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Preserving the Sounds of America's Culture

What do conductor Leopold Stokowski, T.S. Eliot and Grandmaster Flash have in common? They've all won spots on the National Recording Registry.

Today the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, announced the first 50 recordings to be named to the registry, created to preserve recordings that are "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports that the registry was created because, Billington says, the nation's audio heritage is in danger.

At least half of the wax cylinders used to record sound before 1902 are gone -- because no one bothered to save them, or because they weren't properly preserved and are now ruined.

"Much of CBS radio network is gone... Duke Ellington from Cotton Club... clarinetist Artie Shaw with Billie Holiday -- it's a very long and tragic list," he tells Blair.

The sound registry is part of the National Recording Preservation Act, passed by Congress in 2000.

A group of music and sound archive professionals nominated recordings for the registry's first list, and the Library of Congress also solicited nominations from the general public. Fifty recordings will be added to the list each year.

Virtually every music genre is represented -- from classical to avant garde to jazz, and even some of the classic comedy routines of Abbott and Costello.

However, the Library of Congress also has hundreds of recordings it can't release to the public, because of copyright issues.

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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