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George Vlahakis
University Communications

Mike Casey
Archives of Traditional Music

Alan R. Burdette
Archives of Traditional Music

Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2008

IUís Archives of Traditional Music a national leader in preserving audio history

April 9, 2008

Editors: An online sampler of recordings that have been saved is available at

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Trekking around Congo, Burundi and Rwanda in the early 1950s with a vacuum tube reel-to-reel tape deck, Alan and Barbara Merriam recorded the sounds of people in those locations performing local political and war songs.

Archives of Traditional Music

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

Print-Quality Photo

The Merriams returned to the United States with 76 open reels and more than 40 hours of recordings. Alan Merriam became a professor at Indiana University and his work, now housed in IU's Archives of Traditional Music, reveals much about political culture and music in lands then emerging from Belgian authority. But despite extraordinary efforts to save the recordings, the acetate tapes have gradually deteriorated due to natural processes.

Fast forward six decades later and recording engineer Paul Mahern is sitting down to listen to the tracks at the archives and to preserve them as part of its Sound Directions Project.

"I remembered the first couple of recordings sounding fairly poor. He (Merriam) was having some problems with the equipment," recalled Mahern, also a commercial music producer who has worked with John Mellencamp, Iggy Pop and several local Indiana musicians.

"Then, after four or five takes, it started to sound really good, and you could start to settle in," Mahern added. "These are all mono recordings made on a tube-powered recorder with one microphone in the field, and they sounded absolutely amazing."

Alan P. Merriam

Photo by: IU Archives

Alan P. Merriam in 1980

Print-Quality Photo

The Merriams' collection was the first in the archive's holdings to benefit from the media preservation initiative known as Sound Directions. IU's Archives of Traditional Music and the Archive of World Music at Harvard University are using nearly $700,000 in two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create new standards to digitally preserve similar endangered sound recordings.

This work was carried out by project and permanent staff at both institutions in consultation with an advisory board of experts in audio engineering, audio preservation and digital libraries.

Results of their efforts include a 168-page publication, Sound Directions: Best Practices for Audio Preservation, which has been downloaded off the Web more than 1,200 times since it became available in December. They also have developed open source software tools for other sound preservationists around the world.

"We hope that this will make a very positive, solid contribution toward audio preservation worldwide," said Mike Casey, associate director for recording services at the archives. "It's been estimated that there are upwards of 50 million hours of audio worldwide that are in need of preserving, most of them on analog carriers that are obsolete and deteriorating.

"Obsolescence -- of playback machines, technical expertise, tools and formats -- combined with degradation of carriers, represent twin evils that impede archivists' race against time to preserve important holdings," Casey added. "Many archivists believe that one of our generation's primary tasks is to digitize these holdings for long-term preservation and increased access before it is too late."

Recording formats

Examples of the kinds of recordings being digitized

Messages of thanks and praise have poured into the archives since the guide became available in December. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting, Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress -- arguably the nation's most important musical archive -- has been discussing Sound Directions for possible use there.

For example, an archive at the University of Pittsburgh asked for more information so it can digitize a 22-hour oral history collection.

Stanford and Arizona State universities, the University of Illinois and the New York Public Library are actively using the Sound Directions publication as part of their preservation efforts.

The archives, with help from the Center for the Study of History and Memory, has organized events at IU Bloomington next week to begin a discussion of audio and video preservation, and access issues on the campus:

  • Casey and two colleagues with the Digital Library Program, Jon Dunn and Jenn Riley, will explain the system and tools that were developed under Sound Directions and how other campus units might make use of them. The presentation will be from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday (April 14) in the Oak Room of the Indiana Memorial Union, 900 E. Seventh St.
  • They will hold an open meeting from 10 a.m. to noon on April 16 for everyone on the Bloomington campus who has audio or video collections to discuss common problems, issues and strategies. It will take place in the Maple Room of the IMU.
  • The public and campus community is invited to an open house at the Archives of Traditional Music, Morrison Hall 117, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. later that day. It will include tours, demonstrations, exhibits and opportunities to ask questions.

Casey said Sound Directions "establishes best practices in many areas where they did not previously exist. These practices include the capture of 'metadata' along with each recording." Metadata is information such as how and where the original recording was made, who the performers were, what instruments were played, details about its condition before it was digitized, and even a "snapshot" of the studio where it was transferred from its original analog format.

Each chapter is divided into two major parts -- a preservation overview that summarizes key concepts for collection managers and curators, followed by a section that presents recommended technical practices for audio engineers, digital librarians and other technical staff. This latter section includes a detailed look at the inner workings of the audio preservation systems at both Harvard and IU.

"In many ways on this project we saw our task as taking existing best practices and making them more detailed and more concrete in a real world project and extending them further," Casey said.

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. The IU Bloomington campus also is home to numerous other audio and video collections in other places, such as the IU Jacobs School of Music.

Casey said the Archives of Traditional Music is carefully assessing its sound collections to determine which recordings are most endangered and is looking for ways to make the preservation process more efficient and increase the number of recordings saved.

"For some of these formats, it's a race against time," Casey said.

A good example of this is the Merriam collection. The tapes suffered from what Casey called a "vinegar syndrome," where the acetate tape absorbs moisture from the air, breaks down and releases acetic acid. After testing to see how extensive the damage was, Mahern moved all other tape machines out of the studio, so as to not possibly contaminate the space for further tapes.

"Our work is about preserving and sharing the fragments of cultural histories that have been documented and archived here. They are often irreplaceable and their value is inestimable," said Archives of Traditional Music Director Alan Burdette. "Our understanding of the world in which we live would be much poorer without these recordings."

Sound Directions: Best Practices for Audio Preservation is available as a PDF file from the Sound Directions Web site at