There are many reasons to maintain record (LP) collections in libraries. Records last much longer than newer media like audiocassettes and CDs, in harsher climates and with less of a risk of data loss from minor scratches, dust and demagnetization. Records “sound better” — the analog relation between the grooves of a record and the original sound is less “lossy” than newer media and digital recordings. However, records can be unwieldy and linger on shelves unused by clientele seeking more portable music. The balance between a library maintaining its record collection for the sound quality and longevity of the media and discarding or discontinuing its acquisition policy based on shelf space and consumer demand might be negotiated by considering more subtle issues, ones less about music as data and more about music as cultural heritage.
The value of “cultural heritage” is difficult to quantify and is established in the same way a culture is– indirectly and intangibly, often by oral history and accident. Roots twist and curl, are severed and lost, are found again sprouting up somewhere unplanned. Similarly, a record’s value may become clear only by serendipity. Two stories of researchers who experienced such fortuitous accidents while using LPs to study musical history reveal how the value of LPs may be indirect.
In the first situation, a scholar studying Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” listened to the recording on 45s at multiple libraries. He discovered that the B-side of the recording was often worn down, while “Strange Fruit” was in pristine condition. Indeed, “’Fine and Mellow’ (which went on the flip side and developed a great following of its own)” (Margolick 46) was largely responsible for the commercial success of the album (76). Because current research looks at album sales rather than use, “Strange Fruit” appears to have been a hit. Since we now appreciate the political message and the aesthetic value of “Strange Fruit,” it is easy to believe that the album sold well. However, at the historical moment of publication, 1939, lynching was still a horrible reality and the song hit too close to home for most of its intended listeners. Thus, “Fine and Mellow” became a jukebox hit, played until worn down, but “Strange Fruit” was rarely played. Such anthropological data is not available through sales data or the false memories of those whose current appreciation of “Strange Fruit” would revise history to make the song a hit. The records show a different story: that “Strange Fruit” was politically avant-garde and listeners were eased into its message via the more palatable “Fine and Mellow.”
In the second story, a student researching John Cage’s legendary Town Hall performance borrowed the LPs from the library but could find very little published text about the performance. One day when checking the LPs out yet again, the librarian asked the student whether he would also like the liner notes. Cataloged separately from the albums, the notes comprised a large booklet of interviews and historical descriptions of the performance, from which the student was able to glean substantial information. As this information was not published elsewhere, but only available as the liner notes to the album, the data would be lost if the LPs had not been preserved.
The serendipitous retrieval of non-musical data of anthropological or historical importance related to the preservation of LPs in libraries is a subset of a larger issue. As LPs were a standard recording device both in studios and in the field for decades before the 8-track, cassette tape, CD and mp3 quickly usurped each other, vast amounts of recorded information exist on LPs that has not been remastered for any of these newer media. Speaking about his personal collection of over two million recordings, Paul Mawhinney observes that “The Library of Congress did a study on the merchandise that I have in my collection, and from ’48 to ’66, they decided that only 17% of that music is available to the public on CD” (The Archive). The data that has not been migrated to newer media includes studio recorded music; field-recorded music; field recordings of tribes, animals and languages now extinct; oral histories, spoken word and poetry.
Prison work songs are one entire genre of music that has remained largely unmigrated to new media from its original field recordings. With his book Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues, Bruce Jackson released a selection of the dozens of recordings he made while studying workers’ songs in Texas prisons. The selection, eleven songs available on CD or mp3, is just a sample of the recorded songs, which itself is a limited selection of the songs of prison inmates in a limited geographical area at a specific time. Even this small collection rounds out the listener’s knowledge of blues tunes, adding branches to the family tree of the history of music. If some libraries maintain special collections of recordings like this, then researchers will be able to access these priceless, singular recordings of social and musical history.
The drive to make music cheaper and more portable may make vinyl seem like an irrelevant medium for library collections. But as one medium replaces another, the sound quality of vinyl and the sheer number of recordings only available on this “outdated” medium guarantee its continued relevance. Not only does vinyl produce great sound and record data that has not been migrated onto newer media, it records cultural history. Liner notes and album art, now all but lost as a genre with the advent of mp3s, store valuable information and show marketing, art, and social history. Unlike mp3s, which do not corrupt with use, LPs evidence the human touch and thus act as archeological proof of historical popularity. These unquantifiable elements show that one cannot always know in advance why a book or non-book material should be acquired or preserved. Although some libraries may have better reasons for acquiring and preserving certain kinds of media over others, and over other libraries, librarians must remain cognizant of the “serendipity factor,” or the fact that an acquisition may be useful for unexpected things. In the case of vinyl, LPs not only preserve sound for entertainment, but act as a cultural record.
The Archive. Dir. Sean Dunne. Perf. Paul Mawhinney. US Short Films, 2008. Film.
Cage, John. The 25-year retrospective concert of the music of John Cage. LP. New York, NY, George Avakian, 1959. Recorded at Town Hall, New York City, May 15, 1958.
Jackson, Bruce. Wake Up Dead Man: Hard Labor and Southern Blues.
Margolick, David and Hilton Als. Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. NY: Harper, 2001.
[This is a shorter assignment that I wrote for LIS 519: Selection and Acquisition of Non-Book Materials. Although I am not very familiar with vinyl– most of my personal music collection is digitized– I think it is easy to justify the continued acquisition and preservation of LPs in libraries, especially academic and special libraries. I decided to focus on the LP’s position vis-a-vis preserving our cultural heritage. Here is the resulting document.