That’s the question examined in this essay from Robert Berry in The Quietus (H/T Alexis Madrigal’s email newsletter). Consider it another one of the technological challenges in archiving things for long-term preservation. There has been an effort to digitize both film and audio recordings, and while it is proceeding with some speed, there are countdowns taking place. The fragility of the recording medium is one, and the approaching obsolescence of the recorders is another.
Its the second countdown focused on the The Quietus. The British Library Sound Archive is working hard on digitizing recordings on very old media. This media, such as wire recordings, is often no longer in use, and in many cases, was designed more for convenience than for durability. As best as possible, the archivists are using the appropriate playback machines to digitize this content. Their current backlog stands at roughly 48 years of work.
The problem is they anticipate having only 15 years before the playback machines deteriorate to the point where they cannot be fixed or replaced. Between the loss of machines and parts that are no longer made and the retirement or passing on of the people who could make or fix them, at some point it won’t matter if the recordings are still viable. There won’t be a way to listen to them.
This is a problem that likely won’t go away. As some recordings become practically inaccessible, others will take their place. In time those new recordings will become old, either before or after it becomes impossible to access them. For instance, with Apple switching away from having CD/DVD drives on their laptop computers, I think the time could come where old CD or DVD recordings could become similarly inaccessible. Barring, of course, a future generation of hipsters prompting a CD or DVD revival similar to the current desire for vinyl.
And if you’re wondering about cassette tape or VHS/Beta recordings, that day is likely very close at hand, if it’s not here already. Is it the case that museums and archives will need technical staff to cover not only traditional information technology, but the different kinds of information technology that allow access to their holdings? I think so. It may not be enough, as changes in manufacturing process and available materials can be beyond the capabilities of individual craftspeople, but it should help close the kinds of gaps The British Library is facing.