The NCTA’s archive of original audio recordings dates back to the 1930s, with a concentration of recordings from the 1960s to the present. The significance of the collection lies in its coverage of a broad range of traditional arts in music, dance, and narrative forms. It has been called “arguably the nation’s most important private collection . . . that collectively define the essence of America’s cultural legacy to the world,” and “one of the . . . major cornerstones of twentieth century American folk music documentation.”
The archive contains classic recordings of now legendary artists as well as the only extant recordings of many artists. The recordings are of higher quality than are found in most archives because the NCTA has had a long-standing commitment to employing the best available technologies for documentation, and began using professional portable recording equipment in the field decades before other presenters of folk and tribal arts. The NCTA archive demonstrates not only a great diversity of cultures and art forms, but also NCTA’s seminal role in bringing traditional arts to the public for 80 years.
Over 6,000 hours of recordings in The NCTA Collection are now housed at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where they are accessible to interested scholars and the public.
Significance of the NCTA’s Audio Archive
The NCTA Collection is significant for its broad geographical and cultural diversity and for its inclusion of exemplary artists and traditions from every region of the country – from those whose families have been here for centuries to those of the most recent immigrants. Outstanding examples of the music of regional America have been recorded for over 70 years. The collection contains Piedmont and Delta blues, gospel, klezmer, bluegrass, jazz, rockabilly, Native Alaskan, cowboy, polka, tamburitza, old-time, mariachi, western swing, honky-tonk, Appalachian and Ozark ballad singing, rhythm and blues, and zydeco as well as traditional music from Celtic, Native American, Cajun, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Asian, Hispanic, African and Pacific Island cultures. Every state and U.S. territory is represented in the Collection.
By providing access to this valuable collection, the NCTA is making a substantial contribution to scholarship in specific areas of the social and cultural history of the United States. Cultural historians, ethnomusicologists, folklorists, musicians, linguists, and anthropologists may all make use of the collection. Because the collection touches on so many aspects of national heritage, it also offers valuable information and insight to generalists studying a broad range of topics including history, American studies, popular music, and the socio-political environment of the country. The public’s understanding and appreciation of the richness and variety of American culture will be furthered through broadly disseminated media products and programs created from materials in the NCTA sound archive.
Twelve years ago, aware that these irreplaceable recordings were deteriorating and at risk of being lost, the NCTA began the work of preserving and digitizing its collection, which, through 2007, included 7,671 hours of recordings on reel-to-reel tapes, digital audiotape (DAT), cassettes and CDs. In 2001, the NCTA entered into an agreement with the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress to acquire its rare and endangered archive of audio/video recordings, known as “The National Council for the Traditional Arts Collection.” To expedite preservation efforts and public access to this wealth of material, the NCTA created a state-of-the-art audio laboratory in its own offices where the work of processing, preserving, digitizing and copying Collection materials to LOC specifications and standards has since been carried out.
To date, $1,232,000 has been invested in this preservation work, with the majority of costs borne by the NCTA and supported through its independent efforts. The NCTA has delivered to the Library of Congress over 6,000 hours of preserved and digitized archival recordings, all accompanied by a searchable database that provides immediate collection access for interested scholars and the public.
Remaining Critical Work
While much has been accomplished, 807 hours of at-risk recordings on digital audio tape (DAT) remain to be preserved. While the accepted standard 20 years ago, DAT has proven to be a highly unstable storage medium; its shelf life is limited to a decade or less before irreversible degradation and loss may occur. Since 2008, the NCTA has employed direct-to-digital technologies to document its programs.
Other NCTA archival materials include 80 years of organizational papers, event/program materials, thousands of photographs, and 340 hours of film and video that provide critical documentation of the NCTA’s activities. Some of these materials are at very high risk, in deteriorating condition, and in immediate need of preservation.
The NCTA continues to document its many current programs, the audio archive is growing at a rapid rate, with hundreds of hours of new recordings added each year.
The NCTA’s ongoing work to preserve its treasury of archival audio recordings has been supported by The GRAMMY Foundation, The National Endowment for the Humanities and The National Endowment for the Arts’ Save America’s Treasures.
The National Endowment for the Humanities designated the NCTA Collection as a We the People Project for promoting knowledge and understanding of American history and culture.