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Boston Public Library Springs Its Record Collection From Hiding

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The unique four-stylus record player used to digitize tracks for the Internet Archive.
Courtesy, The Boston Public Library
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Among the millions of songs you can listen to on popular platforms like Amazon, iTunes and Spotify, there’s no shortage of versions of Grieg's "Piano Concerto." But until recently, online, you couldn’t hear this particular release of it, by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra, from a 1947 four-record set, "Concertos for Dancing," on the RCA Victor label.

This version was digitized from a 10” shellac 78 in Boston Public Library’s record collection. Now, if you didn’t know the BPL even had a record collection, fear not, you’re not alone. It’s been hidden away for decades. 

"It has been completely inaccessible. People didn’t know about it," said Laura Irmscher, chief of collections at the BPL. "They didn’t know it was here and they couldn’t get to it if they knew it was here."

Irmscher, along with Content Discovery Manager Tom Blake, agreed to take me where few have gone: into the library's lower basement, deep below Boylston Street, to browse the approximately 200,000 LP’s and 78s sitting on dozens of rows of shelves.

And we’re not a moment too soon. The library has decided it’s high time they made these recordings available to the public. And so they are undertaking to do just that — by getting rid of them all.  

"Over here we have 500 boxes, eight pallets of pallets...and 15,000 feet of packing tape," said Irmscher as we walked toward the collection.

These supplies will be used to carefully pack and ship the bevy of vinyl and shellac records to the Internet Archive — a San Francisco-based library that preserves digital versions of, among other things, old websites, books, and recorded music. 

"The way these are being digitized, they’re going on a turntable with four different styluses and the different needles are going to pick up different things," said Blake. "So, if you go onto the website where these will be made available, you’re going to get to listen to them in four different ways."

The library built its vast collection of mainly commercial recordings over a course of many years, with donations coming from myriad institutions and individuals.

"We would take in just about anything," said Irmscher. "The goal of the collection was to get just about as broad a spectrum as we could."

In that regard, they appear to have succeeded. The records span from the early 1900s to the 1980s. There’s folk, jazz, classical, rock, pop, soundtracks, spoken word and children's music.

Blake picked a shelf at random and grabbed two records to prove the point.

"We’ve got 'No Jacket Required' by Phil Collins right next to 'Hitler’s Inferno In Words, In Music: Marching Songs of Nazi Germany,'" he said.

That's quite the range.

The Internet Archive’s collection already includes tens of thousands of digitized tracks, but that’s just a fraction of their goal of some three million. How many new ones will come from the library’s collection is anyone’s guess. There’s no catalogue of what’s actually in it. The hope is that there will be plenty – especially among the 78s. Case in point: “Please Pass the Biscuits Pappy,“ from 1938 by W. Lee O’Daniel and his Hillbilly Boys.

"These are not going to be remastered or reengineered," said Blake. "So you’re gonna hear the dust, the scratches, the pops. And the idea of that is to present these recordings and digitize them … the same way they would have been heard by somebody 100 years ago."

The Internet Archive preserves each track in multiple file formats and makes them available online — at no cost — to stream and download. Perhaps most importantly, says Irmscher, the they also keep each physical record under conditions far superior to the dank, if charming, basement where they’ve been hiding for decades.

"It’s gonna be climate-controlled," she said. "It’s gonna be preservation quality so that these physical things will actually be taken care of well into the future."

And in the end, Blake says, that’s the whole point. The library chose to partner with the Internet Archive on this for a simple reason — they’re both on the same mission: to preserve and make historic works available, for free, to all.  

"Just knowing that my kids, who spend a lot of their times on pods and pads, on the one hand, they could be playing a video game, and the next thing you know, they might be following a link to one of these recordings," said Blake. "Enabling serendipitous discovery is what excites me about these types of projects."

Enabling serendipitous discovery? That’s always going to get the Curiosity Desk stamp of approval. 

It will take a few years for all of the nuggets in the BPL's collection to be unearthed and added to the Internet Archive, but there's already plenty of gems there waiting to be discovered should you want to browse. And if there is something that’s piqued your curiosity lately, let me know about it. I’m always looking for story ideas and there’s nothing better than doing one that helps satisfy your curiosity. Email me at curiositydesk@wgbh.org.

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