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Color photo shows Hannah Whitaker turned slightly to her left, smiling, at the forefront of a flower garden.
Hannah Whitaker.

Q & A: Hannah Whitaker, Preserving Live Music from Long Ago

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Hannah Whitaker is pursuing a master’s degree in library and information science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is interning this summer as a junior fellow in the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC).

Tell us a little about your project.

I’m working with Erika Cooley, a junior fellow from the University of South Florida, at NAVCC in Culpeper, Virginia. We’re processing 16-inch lacquer discs from the Universal Music Group collection.

The collection contains thousands of discs that were created between the 1930s and the 1950s, primarily under the Decca label. Notable artists featured in the collection include Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Jimmy Dorsey, among countless others.

Lacquer discs, which are made by coating an aluminum disc with a thin layer of nitrocellulose, were used in the early 20th century to capture live recording sessions. The lacquers were then used to form metal masters and stampers, designed to mass-produce discs to be sold commercially. Our job is to inventory the original lacquers and create metadata for them so they can be cataloged.

Describe a typical day.

Each day, Erika and I input the metadata we create into an Excel spreadsheet.

First, we remove the discs from their original — and often damaged — sleeves and insert them into sturdy sleeves on which we write the disc’s identifying matrix number that was assigned at the time of recording, the artist’s name and the song title. We then assign each disc a new number — called an IDC (instantaneous disc) number — so archivists can easily identify specific materials within the vaults.

When working with discs that are nearly 80 years old, it is not uncommon to find broken or damaged discs. When we inevitably do, we inventory the discs, then place them into broken disc housing. From there, NAVCC audio engineers will digitize them before further damage can be done. Our goal is to mitigate any damage and preserve the music.

When creating metadata, Erika and I include as much information as we can glean from the contents of the disc and its accompanying sleeve, including who the artist was, the song title, how many tracks are cut into the disc and any notes that may have been written or etched directly onto the disc. Once the lacquer discs are inventoried, researchers will be able to more easily access the collection.

What have you discovered of special interest?

What I find most interesting about this project hasn’t been one specific thing, but rather the time period during which many of these lacquers were cut, including during World War II.

During the war, aluminum was rationed, forcing recording studios to adapt and use glass as the base for lacquers. Erika and I processed a glass-based lacquer from 1939. I can’t help but become emotional when I realize that during the darkest time in global history, artists continued to create, bringing light into the lives of petrified, weary individuals. Still, we danced.

Additionally, Erika and I were taught about IRENE, which stands for Image, Reconstruct, Erase, Noise, Etcetera. IRENE can play back damaged discs that cannot withstand a stylus by using a camera with microscopic capabilities to detect the edges of the grooves. It was fascinating to learn how broken discs can still be digitized with ingenious technological advances. 

What attracted you to the Junior Fellows program?

As a library science master’s student, I was searching for a fellowship that would allow me to draw on my knowledge of music trivia while providing me with relevant archival experience. This junior fellowship is doing just that. I have learned so much in the few short weeks I have been here and know that I will carry these preservation and conservation skills throughout my career in libraries, wherever it may take me.

What has your experience been like so far?

Both Erika and I find working at NAVCC educational and exciting. We got to attend the 2023 Audio Engineering Society’s international conference on audio archiving, preservation and restoration, which was hosted here in Culpeper, providing us with invaluable networking opportunities.

NAVCC is staffed by such intelligent and supportive librarians, archivists, engineers and technicians who are gracious and eager to teach. This fellowship has granted us a strong foundation in audio preservation and archival practices and will only serve to benefit our future careers as librarians and archivists.

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  1. Preserving/archiving music from the past is such an important component of the worlds history.
    IRENE is an amazing innovation . Kudos to all of the people involved in this project.

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