Judith Gray, a specialist in Native American cultures, has been spending a lot of quality time down in the chilly decks of the Library’s Jefferson building lately. She curates the largest body of early recordings of indigenous American music and stories in the United States contained on nearly ten thousand wax cylinders.
When not on the deck, Judith is regularly spotted wearing a winter coat and carrying a thermos of coffee. She is leading an effort to prepare the cylinders for transfer next month to the Library’s National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) in Culpeper, Virginia. Once there, audio engineers will digitize the fragile recordings using state-of-the-art techniques that yield a capture far superior to anything ever before heard from cylinders. This will mark the first time the cylinders have been played since the Federal Cylinder Project, launched in the late 1970s to transfer cylinder recordings onto preservation tape. (More on this amazing preservation and access project at NAVCC will be forthcoming as the project ramps up this summer.)
Transferring the historic collection to its new location involves rehousing thousands of cylinders, along with complex sleuthing of old Federal Cylinder Project documentation to identify and describe the original recordings, some made as far back as the 1890s. Once rehoused and identified, the collection is cataloged by Margaret Kruesi and each cylinder’s container is inventoried, labeled, and barcoded by Marcia Segal in preparation for the fine art movers, who will then carefully pack and transport the precious cargo the 70-plus miles to NAVCC.
The project hasn’t been without its surprises.
The cylinder “looks approximately like a Persian cat on a bad hair day, once I take off the outer layers of cotton batting,” Judith reported one day upon opening a box that held a cylinder created by legendary ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore. Over the years, the cotton batting protecting the cylinder had become adhered, likely a result of water damage in the early 1960s.
This week, Marlan Green, Audiovisual Conservator, meticulously removed the affixed cotton fibers using tweezers and a soft brush while examining the cylinder under magnification. He then carefully placed the cleaned cylinders in new archival housings.
We will be sure to check back with some photographs from moving day! Meanwhile, to learn more about AFC’s cylinder collection and earlier preservation and access efforts, see folklorist Stephanie Hall’s recent blog post.