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Preparing thousands of the earliest ethnographic recordings on wax cylinders for transfer to the National Audio-visual Conservation Center

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Judith Gray holding a cylinder and cylinder box.
Judith Gray, the Native American specialist at the American Folklife Center, rehouses cylinders from the Frances Densmore collection.

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.)

Processing archivist Marcia Segal organizes cylinders into shelflist order.
Processing archivist Marcia Segal organizes cylinders into shelflist order.

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.

Audiovisual Conservator Marlan Green removes cotton batting from wax cylinders.
Audiovisual conservator Marlan Green removes cotton batting from wax cylinders.

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Very exciting… Good luck with the Archaeophone, NAVCC engineers! Hope to hear about this at the ARSC Conference in Pittsburgh.

  2. Wow, what an amazing story & honour it must be to work with such historical recordings, I look forward to listening to a lot of these recordings. One of the songs that I’ve recently listened to was recognized as a song belonging to the Stanjikoming First Nation here in Ontario Canada & listed as “dream song (a)” and sung by Awún’akúm’Ígíckún’ (Fog covering the earth).

  3. This is such a worthwhile and important project. Thanks for featuring it in this informative and well-written blog!

  4. I still think that the metallikc soap cylinder is a good medium for ethnographic purposes. As long as they are kept at low humidity, and room temperature they will last a very long time. I collaborated with Pablo Helguera and we created the Dead Languages Conservatory. I made the blank cylinders from raw materials. Some of the Native American cylinders are at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and are part of the collections. Among the cylinders are Chief Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of EYAK, and Apache Princess Alista Thorne, who told the beautiful Apache creation story.

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