20 Watts

The Digital Divide: Syracuse University’s audio archives are among the world’s best, but they’re struggling to get online (Pt. 1)

BY Brian Amaral

It’s a world of contradictions: The ugliest and most backward-looking building on campus is on the cutting edge of a digital music revolution, putting centuries-old music and recordings online.

The sound recordings that the Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive is working to digitize are some of the earliest known. Wax cylinders, 78 RPM records and in some cases tin foil will soon be part of the digital world, available at library.syr.edu.

“One of our instincts is to digitize them before they get any worse, so it can be a race against time,” says Sean Quimby, the director of E.S. Bird Library’s Special Col­lections Research Center and the de facto director of the Belfer labs. “Digital is becom­ing the preservation medium.”

Since the effort started, 751 Edison cylinders – invented and enjoyed by Thomas Edison – have been digitized and 546 are available for listening online. That’s out of 22,000 Edisons in the collection, the largest privately held in North America. Will Qui­mby be retired by the time it’s finished?

“I won’t be retired. I’ll probably be near it,” he says.

Quimby logs onto the library Web site and finds an example, an Edison recording about a day at the zoo. To a 21st-century listener, it’s laughably cheesy – with that popping background, trumpets and drums, you can almost see the singer’s flapper getup – but recordings like these are also historically important.

“The idea is to highlight the kinds of ma­terials that people are going to come from all over the world to use,” Quimby says. “Part of what we’re doing is making it easier for people to access the collection without having to be physically there.”



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