200,000+ Vintage Records Being Digitized & Put Online by the Boston Public Library

It may be a great irony that our age of cul­tur­al destruc­tion and—many would argue—decline also hap­pens to be a gold­en age of preser­va­tion, thanks to the very new media and big data forces cred­it­ed with dumb­ing things down. We spend ample time con­tem­plat­ing the loss­es; archival ini­tia­tives like The Great 78 Project, like so many oth­ers we reg­u­lar­ly fea­ture here, should give us rea­sons to cel­e­brate.

In a post this past August, we out­lined the goals and meth­ods of the project. Cen­tral­ized at the Inter­net Archive—that mag­nan­i­mous cit­i­zens’ repos­i­to­ry of dig­i­tized texts, record­ings, films, etc.—the project con­tains sev­er­al thou­sand care­ful­ly pre­served 78rpm record­ings, which doc­u­ment the dis­tinc­tive sounds of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry from 1898 to the late-1950s.

Thanks to part­ners like preser­va­tion com­pa­ny George Blood, L.P. and the ARChive of Con­tem­po­rary Music, we can hear many thou­sands of records from artists both famous and obscure in the orig­i­nal sound of the first mass-pro­duced con­sumer audio for­mat.

Just a few days ago, the Inter­net Archive announced that they would be joined in the endeav­or by the Boston Pub­lic Library, who, writes Wendy Hana­mu­ra, “will dig­i­tize, pre­serve” and make avail­able to the pub­lic “hun­dreds of thou­sands of audio record­ings in a vari­ety of his­tor­i­cal for­mats,” includ­ing not only 78s, but also LP’s and Thomas Edison’s first record­ing medi­um, the wax cylin­der. “These record­ings have nev­er been cir­cu­lat­ed and were in stor­age for sev­er­al decades, uncat­a­logued and inac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic.”

The process, notes WBUR, “could take a few years,” giv­en the siz­able bulk of the col­lec­tion and the metic­u­lous meth­ods of the Inter­net Archive’s tech­ni­cians, who labor to pre­serve the con­di­tion of the often frag­ile mate­ri­als, and to pro­duce a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ver­sions, “from remas­tered to raw.” The object, says Boston Pub­lic Library pres­i­dent David Leonard, is to “pro­duce record­ings in a way that’s inter­est­ing to the casu­al lis­ten­er as well as to the hard-core music lis­ten­er in the research busi­ness.”

Thus far, only two record­ings from BPL’s exten­sive col­lec­tions have become avail­able—a 1938 record­ing called “Please Pass the Bis­cuits, Pap­py (I Like Moun­tain Music)” by W. Lee O’Daniel and His Hill­bil­ly Boys and Edvard Grieg’s only piano con­cer­to, record­ed by Fred­dy Mar­tin and His Orches­tra in 1947. Even in this tiny sam­pling, you can see the range of mate­r­i­al the archive will fea­ture, con­sis­tent with the tremen­dous vari­ety the Great 78 Project already con­tains.

While we can count it as a great gain to have free and open access to this his­toric vault of record­ed audio, it is also the case that dig­i­tal archiv­ing has become an urgent bul­wark against total loss. Cur­rent record­ing for­mats instant­ly spawn innu­mer­able copies of them­selves. The phys­i­cal media of the past exist­ed in finite num­bers and are sub­ject to total era­sure with time. “The sim­ple fact of the mat­ter,” archivist George Blood tells the BPL, “is most audio­vi­su­al record­ings will be lost. These 78s are dis­ap­pear­ing left and right. It is impor­tant that we do a good job pre­serv­ing what we can get to, because there won’t be a sec­ond chance.”

via WBUR

Relat­ed Con­tent:

25,000+ 78RPM Records Now Pro­fes­sion­al­ly Dig­i­tized & Stream­ing Online: A Trea­sure Trove of Ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry Music

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Record­ings: World & Clas­si­cal Music, Inter­views, Nature Sounds & More

BBC Launch­es World Music Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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