Thursday, July 31, 2008

Digital Archive of American Popular Music

Project Name, Organization Name and URL

Digital Archive of American Popular Music, University of California at Los Angeles Music Library,


This digital library consists primarily of sheet music, or, in the words of the site, "American popular songs in the form in which they were originally published."  Audio recordings make up a smaller portion of the collection.  The archive describes itself this way on a page called "About the Digital Archive":

"The UCLA Music Library's Archive of American Popular Music is a research collection covering the history of popular music in the United States from 1790 through the present.  The collection, fully accessible at the item level . . . is one of the largest in the country, numbering almost 450,000 pieces of sheet music, anthologies, and arrangements for band and orchestra.  The collection also includes 62,500 recordings on disc, cylinder, and tape.

"Particular strengths within UCLA Music Library's twentieth century holdings include music for the theater, motion pictures, radio and television, as well as general popular music, country, rhythm and blues, and rock songs.

"The Digital Archive of American Popular Music is an initiative to provide access to digital versions of the sheet music, and performances of the songs now in the public domain."

The collection sounds quite comprehensive, and perhaps it is, but a quick search through the catalog reveals a much more limited scope.  For example, I was unable to find any "rock songs" in any form.  It is unclear if this will change as the collection is updated and more items are digitized or if the above description is simply inaccurate.


Students and other researchers are the primary audience for this collection.  In fact, when one chooses to browse the entire digital collection, it becomes obvious that some sub-collections require a password for access.  These are probably reserved for students or specific classes or researchers.

In addition, the site is designed as though it is to be used by those who are familiar with its contents and/or are looking for a specific item.  Searching and browsing functions are abundant, but comparatively little information is provided about the collection, its contents and how to make the most of one's experience with it.  The text quoted above is all that exists to explain this archive to users.  This suggests that it is used primarily by students and professors conducting research with a specific focus.  The design does not appear to welcome the general public or make an effort to appeal to this wider audience and their various needs.  This is consistent with its description of itself as a research collection.  

Background Information

No information is provided about the background of the collection with the exception of what is revealed in the portion of text quoted above.  All that is clear is that the Digital Archive of American Popular Music is part of UCLA's Archive of American Popular American Music.  According to the Archive of Popular Music's home page, the digital archive is currently being developed, expanded, and improved.

What Was Digitized

In addition to the information already provided on the number of materials digitized, the Archive of American Popular Music's home page states that the sheet music is available in PDF form so that it can be quickly downloaded and printed.  This sounds like a decision that was made with the needs of students in mind.

What is strange is that the audio files that are said to exist are effectively inaccessible.  One cannot search by format.  An attempt to browse the entire digital collection reveals a lengthy list of esoterically named sub-collections.  It appears that most of these sub-collections contain only sheet music, so one would have to devote some time to digging through them before finding one of the sound files that are supposedly included.  Therefore one is left to wonder if the digitized sound files are indeed available to users at this point, as well as what format they are in.  Or perhaps there is a system of accessibility with which only students and other researchers are familiar.


This project's description is promising yet somewhat inconsistent with what it currently offers.  This is probably because it is in the process of being improved.  Little information is provided about the digitization process or the future of the collection, so one can only wonder if it will remain as it is or if new materials will be added in digital form, hopefully expanding the scope.  If improvements and progress in this digitization project result in a collection that is more consistent with the description that is currently available, it will be a vast and valuable resource. 

Sounds of Australia

  • Project Name, Organization Name and URL

Sounds of Australia, National Registry of Recorded Sound, National Film and Sound Archive,

  • Overview

Sounds of Australia differs from many audio digitization projects in that its goal is to represent the an entire country's history of recorded sound with a small number of carefully selected recordings of all genres.  This creates a concise summary of Australia's history of recorded sound.  It is presented in a simplistic, accessible format, giving users around the world a brief introduction to the audio history of this country.

Only ten recordings are added to the collection each year.  The site contains a nomination form so that users may recommend recordings that they deem appropriate for the collection.  According to the site, 

"Criteria for selection include artistic excellence, historical relevance, technical or scientific achievement, and prominence in shaping Australia's culture and identity.  To be eligible for inclusion, sound recordings must have been made in Australia, or by Australians, and must be at least 20 years old."

The ten recordings that will be featured in the collection are selected from these nomination by "a panel of experts from the recorded sound industry and cultural institutions."

