Indiana University Bloomington

April 20, 2015

The Archives of Traditional Music has partnered with Indiana University's Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI) to transfer and digitally preserve the nearly 7,000 wax cylinders held in its collections. The ATM holds one of the largest collections of unique ethnographic wax cylinders outside of the Library of Congress. The content of the cylinders is remarkable in both breadth and depth. Comprised of 160 different collections made between 1893 and 1938, these cylinders were recorded in 60 different countries and on every continent except Antarctica. Because wax cylinders were the first viable method of sound recording, many of these recordings were the first ever made in certain parts of the world. The recordings are both irreplaceable artifacts of cultural history as well as documentation of the development of ethnographic science at the turn of the 20th century. In addition to collections made by Franz Boas, the “father of American Anthropology,” the holdings contain recordings made by Edward S. Curtis, Edward Sapir, Melville Herskovits, Elsie Clews Parsons, Alfred Kroeber, Frank Speck, Melville Jacobs, Gladys Reichard, Paul Radin, Helen Heffron Roberts, George Herzog, George Bird Grinnell, Natalie Curtis Burlin, Pliny Earle Goddard, Washington Matthews, and Livingston Farrand, among others. Just as important are the hundreds of recorded voices that remain as a testament to the history and the aesthetic shape of their culture. One hundred fifty distinct cultures are represented among these recordings and a significant number of the languages are endangered. A large number of the cylinders document Native American groups. Two cylinder collections at ATM are listed on the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

Library assistant, David Lewis assists a delegation from Bukidnon State University in the Phillipines during their visit the Archives of Traditional Music in order to hear the tape copies made 30 years ago of 1907-1908 wax cylinder recordings by Fay-Cooper Cole, the earliest recordings made in the part of the world.

The cylinder collections are the most frequently requested set of recordings at ATM and they have been used in multiple cultural revitalization efforts by Native Americans and other indigenous culture groups. The collections are catalogued and ATM has provided copies to researchers and indigenous groups for decades. In recent years these cylinder recordings have been used in language revitalization projects, in museum exhibits, and have been sampled by the Native American hip hop/electronica group “A Tribe Called Red.” This project will not only improve access to these collections, but modern professional digital transfers will provide, in most cases, better intelligibility for what are low-fidelity recordings under even the best conditions. These new transfers will be made available through Indiana University’s Media Collections Online service, with some access restricted depending on cultural rights and sensitivities.

According to ATM Director and co-PI Alan Burdette, “The research value of these recordings lay in their uniqueness, and their early documentation of texts, songs, performance styles, and the ethnographic encounter as it was constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century. These collections–some more than 120 years old–remain important research and educational resources. Allowing them to go unpreserved is inconceivable.”

Wax cylinders, however, present serious challenges to playback. They were a fragile recording medium from the beginning and 100 years later they now face added risks due to long-term degradation of the physical carrier and the difficulty in finding appropriate playback equipment. The format commonly known today as the “wax cylinder” was originally launched by Thomas Edison in 1888 as the first commercially viable format suitable for recording and reproducing both speech and music. It consists of a hollow tube with the audio signal encoded around its exterior as a groove of varying depth. The wax cylinder phonograph made it feasible for researchers to preserve acoustic data for the first time, revolutionizing the study of comparative musicology, folklore, linguistics, and oral literature. Wax cylinders are susceptible to cracking and damage due to mold and simple playback. By the time these recordings became part of IU in 1954, some were already 50 years old and had been stored in a variety of poor conditions. Since the mid 1980s, the cylinders have been stored in the climate-controlled conditions of ATM’s vault.

ATM’s partner in this endeavor is IU’s new Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI) which will provide the engineering and technology framework for the digitization. The MDPI will digitally preserve more than 250,000 audio and video recordings from eighty different units across the Bloomington campus as well as from units on other IU campuses. The wax cylinders will be among the most challenging and culturally valuable recordings transferred by the MDPI facility. According to Mike Casey, MDPI Director of Technical Operations and co-PI, “NEH support combined with the MDPI infrastructure put into place by IU will enable us to address the intricacies of optimally playing back these fragile recordings while making high-quality digital transfers for use by future researchers.”

The wax cylinder collections held at the Archives of Traditional Music include important collections owned by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, The Chicago Field Museum, and the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.

To see the Indiana University press release: