Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

January 24, 2013

Town's NEDCC to help preserve historic recordings

Grant will let Andover center convert rare audio collections to digital format


The Andover Townsman

---- — An Andover facility will help develop and test a new way to preserve for future generations some of the nation’s earliest audio recordings, including those by Alexander Graham Bell. The service would be made available to libraries and museums to preserve their collections.

The Northeast Document Conservation Center has received a $250,000 National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services “to develop, test, and demonstrate a new digital reformatting service for early audio recordings on mechanical sound carriers.”

NEDCC will work in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), developers of a system called IRENE/3D, which uses digital imaging to safely retrieve sound from historical recordings made on formats such as discs and wax cylinders without endangering the original carriers. A primary goal of the grant project is to move this new technology from a lab environment and use it to create a sustainable and affordable new digital reformatting service for libraries, museums and archives. The new NEDCC service is expected to be available by spring of 2014, according to a release.

“This grant creatively marries the high-tech instrumentation and concepts of the physics lab with the needs of museums and libraries holding historic audio collections. The work will ultimately release many sounds of the past from their physical confinement, making them available for the first time for study by researchers and for the enjoyment of the public,” said Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“The IRENE/3D system has great potential for preserving the nation’s rare and fragile sonic cultural heritage, and we are thrilled to have the opportunity to add this ground-breaking new technology to NEDCC’s menu of digital services,” NEDCC Executive Director Bill Veillette said in a release.

An estimated 46 million audio recordings are held by U.S. cultural institutions, according to a 2010 study by the Library of Congress. The study says that a large portion of America’s sound recorded heritage has deteriorated or is inaccessible to the public. Over the past nine years, the IRENE/3D system has been successfully tested on hundreds of rare recordings at the Library of Congress, as well as on some of the oldest recordings ever made – a group of experimental discs produced by Alexander Graham Bell, now at the Smithsonian Institution. The contents of the Bell recordings had not been heard since they were made 130 years ago.

Middlebury College will participate in the pilot phase of the project by making available over 200 wax cylinders and more than 1,000 records which are part of Middlebury College’s Helen Hartness Flanders Ballad Collection, one of the nation’s great archival collections of New England folksong, folklore and balladry.

The Carnegie Hall Archives will participate by providing a sample of recordings on lacquer disks that show signs of deterioration. Carnegie Hall’s audio collection consists of recordings of one-time performances by many of the world’s greatest musicians.

Veillette said, “Reformatting has been a part of NEDCC’s services since it began offering film-duplication and preservation microfilming in the 1970s. In the past three years, the center has successfully transitioned its reformatting services to 100-percent digital photography with a dual focus on careful handling and adherence to best practices.