  • Audience

The intended audience is clearly an International one, considering that this project presents a sort of condensed national history to users all over the world.  Sound files are readily available online in a streaming audio format.  Each entry is accompanied by a short description of the recording and its significance as well as a visual image,  typically the sheet music for the song or a photograph of its author.  This evidence suggests that the collection is aimed at a very broad audience.  English-speaking people from a wide variety of backgrounds, ages, and geographical locations could easily access and learn from this collection.

  • Background Information

The collection was created in February of 2007 with "a foundation list of 10 [recordings]."  Evidently, ten more recordings were added that year because there are now a total of thirty recordings in the collection.  2008 additions are showcased, and the 2009 nomination process is underway.

  • What Was Digitized

The chronological scope of the collection (1896 - 1983) obviates that early sound recordings in a variety of formats were digitized.  However, no information on the digitization process itself is readily available.  It is also clear that old photographs, sheet music, and other material were digitized to compliment the sound recordings.  It is possible that the later recordings in the collection, specifically the three from the 1980's, may not have been digitized at all.  They may be already been available in a digital format.  One assumes that the lack of detailed information available on this site is connected to its effort to reach a broad audience; it is clearly not  designed specifically for those with an interest in digitization or the information sciences.  However, those in search of information beyond what is presented on the site are encouraged to contact a staff member for what amounts to virtual reference services.  It is possible that if one were to take advantage of this service to inquire about digitization, more details would emerge.  This collection appears to take itself quite seriously, and by inference, this is likely to apply to the digitization process. 

  • Conclusion

This collection is of interest because of its unique type of focus, combining the narrow with the broad.  It is represents an area of overlap between digital libraries and digital museums.  This is somewhat unusual among current digital sound archives.  Perhaps it represents a new trend that will be followed by digitization projects with similar goals.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

  • Project Name, Organization Name and URL

Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, Baylor University,

  • Overview

I heard about this project for the first time last year when its director, Robert Darden, was interviewed on National Public Radio.  I listened with great interest because his vast knowledge and intense enthusiasm for this music and its preservation was captivating.

According to the site's home page,

"The purpose of this project is to identify, acquire, preserve, record and catalogue the most at-risk music from the black gospel music tradition.  This will primarily include 78s, 45s, LPs, and the various tape formats issued in the United States and abroad between 1945 and and 1970. . . .  The ultimate goal is to preserve and store a digital copy of the audio long term, and to provide standards-based discovery tools through an online interface into a full catalog of materials, along with 30-second samples of all tracks from the audio archive."

The text on the home page goes on to explain the history of the project and its broader significance as a cultural and historical record.

  • Audience

As part of Baylor University's library collection and audio archive specifically, students are a natural target audience for the project.  However, this digitization project seems to be future-oriented, focused on preserving gospel music for future generations.  Part of its goal is to showcase the beauty and significance of this music, influencing its prominence in the historical record.  From this, one can infer that this project actively seeks to increase the size of its audience both in the present and in the future.  The audience consists of everyone with who is interested in or curious about gospel music, and it is hoped that the project itself will increase the size of this audience by spreading the information and access that will allow people to better understand and appreciate gospel music.

  • Background Information

Some background information is available in the project's blog.  The blog and home page indicate that this project was started recently yet has been the fortunate recipient of generous publicity and donations (including a two-year grant of $347, 175).  Therefore it is progressing quickly compared to similar projects.  In February of 2007, a sound isolation booth necessary for the digitization process was installed.  A whole page is devoted to a collection of photos of the Wenger sound isolation booth and its installation, which present an intriguing visual timeline of this aspect of the project.  

  • Description of Materials Digitized

As stated in the quote above, this is primarily an audio archive.  The digital audio files are complimented by relevant materials in other forms, as the home page explains:

"Additionally, any ephemera that may be of use to scholars - including PR photos and press packets, taped interviews, informal photographs, tour books and programs, newspaper and magazine clippings, and sheet music - will also be acquired as it becomes available.  The ultimate goal is to have a copy of every song released by every black gospel artist or group during that time period."

The time period to which that quote refers is, of course, 1945 through 1970.  

It sounds as though this ambitious and important digitization project is off to a good start!

