac was on the way out and vinyl was to become the mainstay of pressing records. I’ll have to look into the role the petroleum industry played in this…

      • Michael Biel says:

        V-Discs were never called Victory Discs.  Not ever.  In fact, the head of the producing unit, G. Robert Vincent, always joked that he named them after himself!  The V-Discs pressed by Victor were also pressed of a similar plastic called (I think) Formvar.  The ones Columbia pressed were usually laminated shellac. There were some collectors during the war who had made deals with stores taking in the old records to go thru the piles and take out the valuable ones.  So some valuable records were saved because of the shellac drives!

  6. Alex Lion says:

    tl;dr: It’s not about the Beasties anthology.

  7. blissfulight says:

    “Universal Music Group donated 200,000 master recordings (nearly a mile of storage) in 2011 covering released and unreleased material from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, but not the rights to that material. Universal managed to shift the cost of maintaining these archives to the LOC without providing any cash or revenue stream, although it has given permission for parts of the archive to be streamed in the future.”

    Will music companies never cease to be scumbags?  

    • Adam Thaxter says:

      Short answer: “Yes” with an “If,” long answer: “No” — with a “But.”

      • blissfulight says:

        You’re a nice person.  I am not.  

        • Michael Biel says:

          It should be noted that the Universal donation came after they had lost an even greater number of masters in the disastrous Universal Studios warehouse fire a few years ago. Since they know that they can no longer be trusted with this stuff, they are now letting the experts watch over what is left.  We probably lost most of the wide-range vertical lacquer masters of full recording sessions from the 40s, and metal parts that had not been considered important enough to transfer or reissue. 

      • The Aurora Borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?

  8. Deke says:

    A little less than 60 miles north is Mt. Weather, another underground facility of some renown.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Weather_Emergency_Operations_Center

  9. Jake0748 says:

    Wonderful article Glenn, thank you!  Working there would be my dream job.  

  10. geekzapoppin says:

    I spent a year volunteering with the LOC Motion Picture Conservation folks when they were in an old WWII-era facility on Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton. It was dirty, smelly, cold, and wonderful. Best year of my life. Those people are unsung heroes. There was a great documentary made a few years ago about the National Film Registry with lots of footage and interviews with the people there in Culpepper. It’s called THESE AMAZING SHADOWS. Good stuff!

  11. locohoya says:

    As one who works there, I can testify to the article’s veracity. Great place.

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