After he invented the phonograph in 1877, Thomas Edison began “experimenting upon an instrument that does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion.”[i] The marriage of these new recording technologies initially with popular music and theater led to the rise of powerful and dynamic new industries during the 20th century in music, motion pictures, radio and television broadcasting, and personal audio and video recording. In 2002, David Francis, a film archivist and former chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress (LC), looked back at the previous 100 years, and characterized them as the “audiovisual century.” It was, he said, “the first century to be recorded by sound and moving images.”[ii]
One hundred thirty-six years later, in his 2013 Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities, director Martin Scorsese reminded us that “over 90 percent of all silent films ever made are gone, lost forever. Every time a silent picture shows up…we have to remember that there are hundreds, maybe thousands that are gone forever.”[iii] And the loss of motion pictures is not confined to the early years. From the groundbreaking King Kong (1933) film, 20-25 minutes have been lost forever. Similarly, original scenes from Dr. Strangelove (1964) and The Shining (1980) are gone, lost because of improper storage, destruction, and lack of preservation.
Think for a moment of the pervasiveness of home video cameras throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the early 2000s. While the recordings they captured were not designed for public consumption, they nonetheless served, as personal correspondence did in previous eras, to document in detail life in the nuclear family, amateur and professional performances, public events such as parades, speeches, and festivals, and moments of history at the local, regional, or national level. In them are expressions of American culture every bit as significant as original footage from the Wizard of Oz (1939) or a clip of the Duke Ellington Orchestra playing It Don’t Mean a Thing (1931). As Francis observes, “we will never know the sound of Abraham Lincoln’s voice at Gettysburg or hear Beethoven playing the piano,” but through audiovisual media, we can experience firsthand “not only the news broadcasts and documentary films, but the popular music, grand opera, soap operas, poetry, lyric drama, docudrama, and quiz shows too,” which collectively represent the depth and richness of the human experience in 20th century America.[iv]
We can experience and draw inspiration from this richness, but only if we ensure that these important cultural products survive. From its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, the emerging audiovisual industries recognized the fragility of the recording media. For example, the Indestructible Phonographic Record Company arose in 1906 as an early bulwark against the specter of impermanence. However, the company could not live up to its own name, and succumbed three years later. [v] The eventual obsolescence of all formats—and degradation inherent to all media—has confounded attempts to preserve our audiovisual heritage ever since.
Left to their own devices, the media industries may try to preserve the portion of the nation’s audiovisual heritage that has ongoing commercial value to them. However, it falls to the nation’s cultural heritage organizations—its libraries, archives, and museums—to identify, collect, and preserve those materials that lack commercial value but have enduring cultural significance. Among these, the Library of Congress, the cultural heritage organization of the United States Congress, has provided formidable leadership, urging the creation of the National Film Preservation Foundation, which Congress established and funded in 1996, opening the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in 2008, and establishing a Radio Preservation Task Force in 2014. In the nation’s other cultural heritage organizations, the most rapidly growing segment of their collections is audiovisual materials,[vi] and the need for preservation is urgent as the media deteriorates and playback equipment becomes obsolete. Sound recordings alone account for 537 million objects, 250 million of which need preserving—particularly the estimated 80.3 million recordings on grooved and magnetic media that require specialist digital reformatting.[vii]
Given the urgency and magnitude of the need to preserve the nation’s audiovisual heritage, two federal funding agencies—the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Institute for Library and Museum Services (IMLS)—have provided substantial support to the nation’s libraries and archives. Not only have they provided direct grants but also, in doing so, they have sent a clear and compelling message about the national interest in a concerted preservation effort that joins cultural and educational institutions with federal arts, humanities, and science agencies, commercial companies, and private philanthropy. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as one of those philanthropies has made a substantial commitment in recent years to audiovisual preservation through grants that (1) encourage the creation of tools and services that a wide variety of institutions can utilize and deploy and (2) identify and support the most urgent collection preservation needs within the United States. To the right is a list of examples of Mellon Foundation grants that intersect, support, and amplify the work of the NEH and IMLS.
At this moment of emerging consensus about how to address the potential loss of our recent cultural memory, President Trump has asked Congress to eliminate NEH, IMLS, and thereby effectively abandon, among much else, the audiovisual preservation agenda that Congress’s own Library has helped to set. The dollar savings would be miniscule as a proportion of the total federal budget, but the damage that elimination of these agencies would inflict on the efforts to preserve our cultural heritage could, by comparison, be incalculable. It would guarantee that the audiovisual and other records of our recent past are, in the words of historian Abby Smith Rumsey, “riddled with large scale blanks and silences.”[viii]
Donald J. Waters was senior program officer for Scholarly Communications at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation from 1999-2019.
[v] Martin Scorsese, “Persistence of Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema,” The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities (Washington D.C.: The National Endowment for the Humanities, 2013). Available at https://neh.dspacedirect.org/handle/11215/3776.