LITA Keynote Session: "Save America's Treasures"

“Save America’s Treasures: Preservation of Rare Acetate and Vinyl Recording Transcriptions”

Speaker: Dr. John Rumble, Senior Historian
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
(operated by the non-profit Country Music Foundation)

Dr. Rumble spoke about the history of the CMHFM, which opened in 1967. It new location opened in 2001, and the Bob Pinson Recorded Sound Collection now include over 200,000 recorded cylinders and discs.

Bob Pinson donated his personal collection of country music recordings to the CMHFM in 1972, when the library first opened. His collection of 15,000 discs, many of which had never been played, along with donations from record labels, forms the core of the current collection. Pinson followed the collection to Nashville and became the music librarian, a position he held for 26 years.

The collections of the CMHFM include many rare acetate recordings, which were recordings cut directly to disk, not pressed for mass distribution. Acetate discs have a metal base (glass was used in WWII) coated with nitrocellulose that was plasticized with castor oil. They were used for sound tests and home recording and were only intended to be played a few times. They deteriorate more rapidly than vinyl and are sensitive to environmental conditions. The nitrocellulose layer may flake or crack, leading to irreversible loss of content. Dr. Rumble showed several images of damaged discs, including one that was breaking down and producing acidic compounds.

In 2003, the CMHFM received a $213,000 grant from the NEA’s “Save Our Treasures” program to preserve unique acetate recordings, including some which recorded radio broadcasts that were otherwise ephemeral. The project originally planned to process and digitize 4,000 discs, but due to the nature of the metadata collected and the extensive restoration required before the discs could be played, this was eventually limited to about 1,000 discs. Recordings are digitized using a sample rate of 96kHz and a bit rate of 24. They are saved in Broadcast Wave Format and are also transferred to archival-quality analog tape for preservation. (Note: see the CoOL site for links to resources on audio digitization and preservation).

A custom database for capture of metadata was developed by the project consultant, Bridge Media Solutions of Nashville. The consultant also creates metadata headers for the individual digital audio files to link them back to the database. When the project is complete, this database and some recordings will be available on the website and to the 200,000 visitors the museum receives year; some recordings will also be broadcast via NPR, PBS, and commercial broadcast stations, while others will be reissued by the Country Music Foundation, as they did with some demos by Hank Williams.

In the question and answer period, Dr. Rumble and his colleague Alan Stoker made it clear that this was primarily a preservation project and that there were no plans to make even the out-of-copyright recordings freely available on the Internet. They also addressed their selection criteria, given the reduced scope of the project. The recordings in the worst condition were treated first, and unique or rare recordings were also given priority treatment. Identification of recordings is difficult, as many are unlabelled, though most have at least a date on the wrapper. In many cases, the performers are not well known and the only information about them is extemporaneous comments captured on the discs.