Audio Preservation

Preservation of music and spoken word materials is managed by the Director for Preservation and carried out through the Columbia Computer Music Center and external service bureaus.

Audiotapes are preserved by re-recording original recordings onto reel-to-reel tape, following nationally recognized preservation practices and guidelines; and the creation of digital use copies. Analog copies, carefully made and properly stored, are considered nationally to be the best medium for long-term preservation of sound recordings. Sound is a continuum, and analog recordings capture the entire continuum, while digital recordings capture through repeated sampling. The sampling rate has increased as the technology has improved, and making new analog masters assures that decades into the future, when digital technology has progressed to new levels of accuracy, we will still have the option to create new digital versions from the full continuum of sound. Columbia follows technical standards and guidelines for audio preservation advocated by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections Associated Audio Archives Committee (ARSC-AAA), the Joint Technical Commission of the Audio Engineering Society (AES), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).

It is clear that digital copies are the better option for access and use. CDs suffer much less from wear and tear during use than do reel-to-reel or cassette tapes. Most researchers prefer digital copies to facilitate random access and manipulation of the content as well as signal analysis and processing, and all are faced with the obsolescence of reel-to-reel technology and difficulty in locating still functional play-back equipment. Users find CDs much easier to employ in research and teaching than reel-to-reel versions, as offices and classrooms are equipped with CD players and increasingly with computers capable of conveying high quality sound recordings. Finally, high-quality CD-Rs are a stable medium with a good life expectancy.

Funding for Columbia's audio preservation program comes from a combination of Libraries funds, donations from philanthropic foundations, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the New York State Conservation/Preservation Program. Recent projects include:

  • Preservation of audiotapes from the Language and Culture Archive of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ) held in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The LCAAJ is an extraordinary resource for research in Yiddish studies, ranging over language, ethnography, folklore and music, anthropology, linguistics, Germanic and Slavic studies, and aspects of Central and East European history. It consists of 5,755 hours of audiotaped field interviews with Yiddish-speaking informants collected between 1959 and 1972. The material on the tapes is unique -- there are no transcriptions -- and the tapes are rapidly deteriorating. Support for this effort includes:
    • An award from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a two-year project (2000-2002) for staff and supplies to preserve 1,180 hours of the LCAAJ originals.
    • An award from the New York State Conservation/Preservation Program for a two-year project (1999-2001) to purchase analog tape stock to be used in re-recording 1,200 hours of the LCAAJ originals.
    • Donations (1996-2000) from the Atran Foundation, the David & Barbara B. Hirschhorn Foundation, the Morris J. & Betty Kaplun Foundation, the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, and the Solow Foundation for staff and supplies.
  • The Coordinated Music Preservation Project, funded by the New York State Conservation/Preservation Program in 1997-1999 to re-record unique music recordings produced between 1951 and 1968 at three pre-eminent New York institutions: Columbia University Department of Music, Cornell University Department of Music, and the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. A total of 920 hours from Columbia, 400 from Cornell, and 500 from Rochester have been preserved. The Columbia portion of the project was selected from two collections:
    • The Columbia Composers series, featuring performances of works by graduates students in Columbia's renowned composition program, including Ezra Laderman, Wen-chung Chou, Charles Wuorinen, Walter Carlos, Harvey Sollberger, Joan Tower, Jon Appleton, Alice Shields, and many others.
    • Columbia Composers Forum concerts and discussions which presented the work of emerging American composers in New York City in the 1950s-1960s under the joint sponsorship of the New York Public Library and Columbia University.