The Virtual Gramophone: Canadian Historical Sound Recordings

The Virtual Gramophone: Canadian Historical Sound Recordings, Library and Archives, Canada,

This multimedia digitization project covers the early history of recorded sound in Canada.  The bulk of the collection is a database of digitized 78-rmp disc recordings and cylinder recordings.  The main page is attractive in its simplicity, but one soon realizes that no information is provided on the size of the collection.  In addition to this disadvantage, one can only browse by title or author; no obvious effort has been made to categorize the recordings by genre, although the advanced search function does offer it as an option.  This is problematic in a world where music is increasingly divided into genres and sub-genres.  Without any semblance of this type of organization, users who do not use the advanced search function to seek a specific recordings may be confused and therefore discouraged.

Fortunately, a detailed and concisely written guide to the database and its cataloging details exists and is easy to find.  Curiously, this page indicates that the recordings are categorized by genre and sub-genre in the database's catalog.  The following are the other database fields listed:

  • Performer 
  • Performer heading 
  • Title 
  • Composer / Lyricist 
  • Larger Work (for songs that are part of an opera, for example) 
  • Album Set Title 
  • Generic Label 
  • Transcribed Label 
  • Sub Label 
  • Issue Number
  • Matrix Number
  • Take Number
  • Side Number
  • Album Number
  • Coupling Number
  • Control Number
  • Miscellaneous Numbers
  • Distributor
  • City
  • Manufacturer
  • Province / Country
  • Date of Recording
  • Recording Location
  • Recording Company
  • Release Date
  • Release Year
  • Issue Type
  • Alternate Issues
  • Comments
  • Authority
  • SMD
  • Dimensions
  • Language
  • Siglum
  • Shelf Number

The cataloging is said to be in accordance with Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd ed., Ammendments 1993 (AACR2) and the Descriptive Cataloguing Manual, of the National Library of Canada.  

All evidence suggests that detailed bibliographic records were created for these materials before they were digitized.  If the same catalog exists for the digital database, it is not made available to users in an accessible manner.  (Perhaps there is some way to track it down by following a trail of links?)  This may effectively limit the audience to those who are familiar with the collection or are seeking a specific recording or set of recordings.  The site's organization does not seem to have been designed in consideration of the needs of users who wish to increase their knowledge of Canadian music from this time period by browsing.

Upon close inspection, the database of sound recordings turns out to be much larger than one might guess, although its exact size is unknown.  A page on the history of the collection describes a long history, beginning in the summer of 1998 and including nine phases.  Sadly, the final paragraph may explain why the organization seems incomplete and in need of improvement:

"Phase Nine, known as Turning Points, was implemented in June 2006 with the addition of podcasting, videos, an essay and two biographies (Edward Johnson and Florence Easton).  In December 2006, it will include an essay on Columbia Records 78, 45 and 33 RPM discs from 1900 to the 1990s."

The site was last updated on June 29, 2006, and the essay on Columbia Records cannot be found.  So one is left to wonder why this digitization project came to such an abrupt halt and if progress towards its development will begin again at some time, or if it will simply be left as it is and fade into obsoleteness, depriving users of such a unique, extensive, and informative resource.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry

Library of Congress, American Memory Project, Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry,

The digitization project called, "Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry", is a part of the Library of Congress's American Memory Project, whose scope is so broad as to be nearly incomprehensible and certainly not fit for sufficient coverage in a blog entry of this length.  This specific collection, made up of approximately 400 text items and 108 sound recordings in addition to some image files, draws from the Library of Congress's Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.  This division of the Library of Congress continues to position itself at forefront of the current mass-effort to digitize analog sound recordings with experimental projects such as the Digital Audio-Visual Prototyping Projects, whose purpose is to analytically compare and contrast methods for digitizing analog materials.

Emile Berliner's life and work are showcased in this digital collection because, according to the collection description, he was, "a prominent inventor at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.  Overlooked by today's historians, Berliner's creative genius rivaled that of his better-known contemporaries Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, and, like the works of these two inventors, Berliner's innovations helped shape the modern American way of life."

The Berliner Collection was established as a part of the Library of Congress's Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound division before its materials were digitized.  Unfortunately, the website does not offer much information about the history of the collection and the timeline of its digitization, focusing instead on the life of Berliner himself and the legacy he left to the recording industry.  It does contain a narrative on the development of the digital collection, but from an information science perspective, it could be more informative.  

This indicates that the intended audience for this digital collection is made up of those who are interested in the history of the recording industry, excepting those who are also interested in digitization.  This is ironic because digitization is so central to the present and future of the recording industry that one would that imagine many people interested in this industry's past would also be interested enough in digitization to be curious about the dates and other details of the project's implementation.

