The Threat of Degralescence

Conferences are fun for any number of reasons. You get to meet up with old friends, learn about new and exciting things that are happening, and meet a lot of new people. One thing that I got out of the Music Library Association’s annual meeting that I wasn’t expecting was an expanded vocabulary. But now, the word DEGRALESCENCE (coined by the brilliant Mike Casey at Indiana University) has been added to my lexicon.

What does this wonderful word mean? Well, unfortunately, it describes something that many music/film/media/special collections librarians fear daily: the combination of media DEGRAdation and playback equipment obsoLESCENCE.

Et voilà – degralescence.

This combination is rendering most media held in libraries, archives, and museums un-playable, and worse yet, un-preservable.

But first, some quick facts:

  • “Audiovisual materials are the fastest growing segment of our nation’s archives and special collections.” — The Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Plan, pg. 6
  • All media objects are actively degrading–they are all at some point on a degradation slope. Some are much worse off than others.
  • Much of the equipment needed for playback and/or preservation is either:
    • No longer available at any price
    • Needing parts that are no longer available at any price
    • Or needing technicians (most of whom are 60 years old +, or have passed on) who know how to work this equipment.
  • “Many analog audio recordings must be digitized within the next 15 to 20 years — before sound carrier degradation and the challenges of acquiring and maintaining playback equipment make the success of these efforts too expensive or unattainable.” — Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan, pg. 7
Delaminated disc

A delaminated disc. This record in unplayable. Taken from

How widespread is this problem? Well, the Library of Congress holds 1.1 million film objects, and 3.5 million audio objects – 4.6 million objects in total. Indiana University (a fairly large research university) holds 560,000 audio, video, and film objects on the Bloomington campus alone. Most colleges and universities have AV collections, as do other cultural, entertainment, and research institutions. AV material is everywhere.

So…what can one do?

Thankfully, we do have time still. Not enough to preserve everything, but enough to preserve what is unique or valuable, or what is at most danger of degredation. The challenge now lies in prioritizing what needs to be preserved, educating librarians, archivists, and others about AV preservation techniques, and developing robust workflows to get the job done.

My next post will be on two examples of AV preservation projects from Westminster Choir College and Indiana University.

(Thanks to Mike Casey and IU’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative for the word degralescence and for some of the fast facts!)


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