Note: This is a guest post by John Fenn. John is the new head of the Research and Programs section of the American Folklife Center.
My first weeks here at the American Folklife Center have been a whirlwind of meetings, trainings, and orientations to all aspects of the Library of Congress. As I’ve wandered through the stacks or the Folklife Center’s Reading Room, myriad items have grabbed my attention or piqued my curiosity. For the most part, I’ve felt like a kid in a candy shop. There is one object, though, that repeatedly has caught my eye: a Nagra IV-S reel-to-reel field recorder. Perched atop a filing cabinet full of reference materials, it’s a photogenic device and likely holds within its circuitry a host of tales about the places it’s been.
Portable Nagra tape machines have been central to on-site professional audio recording since the Switzerland-based Kudelski SA company revealed the first production model in 1953, the Nagra II. Designed by Polish inventor, Stefan Kudelski, over the years the Nagra line has proven to be rugged and sturdy, favored by motion picture recordists, reporters, and ethnographers around the world. The name “Nagra” derives from the Polish verb nargrac, and translates as “it will record.” Folklorists have made good on this name by using Nagra machines to document music and song, verbal art, cultural soundscapes, and interviews around the world.
The IV-S model is a stereo recorder introduced in 1971. The American Folklife Center acquired several IV-S machines to support our own field projects, and there is a good chance that the very machine I’ve admired in the Reading Room ran tapes that are in the Montana Folklife Survey, the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, the Omaha Indian Music presentation, and a number of fieldwork collections created by our founding director, the late Alan Jabbour.
In addition to using Nagras for its own fieldwork efforts, the Center provided these machines and other field recording gear to folklorists through the Library of Congress Equipment Loan Program. Emerging in the early 1930s, this program tracked the arc of portable recording technologies—from instantaneous disc cutters weighing several hundred pounds to the relatively “light” Nagra IV-S (tipping the scales at about 15 pounds, fully loaded with batteries and tape). As described in the American Folklife Center illustrated Guide, “The strategy of lending equipment and recording supplies to a network of regional collectors was enormously productive, both in building the collection and in creating a community of folklorists with ties to the Library.”
With advances in portable audio technology starting in the cassette era of the late 1980s and on through the current digital era, reliable field recording gear has become much lighter and less expensive. But the American Folklife Center holds onto Nagras in acknowledgment of the history of our field. The few we have on display at the AFC embody the material culture behind folklife fieldwork, representing examples of the technological heritage of the Center and the important documentation efforts we have supported over the years. They have traveled around the U.S., from Ohio to Louisiana to Montana to Illinois, with Center staff and non-staff folklorists alike. And, they are beautiful to behold.