Indiana University

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Last modified: Tuesday, May 1, 2007

IU Archives of Traditional Music awarded second NEH grant to digitally save endangered recordings

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Native American, African collections will be focus of the next phase

May 1, 2007

Editors: A montage of preserved sounds from the Sound Directions project at Indiana University is available for listening at

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Archives of Traditional Music (ATM) and the Archive of World Music at Harvard University have been awarded a $349,910 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to continue their collaborative research and development project that will digitally preserve critically endangered sound recordings.

All of the grant funds are coming to IU, because Harvard is continuing as an unfunded partner in the project. The grant proposal was one of seven to receive unanimous ratings of "excellent" by NEH reviewers, out of more than 200 submitted.

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. During the next phase of the project, archivists will preserve 27 different collections of historic recordings representing five continents and the Caribbean, and dating as early as the 1930s.

"We will ramp up production and digitally preserve as much of our threatened cultural heritage as possible," said Daniel B. Reed, ATM director and assistant professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at IU Bloomington. "This is part of our recorded history. We have recorded history of many groups and events from around the world that aren't replicated elsewhere. If we don't take active steps to preserve this material, it will go away."

ATM and Harvard's Archive of World Music used part of the first NEH grant to preserve collections 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 body of work we have selected for this next phase focuses on the two greatest collections of the Archives of Traditional Music, Native North America and Africa, while also including collections from Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, Europe and the Middle East," Reed said.

Included are 10 collections of Native American recordings made during a 15-year period between 1933 and 1949, which together provide a valuable view into cultural history. Four of the collections include peyote songs, which provide an opportunity for comparative study of this religious genre among four different tribes during the same time period.

Five of the African audio collections include oral histories of topics of conflict. Six collections were recorded by (or in part by) the ATM's founder George Herzog, an IU professor who was instrumental in the development of ethnomusicology as an academic discipline.

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 collected years ago.

"At the Archives of Traditional Music, we are responsible for the stewardship of a vast array of very important and unique recorded heritage from around the world," Reed said. "We have something in every recorded format ever used in field recording. Some of those formats are relatively stable and still need attention paid to them, but they are not in danger of their contents going away very soon. On the other hand, other recording formats are quite in danger. They are actively deteriorating in our vaults as we speak and must be rescued very soon."

ATM has undergone a systematic review to assess the needs of its collection. Mike Casey, associate director for recording services, has developed new software for determining whether a recording is endangered -- the Field Audio Collection Evaluation Tool. It soon will be published and made available to other music archivists across the country.

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.

"People want to be able to get as close as possible to the original recording to experience it," Casey said. "Because we are an archive, we can't provide them with access to the original recording, but we can provide them with information that helps them understand more deeply the recording and its original format and condition."

About the IU Archives of Traditional Music

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. 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.

About the Archive of World Music at Harvard

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.

About the NEH

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

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