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Archives of Traditional Music

Alan Burdette
Archives of Traditional Music

George Vlahakis
University Communications

Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009

IU Archives of Traditional Music awarded third NEH grant to preserve endangered recordings

March 26, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music (ATM) has been awarded a third grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, valued at $347,682, to continue its collaborative research and development project with Harvard University that will digitally preserve critically endangered sound recordings.

Archives of Traditional Music

Mike Casey (left) and Paul Mahern of the Archives of Traditional Music listen to a recording.

Print-Quality Photo

The NEH also funded the first phase of the "Sound Directions: Digital Preservation and Access for Global Audio Heritage" project, in which both institutions set out to create best practices and test emerging standards for transferring the recordings, now on deteriorating tapes and discs, into a digital archive.

It followed up with additional funding for the next phase of the project, when archivists used those processes to preserve 27 different collections of historic recordings representing five continents and the Caribbean, and dating as early as the 1930s.

Nearly 30 unique audio collections -- which were created on lacquer and aluminum discs and fragile reel-to-reel tape -- will be preserved as part of the third NEH grant. They document Native American, African American and Anglo American oral traditions, as well as those of other immigrant populations in the United States.

Some highlights include recordings from the Georgia Sea Islands, the W.P.A. Federal Radio Project, Prince Edward Island, Louisiana Creole storytelling, many Native American recordings made before 1950 and several collections of local Indiana music making from the 1940s.

"The preservation of these recordings is extremely important to our understanding of American history in all its facets. These recordings from the 1930s and 1940s of Lithuanian, Haitian, Italian, French and Finnish Immigrants, as well as African Americans in Georgia and Creoles in Louisiana all tell us something about the complexity of America and its relationship to the rest of the world, said Alan Burdette, music director of the Archives of Traditional Music.

"Recordings of Hopi, Tutelo, African Americans in Indianapolis or the Blackhawk Valley Boys of Ft. Wayne, Ind., all tell us something about community life across the U.S. -- some still thriving, some only a memory," Burdette added. "Part of our mission is to ensure that these rare documents of cultural history survive."

Mike Casey, ATM associate director, added, "We are in a race against time. Many of these recordings are falling apart very quickly, while the technology needed to play them becomes increasingly obsolete. This award will allow us to preserve some of our most endangered and valuable items."

The NEH is an independent grant-making agency of the U.S. government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation and public programs in the humanities. Preservation and Access grants are given to support research and development projects that advance the nation's capacity to preserve and provide access to humanities resources.

NEH particularly encourages projects that feature the innovative use of digital technology. Collaborating with the IU Digital Library Program, the ATM also will develop software tools for digital preservation. Awards normally are for two years and have ranged from $130,000 to $350,000.

Sound archives have reached a critical point in their history, marked by the rapid deterioration of original recordings, the development of new digital technologies, and the decline of analog formats and media. Most sound archivists believe that old analog-based preservation methods are no longer viable, and that a digital method eventually will make the recordings more accessible to people in the places where they were recorded years ago.

In addition to preserving the sounds, descriptive information will be digitally preserved -- such as the circumstances under which a recording was made and notes on its cultural importance. Technical information about the recording itself, such as what kind of tape or recording medium was used, also will be included.

With more than 110,000 recordings, the IU Archives of Traditional Music is one of the largest university-based ethnographic sound archives in the United States. Its holdings cover a wide range of cultural and geographical areas and include commercial and field recordings of vocal and instrumental music, folktales, interviews and oral history, as well as videotapes, photographs and manuscripts.

Many of these recordings document endangered or extinct languages from around the world. For more than 50 years, it has been a recognized leader in the sound archiving community, developing in step with technological and theoretical advances in ethnographic research and recorded sound.

For more information on the IU Archives of Traditional Music, including its history, mission statement, collections and staff, go to To learn more about the Sound Directions project, go to