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Record cleaner used to clean music records
Keith Monks record cleaner, a device used industry-wide which uses cleaning fluid, a brush, and a vacuum system to clear discs of all embedded dirt and dust. (Rob Cristarella/Library of Congress)

Who We Are: Rob Cristarella, Audio Preservation Specialist

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This blog post features an article written by Library of Congress staff with Rob Cristarella originally posted on the Specialty Interview and Articles page of the National Recording Preservation Plan.

The original article has been edited and updated with assistance from Rob Cristarella.

Rob Cristarella has been with the Library of Congress since 2011. His title is Audio Preservation Specialist.

He works, not so much at a desk, but at a console, surrounded by audio equipment. He sits, every day, in an audio studio, one of a series of nine specially-designed rooms at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus in Culpeper, VA. These rooms were built for optimal sound quality.

two mixing consoles and a computer for audio engineering
The work surface that Rob uses in the audio studio. (Rob Cristarella/Library of Congress)

They float. That is, the room is a room within a room, built on a rubber frame, to prevent outside vibrations from coloring the sound inside. Internally, the walls are non-parallel and there are sound diffusion and sound absorption treatments attached to each inside wall and on the ceiling.

Computers, mixing consoles, and equipment in audio engineer studio
Another view of the studio (Rob Cristarella/Library of Congress)

Ever since Rob first joined the Library, most of his work comes to him from the Library’s American Folklife Center (AFC). One collection that Rob has worked on is an audio collection from the 1940s that the AFC acquired from Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania – consisting of airchecks and other recordings from their campus station WSRN. The collection is made up of discs, cassettes, open reels and DATs (digital audio tapes). They are mainly recordings of various folk singers, many who were very talented but few who were very famous. Rob’s job was to digitize these recordings, not only seeing to their preservation but also to make it easier for them to be shared and listened to. Most of these recordings have probably only ever been listened to once–if even that much!

After Rob gets assigned a collection from AFC, the raw materials, the original items, will be sent to him from the Folklife offices up in DC. From there, he’ll first work on cleaning the discs and other items. This might involve everything from using a microfiber cloth to employing a Keith Monks Record Cleaner, a device used industry-wide which uses cleaning fluid, a brush, and a vacuum system to clear discs of all embedded dirt and dust.

Record cleaner used to clean music records
Keith Monks Record Cleaner, a device used industry-wide which uses cleaning fluid, a brush, and a vacuum system to clear discs of all embedded dirt and dust. (Rob Cristarella/Library of Congress)


After the items are free of debris, Rob will—in the case of a disc—select the proper speed and appropriate sized stylus for the record and then put it on his turntable. (Though later standardized, early on there was no consensus for speed or groove size.) As he starts the record up, he’ll begin to ingest the sound into a digital audio workstation. He’ll maintain the audio levels but, beyond that, Library policy is not to “fix” any alleged flaws in the recording—the goal is to preserve a recording as purely as possible. Any audio cleanup of noise or similar flaws can be done later, on a copy of this preservation file using ever-evolving specialty software.

As with video or film digitization, audio digitization takes place in real time. A disc that is 30 minutes long takes 30 minutes to digitize. During the digitization process, Rob will listen for any skips or other physical flaws like hairline cracks or chips on the disc surface that interferes with the smooth processing of the sounds being captured. Those he will fix, if possible.

Along with overseeing the digitization process, Rob will also input into his system the necessary metadata for each recording. Metadata elements will include: the Library catalog number, the type of equipment used, the date, and his name as the digitizing engineer.

Over his ten-plus years with the Library of Congress, Rob has had access to some remarkable sounds. One of the most memorable was a treasure trove of lacquer discs, long believed lost, recorded by the one and only Woody Guthrie. They were made, circa 1941, during Guthrie’s month-long employment with the Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) in Portland, OR. Hired as an “information consultant,” Guthrie’s job was to write songs to “sell” the idea of the project to the public. During his short time, Guthrie was prolific and wrote several memorable works including, not surprisingly, “Grand Coulee Dam.”

Shortly thereafter, Guthrie recorded demos of his compositions but, beyond that, they had little distribution.

Decades later, a number of these discs (which included Guthrie singing “Pastures of Plenty” and “Roll on Columbia”) were found in, yes, a thrift shop. The purchaser of the discs wasn’t really sure what they were or what to do with them, so, he posted about them on an audio-oriented online discussion board. This brought them to the attention of both Rob and AFC archivist Todd Harvey who acquired them for the American Folklife Center and then sent them to Rob for preservation.

They are 11 double sided sound discs, featuring Guthrie with guitar and sometimes harmonica. Despite over seventy years of time and unknown use and storage, according to Rob, “Most of the sound quality is PHENOMENAL!” The finding aid for the Woody Guthrie Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) recordings provides even more information about these discs – and how to access them.

Columbia River with power lines in background
Columbia River and crossing towers for transmitting power across the river from hydroelectric plant at Bonneville Dam, Oregon. Photo by Russell Lee, October, 1941.

Listening to the lost, the forgotten, the unheard is a big, big part of Rob’s job. But the biggest part is making them no longer lost, securing them for future generations to hear, enjoy and learn from.

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