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Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2005

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

Photo by: Kevin Atkins

IU's Archives of Traditional Music will use an NEH grant to maintain historic and highly valuable sound recordings. Above: Examples of recording formats used by fieldworkers from the 1890s to the present.

Print-Quality Photo

EDITORS: A news conference with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole will be held today (Feb. 3) at 4 p.m. in the University Club at the Indiana Memorial Union. IU Archives of Traditional Music director Daniel B. Reed and project manager Mike Casey will be available for interviews.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music and the Archive of World Music at Harvard University have been awarded a $348,441 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a collaborative research and development project designed to create best practices and test emerging standards in the digital preservation of critically endangered sound recordings. It is the second-largest grant amount among the NEH's most recent awards for research and development projects.

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, a former professor of art history and comparative literature at IU Bloomington, will present the Preservation and Access Research and Development grant during a news conference at 4 p.m. today (Feb. 3) in the University Club at the Indiana Memorial Union, 900 E. Seventh St.

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 new strategies must be developed in the digital domain.

ATM, in collaboration with Harvard's Archive of World Music, will use the NEH grant to maintain historic and highly valuable sound recordings of extraordinary national interest. The "Sound Directions: Digital Preservation and Access for Global Audio Heritage" project will create best practices and test emerging standards for archival audio preservation and storage in the digital domain. Different institutions may be able to adopt these methods and attain digital preservation without completely overhauling their existing operations.

The creation of interoperable audio preservation files is a groundbreaking and critical step to a complete digital audio preservation process, said Daniel B. Reed, ATM director and assistant professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at IU Bloomington.

"As the caretakers of unique, irreplaceable collections representing cultures from around the globe, we must solve the problem of preserving our endangered audio resources. The NEH grant will enable us to solve the problem of preserving audio resources accurately, reliably and for the long term, while making these recordings readily accessible to those who most need them. Only when we can feel assured that we have new programs in place that ensure the survival of our threatened cultural heritage can we reliably take advantage of the dramatic expansions of access that digitization and the Internet afford," Reed said.

Photo by: Kevin Atkins

An open reel tape that is curled and windowed.

Print-Quality Photo

The recordings chosen as test cases for "Sound Directions" will be drawn from the rich ethnographic field collections of the IU and Harvard archives. Selected collections at ATM include music of Iraqi Jews in Israel, music from pre-Taliban Afghanistan, African-American protest songs from the 1920s through the 1940s, and music related to the world's longest-running civil war in Sudan.

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. 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.

ATM has received several major grants over the years from federal agencies such as NEH and private foundations. One digitization project, funded by the NEH, resulted in the interactive CD-ROM publication Music and Culture of West Africa: The Straus Expedition (Gibson and Reed, 2002). ATM also has collaborated with the IU Digital Library Program to create online access to many items in IU's extensive collections pertaining to the life and career of songwriter Hoagy Carmichael.

ATM will again partner with the IU Digital Library Program on "Sound Directions," which will unfold over 18 months beginning in February. An advisory board of nationally-renowned technical experts will evaluate the project's results.

The Archive of World Music at Harvard, which was established in 1976, is devoted to the acquisition of archival field recordings of music worldwide as well as commercial sound recordings, videos and DVDs of interest to ethnomusicologists. The archive boasts what likely is the largest collection of Indian classical music in the United States.

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. Awards normally are for two years and have ranged from $130,000 to $350,000.

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 Archive of World Music at Harvard, visit

To learn more about the Sound Directions project, go to