James Billington: The librarian of Congress, talks about the latest additions to the national registry of recordings

Historians in the News

JEFFREY BROWN: The Library of Congress in Washington wants Americans to hear history, through an effort to preserve important recordings. This week, an eclectic mix of 25 new items was added to the registry. They range in time from 1904, with a monologue by humorist Cal Stewart, to 1986, with Paul Simon performing "Graceland." In between, there's "The Lone Ranger," from 1937, and the Velvet Underground in 1967, John McCormick in 1916, Sarah Vaughan in 1973, and there's much more.

We first took a look at this effort last year. The librarian of Congress, James Billington, is back with us to tell us more about the latest additions to the National Registry of Recordings.

Welcome back.

JAMES BILLINGTON, Librarian of Congress: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: We always hear this is a throw-away society. Remind us what the effort is here. What are you trying to preserve?

JAMES BILLINGTON: We're trying to preserve the creativity of the American people, in all its richness and variety, all formats, all of which really, since about the mid-19th century, have been on relatively fragile, perishable material, often hard to find, often impossible to play back or to read, even, because of brittle paper and so forth.

So we're trying to record this, and we're trying to save it for future generations, as a big part of the American story. Congress has preserved the creativity of our private sector more than fully than really any other government agency, let alone legislature, has done by putting Copyright Office and the Copyright Deposit in the library and gathering in this immense amount, but it has to be preserved.

And because it's on perishable materials and materials that are hard to replay in the audio-visual world as time goes on and technologies evolve, this is a test that has to kind of be done nationally, although there are a number of institutions that collaborate with us in this effort.

JEFFREY BROWN: The list in the registry is generated partly by experts, partly by the public, as well.

JAMES BILLINGTON: Partly by the public. We have an open, online receptivity to popular nominations by people from all over the country, all kinds of recorded sound, not just music, but the spoken word and so forth.

So since recorded sound began in the late-19th century and the radio picked up in the 20th century, there's all kinds of formats, but we have the popular nomination. And then we have an expert board, representing all different forms of recorded sound and all different kinds of expertise.

But in the last analysis, it's my responsibility to pick the list from the recommendations.

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