It’s a building people pass everyday. No one knew an important part of IU’s history was deteriorating up in the attic.
Franklin Hall near the Sample Gates is the site of an important discovery. Hundreds of rare lacquer discs are on the verge of being lost forever … and these archivists are in a race against time to preserve them.
“Lacquer disc is a unique one of a kind recording,” says Mike Casey, Associate Director of the IU Archives of Traditional Music. “These are recordings largely of the Indiana School of the Sky from the 1940s and 1950s, which was a nationally famous radio program produced by IU, very important part of IU’s history and what we are trying to do is get these lacquers out of here. They are covered with dust and debris and dirt from the room. This room has been vandalized over the years and the discs were taken out of steel cabinets and scattered about.”
Only seven episodes originally survived. This rescue mission would digitally preserve 750 more.
Alan Burdette is director of the IU Archives of Traditional Music. “To think about what they were thinking about in 1949, 1950, which are the dates that we’re seeing on the labels, things programs about our relationship with Japan five years after the war, some of them are about atomic power, some titles about atomic power, some titles about racial tolerance. From what we know these are recordings that were broadcasts to elementary and high school age kids in Indiana in the mid 20th century. It’s also interesting to think about could these same types of programs be broadcast to schools today, a program on Darwin and evolution would the University encounter difficulties putting forth programs like that into schools today compared to 1950?”
But before the content can be used, the discs must be restored. The process starts in the attic. Each disc is carefully cleaned and photographed for documentation, then moved out of the attic by the only way out – a ladder.
Next they are taken back to the Archives of Traditional Music where they’ll be loaded into the vault.
“Then it’s a matter of trying to digitize them, it’s a matter of trying to find resources to do this work, it’s fairly expensive work to do,” says Mike.
We were able to follow the digital preservation of one disc to see why the team needs funding to complete the project.
“This is marked with a red M, so we think that this means that this was the master disc of this particular broadcast for the Indiana School of the Sky, so we start with a little bit of cleaning,” says Mark Hood, Project Engineer from the Archives of Traditional Music.
A solvent is used to remove deposits that formed on the disc. After a rinse, the solution is worked into the grooves to remove the solvent.
Another rinse completes the cleaning for this disc, but the process may be repeated a number of times depending on the condition of the disc.
Then a disc drying device sucks all the solvent and rinse water off before being played.
“This was a one of a kind made by hand record. By looking through the scope, I’m able to see the shape, depth and width of the groove and that helps me select a stylus that has the best chance of playing this disc properly.”
Then the moment of truth. With the placement of a needle, a voice booms, music plays and for a moment, it’s 1950.
“There is I think a lot to be learned about the School of the Sky,” says Alan. “It’s a history that needs to be further explored based on what we know it was a modeled program for its time and very well respected, so it’s exciting to find this much of that material and it’s part of the wonderful legacy that IU has.”
Although the Archives of Traditional Music has the most expertise with lacquer discs, they have not formally added the discs into their collection because many are out of their scope. It remains to be seen where the discs and the resulting files will ultimately reside. They have just begun the process of gathering data to use in seeking funding to preserve the rest of the discs.