On the very first archaeological dig of her career, Andrea Berlin discovered the room of a house that somebody had lived in around 800 B.C. Talk about beginner's luck.
"I felt like a time traveler," she says.
Berlin is now a professor of archaeology at Boston University, where she teaches and studies ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean. She finds their sculptures and tools and lots of pottery — anything tangible and substantial enough to last two or three thousand years.
But even though each dig brings a lifetime's worth of stuff to go through, Berlin says she still wishes she had more.
"I think archaeologists are jealous of historians who have access to modern information sources – audio, for example, individual interviews and shows and recordings," she says.
Ever since the first identifiable recording in 1860, sound has added captivating and significant context to history.
"MLK's 'I have a dream' speech — to hear him say it, rather than read the words, is a much more visceral and significant, I think, medium for it," says Gene DeAnna, the head of the Library of Congress' recorded sound section.
The Library of Congress is one of thousands of institutions, large and small, trying to make sure that future historians — and even future archaeologists — have access to those recordings. DeAnna oversees the library's multi-decade efforts to save millions of the nation's recordings before they're lost.
They want to preserve things like a 1963 interview by radio personality Studs Terkel with Bob Dylan, talking about "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall."
It's part of the library's agreement to preserve Terkel's radio interviews with dozens of famous voices from the 20th century. "[Terkel] is a tremendous intellectual force, so to preserve that archive of 25, 30 years of radio is a great project," DeAnna says.
But preserving audio like this is often an intricate, time-consuming and expensive process.
For one thing, a lot of the audio they're working with is really old — like this 1904 recording of operatic tenor Enrico Caruso.
When you're working with old formats, you are often racing against time. With wax cylinders from the 1890s — one of the oldest recording formats — the heat from your hands can cause them to crack. They require highly specialized, expensive equipment to digitize, as well as people who know how to use it.
Records made during World War II, constructed out of glass because other materials were going toward the war effort, are so fragile that they can break even when they're handled properly.
And if it's on a cassette tape, it's automatically at risk, Deanna says — "no matter how well it was recorded, by whom, on what equipment. If it's on a cassette, it's just a terrible format for archiving."
But the Library of Congress can only get audio recordings from the deteriorating formats as fast as they can play them. They're able to digitize about 15,000 recordings a year, and that's only a fraction of what's in their queue.
"We're probably acquiring between 50 and 100,000 a year," DeAnna says. "We're at least stabilizing them in a good environment so that their deterioration will slow down, and we'll hopefully get to most of them before they're lost."
Many already have been lost, according to a Library of Congress study in 2010. Radio recordings, which the study calls "an irreplaceable piece of our sociocultural heritage" (we're flattered), were rarely kept for safekeeping before the 1930s. At commercial record companies, master recordings of musical artists were sometimes thrown out due to space constraints.
And once recordings are made digital, they're still at risk of being lost. Unless the digital format is updated consistently, it might not be recognized by a computer in 10 years. Modern recordings that were "born digital" — think songs streamed on Myspace — are especially ephemeral and at risk of being lost, the Library of Congress study says.
"It's an active process, not a passive process," DeAnna says. "It's not like putting something on the shelf."
Alexander Rose, director of the Long Now Foundation — an organization that strives to maintain cultural continuity over the next 10,000 years — says this is apparent to anyone who has unsuccessfully tried to open an early computer file.
"Things that were written on stone 1,000 years ago we can still read. Things that were written on books 100 ago we can still read. Most things that were written on computer 20 years ago we can't read," Rose says.
But Boston University's Berlin says, if we can figure out how to make our audio survive for millennia, future archaeologists will be thrilled.
"In 200 years and 500 years and 1,000 years, there will be other people studying us," she says. "Maybe they'll be able to hear us."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
OK, here's a question. If a tree falls in the forest and someone records it, does the sound last forever? We are increasingly finding out that the answer is no. Fragile records from the 1940s are breaking, cassette tapes from the '80s are falling apart, not even digital is forever.
NPR's Emily Siner explores how the Library of Congress is trying to save millions of our nation's recordings before they're lost.
EMILY SINER, BYLINE: When an archaeologist discovers fragments of a civilization, the result is pretty incredible. Just listen to Andrea Berlin. She's an archaeologist and professor at Boston University, and her very first dig was in southern Israel.
ANDREA BERLIN: I found myself excavating the room of a house that somebody had lived in, in around 800 BCE.
SINER: Oh, my gosh.
BERLIN: That's what I thought. I felt like a time traveler.
SINER: Berlin studies people in the Mediterranean from 2- or 3,000 years ago. She finds their sculptures and tools, and lots of pottery. But one thing she doesn't find is their audio.
BERLIN: I think archaeologists are jealous of historians who have modern information sources - audio, for example; individual interviews and shows and recordings.
SINER: Because sound adds another layer of context to history. Gene DeAnna at the Library of Congress has an example.
GENE DEANNA: Hearing Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THE REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I have a dream that one day, this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed...
DEANNA: To hear him say it, rather than read the words, is a much more visceral and significant, I think, medium for it.
SINER: DeAnna oversees the library's decades-long project to digitize the sounds of the past, from iconic speeches...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: That the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...
SINER: ...to patriotic songs from World War I...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Make your mother proud of you and the old red, white and blue
SINER: ...to operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, singing in 1904.
ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing in foreign language)
SINER: But preserving audio is a bigger job than it sounds. When working with old formats, it's a race against time. With wax cylinders from the 1890s, the heat from your hands can cause them to crack. Records made of glass during World War II are so fragile that they can break even when they're handled properly. And DeAnna says if it's on a cassette tape, it's automatically at risk.
DEANNA: No matter how well it was recorded, by whom, on what equipment, it's on a cassette, and it's just a terrible format for archiving.
SINER: So this is a big job. They're digitizing about 15,000 recordings a year. And that's only a fraction of what they have.
DEANNA: We're probably acquiring between 50- and 100,000 a year. We're at least stabilizing them in a good environment so that their deterioration will slow down. And we'll, hopefully, get to most of them before they're lost.
SINER: The good news is, they're not the only ones working on it. Other institutions - like the Harvard Library and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory - are also making strides in preserving audio. The trick is preserving not only the audio from the past, but also the audio we're recording today.
Andrea Berlin says if that survives, future archaeologists will be thrilled.
BERLIN: I'm always thinking: Well, in 200 years and in 500 years and in 1,000 years, there will be other people studying us. Maybe they'll be able to hear us.
SINER: Emily Siner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.