Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music (ATM) is a treasure trove of rare recordings dating back to the 1890s. Songs from the Congo, dances from Nepal, and the sounds of extinct languages represent some of the ATM’s 110 thousand items that ethnographic researchers and folklorists from around the world use in their research.
But some of the old recordings in the ATM’s collection are decomposing and rapidly becoming become unplayable. I visited the ATM to find out why this legacy of sight and sound is threatened, and what the ATM is doing to preserve it before it’s too late.
Mike Casey, associate director of recording services, showed me around the ATM’s offices in the basement of Morrison Hall. First stop was the ATM’s vault. Casey pressed a button on the side of a twelve-foot-high steel shelf unit, which slid across the floor, revealing shelves filled with boxes of wax cylinders, aluminum discs, and reel-to-reel audio tapes.
The items looked safe in the temperature- and humidity-controlled vault with its fire-suppression system and direct link to IU’s physical plant. But the vault only protects the collection from external dangers—not from internal ones.
As Casey told me, any of the collections in the ATM’s holdings are chemically degrading—victims of their own chemistry and the ravages of time. And once they degrade, the audio content on them will be lost forever.
“Audio recordings such as open-reel tape, particularly some of the formats like lacquered disks, are failing catastrophically,” Casey said. “With the lacquers, we’re literally in a race against time.
It’s a race they might lose. The ATM is preserving what it can, but there’s only so much time and money to do it in.
Casey brought me into Preservation Studio Number One and introduced me to Mark Hood, the ATM’s chief audio engineer. Hood, a former radio DJ, wore a pair of latex gloves as he sat at his workstation, which featured three computer monitors, at least four cassette decks, and a lot of expensive-looking electronic equipment.
On the day I visited, he was converting lacquered discs into computer files. The discs were made by folklorist Herbert Halpert on a heavy, bulky recorder in the New Jersey Pine Barrens in 1939. The disc on Hood’s Technics turntable looked like a slightly oversized vinyl LP, but hidden under the black lacquer surface was an aluminum base.
“No one really knew how these would age when they were first made,” Hood said. “In some cases discs like this lose their suppleness in their coating and they suddenly fracture and peel off of the aluminum substrate. In which case, all the information is lost. We can never put it back together again.”
The lacquer degrades because it was treated with castor oil to soften it for recording. Over the years, the castor oil evaporates and the lacquer shrinks. But the aluminum base keeps its size, and the lacquered disc cracks and peels. According to Hood, the cracking and peeling can happen without warning.
“Lacquer delamination is often very surprisingly sudden. It plays today great, you open it up tomorrow and it’s in pieces.”
The first thing Hood does when he gets a disc is examine the grooves under a stereo microscope to become familiar with its unique wear pattern. Once he knows the wear pattern, he chooses a stylus from among thirteen custom-made models that are laid out in front of his turntable.
“And by using the microscope and some calculators that I have, I get a good idea of what will be a good fit between a stylus and the groove on this particular lacquer.”
If he gets a good-quality playback from the disc, he’ll create a digital file of the recording, and the disc will never have to be played again.
“So this is hopefully the best, last playback that we’ll need to make of these discs to preserve their content,” he said.
Another problem the ATM deals with is one that afflicts reel-to-reel audio tapes: Sticky Shed Syndrome. That’s when the decades-old tape sheds oxide which deposits itself on the playback heads. A tape so afflicted is impossible to understand: The audio signal is horribly muffled, and overlaid with an annoying, high-pitched squeal.
Fortunately, the ATM has a way of getting around the syndrome. It bakes the tape in a scientific incubator at a hundred and twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit for about eight hours. When the tape cools, it will temporarily give a clean playback.
The videotapes and Digital Audio Tapes in the ATM’s collection pose yet another sort of headache: obsolescence. The tapes themselves are in playable condition, but finding the machines to play them back on—such as U-matic, Betamax, or two inch reel-to-reel—can be impossible.
“Fifteen or twenty of forty video standards, each which requires its own playback machine,” Hood said. “And there’s no market for any of those machines, so you either have one, or you’ll never find one.”
The ATM makes tough decisions about which of its endangered items to save first. According to Mike Casey, they first consider which collections are falling apart the fastest.
“’Which ones are most at risk?’ We look at how valuable the collections appear to be to researchers or to the communities from which they came. And we rank them by value as well. So what happens is that collections that are most at risk and most valuable rise to the top of our list, and we try to do those first.”
Would it be possible for the ATM digitize its entire collection? According to Casey, it could, but it would take about sixty years.
“We don’t have sixty years to do this work,” he added. “So something has to happen.”
That “something” could be more grant money. The ATM’s preservation work is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the archive is now on its third NEH grant. Unless they get more grants, their preservation work will come to a halt.