Saving an Endangered Species

In a race against time, the elements and eBay, the UC Santa Barbara Library, in collaboration with L.A.-based collector John Levin, has created the Early Recordings Initiative — the first public-private partnership to promote the preservation and digitization of pre-1903 sound recordings and public access to them.

“The majority of these recordings have been lost due to their sensitivity to humidity and poor handling over the years,” said Levin. “It’s amazing that any of these have survived.”

First invented by Edison in 1877 and made of tinfoil, commercialized early recordings were made on wax cylinders about the size of soda cans. The cylinders have a brown, soaplike texture that makes them extremely fragile.

“Early recordings are like endangered species that scientists know cannot survive in the wild,” said Levin. “These records need special handling and care if they are to survive more than another 20 to 30 years.

“Brown wax cylinders document an important time in our history,” Levin added. “They came before the dawn of mass media and before there was a music industry or commercializing of music and spoken word as a commodity. It’s a time of tremendous change, industrialization, people moving from rural areas to cities, and economic instability.”

Cylinders made before 1903 are particularly important as that was the year they began to be mass-produced. Most extant pre-1903 recordings are one-of-a-kind. “When we think of a record now, we think of a record being a copy,” said Levin. “Before 1903, there was almost no such thing as a copy because they were made in small batches.” Unlike printed materials, these early recordings have not been systematically collected, documented or studied — until recently.

UCSB Library has the most extensive collection of early recordings on the West Coast. Its Cylinder Audio Archive is the largest online collection of downloadable historic sound recordings.

The Early Recordings Initiative aims to create options for people to pass their collections on without forcing them to make a choice between donation, compensation or dissolution. Using a collecting strategy common in the art world and applying it to early sound recordings, people can sell, donate or both when giving their collection to UCSB Library.

“People need an incentive not to sell (cylinders) on eBay,” said Levin. “We’ve got to encourage people to get cylinders out of their attics, basements and storage lockers and into long-term preservation and public distribution.”


Spring / Summer 2022

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