It is also interesting that the sound recordings, like the other materials, are offered in a multiple formats, but left out are the most technologically current or popular options.  For example, the sound recordings are available in WAVE files and Real Audio streaming files.  While these are still popular formats, they do not rival the now-standard MP3 and newer technology.  Perhaps this is due to an effort to work around copyright restrictions while making the most of limited resources.  However, because the sound recordings predate 1972, copyright laws are not applicable unless the library chooses to copyright their digital versions.  

Written manuscripts and images have been scanned and made available as JPEG files and TIFF files.  A single digitized 16mm film is presented as a Real Video streaming file, a QuickTime movie file, and an MPEG file.  These options allow users to choose between smaller, lower quality versions and larger, higher-quality versions of these digital materials.  Clearly, this collection makes an effort to consider the differing needs of users, suggesting that it is attempting to reach as wide an audience as possible.

Therefore it is unfortunate that the site is not designed in a more user-oriented manner.  Simply put, it could be organized more clearly and is therefore somewhat difficult to navigate compared to sites for similar collections.  The main page indicates that the collection can be searched only by keyword.  However, the search function actually allows users many options, including varying levels of complexity and specificity, with a fairly simple interface.  Users can also browse the collection by Subject Index, Title Index, Series Index, Name Index, or Recordings.  The first three lead the user to a short list of nebulously named categories that lead to exhaustive alphabetical lists of everything included in that category.  The second two deliver the user directly to the latter.

Some information about how to use the collection is offered to users at the bottom of the main page.  There are two links to the Library of Congress's page on how to access various materials, including video and sound recordings.  There is also information on cataloging and copyright.  Unfortunately, users are offered no advice or guidance for navigating the collection or making the most of what it offers.

Overall, this is a very unique and interesting collection with far more to offer than meets the eye.  When one makes the effort to read the historical information about Berliner and then browse through the materials with this contextual information in mind, it is an enlightening experience.  It is unfortunate that the organization and design are anachronistic enough to complicate this process, as people become accustomed to digital collections that are increasingly attuned to the needs of the user in their design and organization.  If it were subject to a series of simple design updates, this site could offer a lot more to the audience it clearly intends to serve and to the American Memory Project as a whole. 

Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project

Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project, Department of Special Collections, Donald C. Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara,

The University of California at Santa Barbara's Cylinder Digitization Project is an ambitious and extensive endeavor to preserve cylinder recordings through digitization and to make these recordings available to the public.  The project's web site devotes a page to the history of the cylinder, in which it explains this format's historical significance in this manner:

"From the first recordings made on tinfoil in 1877 to the last produced on celluloid in 1929, cylinders spanned a half-century of technological development in sound recording.  As documents of American cultural history and musical style, cylinders serve as an audible witness to the sounds and songs through which typical audiences first encountered the recorded human voice."

Sound recording technology was developing rapidly during that era, and it continued to develop at an increasingly rapid rate, allowing cylinders to be eclipsed by the still-ubiquitous disc format.  Now cylinder recordings and the phonographs designed to play them are sought and held only by collectors with a special interest in recordings of this era.  The Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project bridges the gap between these collectors and the general public by making these sound recordings available on the web at no cost in multiple digital formats.

The collection is large and abundant with educational narratives about the cylinder to complement the sound archives.  Users can search by title, author, subject, year, keyword, or U.C.S.B. call number, or they can browse the collection by genre.  Each file is available as a stream, MP3 file, and wav file, the latter two of which can be downloaded.  This versatility naturally increases the number of users who can access the collection and the purposes for which they can use it.

According to the Project Overview page, this digitization project began in January of 2002 and now contains approximately 36,000 audio files.  This part of the site provides thorough information on the project's history, funding, sources, technical details, cataloging, and the issue of quality.  Copyright information is addressed in a separate page, which explains that the restored and digitized recordings in the collection are licensed for non-commercial use under Creative Commons, although sound recordings were not eligible for copyright protection until 1972.

This vast and accessible digitization project has received quite a bit of press, and the reasons for this are immediately apparent.  In fact, the news section at the top of the main page states that The Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project was named one of the 50 best websites of 2008 by Time Magazine.  It is clear that the collection is constantly being expanded and the site is constantly being improved in order to provide more information to a wider audience of users.

The Cylinder Digitization and Preservation Project sets a fine example for similar digitization projects, which are currently being under-taken at an increasing rate.  Hopefully, others who are interested in digitizing analog sound recordings for the sake of preservation and accessibility will learn from this project.  It will doubtlessly have a lasting impact in the field of sound digitization and as well as on its users.