Preserving US History in Sound

Since 2002, the Library of Congress has begun to select sound recordings that best reflect the history of America, preserving them digitally. The second "Top 50" of audio gems was just added to the National Recording Registry.

The Library's choices range from everyday sounds of a bygone era - whistle blasts of steam locomotives - to the populist lure of Huey Long's "Every Man a King" speech of 1935, which might surprise some with its similarity to politics today.

The diversity of heritage sounds keeps expanding each year. For the first time, a foreign recording was added: the Beatles' album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Others simply capture street culture of an era, such as conversations with New York cab drivers in the 1950s. One is a 1920s recording of two people sharing laughs over a bad cornet player, a selection which shows how much humor has changed over the decades.

Anyone can nominate a sound (www.loc.gov/nrpb), and the nominations are vetted by a board, with the Librarian making the final choice. Mandated by Congress, the Registry is a rich source of collective memory that helps the nation better understand (and remember) itself.

Saving and honoring the best of everyday sounds as well as recordings of famous events (Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall or JFK's inaugural speech) also protects these recordings against loss or tampering. That's important in a digital era when a wrong key stroke or other electronic malfunction can wipe out data, and with it, American heritage.

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