You probably do know what a Nokia sounds like, but only just barely. If you were trying to re-create a sound like that, there’s a good place to find it: The Museum of Endangered Sound.
The Museum of Endangered Sound is less museum and more online catalogue, hosting recordings of near-obsolete technologies: There’s the rattle of a VCR rewinding. That iconic, jaunty voice announcing, “You’ve got mail!” The crunch of paper shooting out of a dot matrix printer. The archive goes back all the way to the bygone era of typewriters and rotary phones and crackling television snow. Sounds that are not quite extinct, but inarguably endangered.
The archive was created by Phil Hadad, Marybeth Ledesma and Greg Elwood, who met as advertising students at Virginia Commonwealth University. The whole thing started as a joke.
“It was 2012 and everyone had already moved onto the iPhone, but I still had an old Blackberry,” Ledesma told me. “I was texting and my friends, Greg and Phil, could hear me tapping away because it wasn’t a touchscreen. The guys teased me about it, but it started a really important conversation about the sounds of technology. We had a gut feeling we weren’t the only ones who had nostalgia for old tech sounds, so we made a site for it.”
They’d even created a character, Brendan Chilcutt — pictured wide-eyed on the website, wearing square glasses and scrawling lines of code onto a clunky computer monitor — to personify the kind of uber-nerd who would care enough to save the noises of outmoded technology to fashion this kind of web library.
But to digital archivists, the Museum of Endangered Sound is no joke at all. In fact, these recordings fit into a larger project to preserve the ruins of our technological past.
“There’s absolutely nothing but benefit to having recordings of things that will lose their existence over time,” says Jason Scott, a free-range archivist for the Internet Archive, a digital library that works to preserve just about everything on the net, from vintage GIFs to rare video games to politicians’ now-defunct campaign websites. “Sometimes, decades later, uses become obvious or clear or beneficial.”
Scott takes this philosophy further than most. In the past, he’s saved thousands of machinery manuals and floppy discs; he once campaigned to collect every last AOL free-trial CD. So the argument that what archivists are saving seems like junk is one he’s heard before. That, he says, is exactly the point. He cites the example of a toxic lake where people noticed fish getting smaller over time by looking at their old photos of fish hauls. “There was no way that the first pictures being taken were like, ‘This is going to be really useful in five decades,’” explains Scott. “So sometimes you don’t even know that value is going to be extracted.”
Sound, in particular, is often missing from archival efforts, and our understanding of history is poorer for it. “Sound recording was invented in the 1870s,” says Abby Smith Rumsey, a historian and author who worked for over a decade with the Library of Congress’s digital archive program. “Our entire history before that is mute.”
Today, a number of libraries are actively working to record and preserve the sounds of things that may one day disappear. The British Library maintains a collection of 800,000 sounds — dialects and accents, classical and popular music, the environment and nature. Europeana Sounds, created by the European Commission, aggregates recordings of European heritage (a Norwegian sleigh ride; a Greek folk song). The German-led Documentation of Endangered Languages project contains recordings of 68 languages, recognizing that by the end of the 21st century, less than a third of all the languages spoken today will still exist.
If these collections seem obscure, it’s because they are. But one day, they could be the last remnants of entire languages and species, civilizations and cultures, the final clues of how certain people once lived. Similarly, the story of the early internet — from the bleeps of dial-up to the addictive ring of AOL Instant Messenger — can be told in these sounds of extinct technology. A simple sound recording, which can be stored indefinitely, can come loaded with information about how a machine was used or what it meant in the fabric of human interaction.
“The sound of a device may give you a hint as to the operation of that device,” adds Scott.“Being able to hear this click and then that click will actually be meaningful down the line.”
As for the Museum of Endangered Sound, Ledesma told me no one has updated the catalogue in quite some time. She and the guys are busy with full-time jobs now, and they never had a specific goal for the site anyway, other than “keeping it live and hoping people can turn back to it whenever they miss a certain sound.”
But people like Scott insist that what they’re preserving is more than just nostalgia. A catalogue of a few dozen bleeps and bloops really can change the way our lives are remembered; if the crunch of a dot matrix printer goes extinct, or if we never again hear a VCR rewinding, someone will care.
“Whenever someone says, ‘Who cares about the recording of a modem?’ Like, that’s fine if you don’t care,” Scott tells me. “But will you later?”