BOB GARFIELD: In an effort to raise awareness about the need to preserve America's audio legacy in today's throwaway society, the Library of Congress has created a National Recording Registry. The Registry highlights historical, cultural and technical milestones in our sound heritage. This week the Librarian of Congress inducted the first 50 entries into the registry. Many of the selections celebrate American music and its diverse influences -- like number 9 on the list -- a 1912 recording of an early Caribbean import -- Lovey's Trinidad String Band. [CLIP OF LOVEY'S TRINIDAD STRING BAND PLAYS] But according to Librarian of Congress' James Billington, the registry embraces not only music but also historical events, storytelling and breakthroughs in broadcasting. James Billington, welcome to On the Media.
JAMES BILLINGTON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh, I must say that you have gotten to actually do what is a fantasy of mine which is to take my top 50 list and make it be the top 50 list. Did at any point in this process you say to yourself how cool is this?!
JAMES BILLINGTON: [LAUGHS] Well, of course, it really is enjoyable because we all were brought up on recordings, but until you get into something like this, you don't have any idea how many kinds of recorded sound there really are, and of course I, I didn't just indulge my own ideas in this. We had a very excellent board. And it's only the beginning. These are the first 50. It was a great emphasis in this first nomination of entries for the Recording Sound Registry to get the first examples of things that were either technically original or artistically or culturally important. So we have a lot of firsts on this list.
BOB GARFIELD: Well let's listen to one of those. For example as you look at the list, it's quite easy to understand why you might have Igor Stravinsky conducting the New York Philharmonic, and Booker T. Washington addressing the Atlanta Exposition, and George Gershwin and the Paul Whiteman Orchestra performing Rhapsody in Blue. But at least at first glance you'd wonder why we would be listening to Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock. [EXCERPT FROM CRADLE WILL ROCK]
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so Rhapsody in Blue it isn't. Why is that on the list of 50 important recordings. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
JAMES BILLINGTON: Well that's a good example of the first. It's the first original cast recording of a Broadway musical, and that's of course been a very important part of our recorded sound heritage is the recording of musicals which then go out of fashion and you don't find the musical playing any more but you have the music still with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Now the list is composed principally of music but not exclusively of music. What other categories are heavily represented?
JAMES BILLINGTON: Well the great political speeches. The whole corpus of Roosevelt's Fireside Chats. It was impossible to pick one of them, but they were the - the sounds that brought America psychologically out of the Depression. We also have the sounds for instance of the Passamaquoddy Indians -- the -- this is something the Library of Congress did very early in the game at the turn of the century, and we have actually 10,000 wax cylinders which is an important part, because at least 50 percent of the wax cylinders on which music was recorded up until 1902 have perished. And this in a sense, the sounds of the Passamaquoddy Indians break down the link between storytelling and singing. [MEMBER OF PASSAMAQUODDY CHANTING] So that's an important part of the sound heritage of America. [MEMBER OF PASSAMAQUODDY CHANTING]
BOB GARFIELD: It's easy to understand why the Library of Congress would collect old recordings. I imagine that the Library has tens of thousands of them. In the digital age we don't have the mold on the wax cylinders problem. All recordings made now will be preserved in zeroes and one's.
JAMES BILLINGTON: Well let me say a word about digital, because it's an illusion that things that have been digitally recorded are permanently kept. The average life of a web site today is only 44 days. Much that's on the web gets erased if it isn't maintained or isn't kept alive. The technology for decoding the zeroes and one's changes so frequently according to - you know - the famous Moore's Law -- many films can't be replayed; many forms of recording it's very difficult even in specialized archives to find ways of re-playing them now! And-- ultimately whatever the master format in which the digital zeroes and one's are maintained -- magnetic tape or whatever --those, too, are perishable. They're made on perishable material. So the business of preserving our digital heritage is in many ways even more challenging, and the Library of Congress has been given a special commission from Congress to figure out how to preserve materials that are available only in digital form as increasingly our audiovisual heritage is tending to become.
BOB GARFIELD: Mr. Billington, thank you very much!
JAMES BILLINGTON: Thank you!
BOB GARFIELD: James Billington is the Librarian of Congress and the final arbiter of the National Recording Registry. And now number 32 on the registry -- Igor Stravinsky conducting his very own-- Rite of Spring. [EXCERPT FROM STRAVINSKY'S RITE OF SPRING]