Echoes of the past

Jan. 18, 2012, 1:30 a.m.

Peering around corners of tall bookcases, winding through a trail of old gramophones and speakers, a visit to Stanford’s Archive of Recorded Sound is an adventure through the music and voices of the past century.


The Archive, located in the basement of Braun Music Library, was created in 1958 when the University’s first music librarian, Edward Colby, developed an interest in historical sound recordings. At the time, old style 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) records were being quickly replaced by the newer LP format (long-playing phonograph record), and Colby felt that libraries should hurry to collect the historical disks before they disappeared.


Today, the Archive houses about 100,000 78 rpm disks and 200,000 LP records and is overseen by head librarian Jerry McBride.


“Much of the collection comes to us from private donations, though we do have some funds for purchasing items,” McBride said. “The primary purpose of the recordings here is for the use of Stanford students and faculty for their research, teaching and study.”


The Archive contains sound recordings of all types, ranging from classical concerts and opera performances to spoken word readings, radio broadcasts and homemade sound effects. From delicate cylinders, thick lacquered disks and traditional 22 rpm LPs to spools of reel-to-reel tape and boxes of CDs, the recordings span the last century and come in formats representative of their time period. The Archive also has the devices needed to play all of these recordings: many of these devices are historical pieces themselves.


“The recordings can be used for historical research or research of any topic. Anything in sound can be the source of research,” McBride said. “We get a wide range of people using the Archive. It’s a fairly unique collection, so we get users from outside of Stanford, both undergrad and graduate as well as University faculty.”


Many of the Archive’s collections are completely unique, and their constituent pieces can only be found at Stanford. Digitization work ensures that the recordings will be available to future generations, as some of these past recordings are less durable than others.


“Sound recording tape from the 1950s to 80s is a rather unstable format,” McBride said. “The tape is beginning to fail if it hasn’t been stored properly over the years.”


Unfortunately, digitization from analog recordings is a time-intensive process, as recordings must be digitized in real time. The process for one two-hour recording itself takes more than two hours.


“The plan is over time to digitize our recordings for preservation purposes,” McBride said.


Much of the Archive is organized into collections, many coming with intriguing background stories about the people and places that created them. Sound cataloguer Frank Ferko is responsible for organizing and researching the details of some of the Archive’s collections.


“Each cataloging record that I do is like a mini research project,” Ferko said . “When we receive recordings, we oftentimes do not have the actual disk packaging; we have to go off of the little information provided on the label.”


Ferko recently catalogued the Ambassador Auditorium collection, which comes from the famous Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, Calif., known as “the Carnegie Hall of the West.”


“The Ambassador Foundation donated their entire collection of recordings from 1974-1995 to Stanford, as well as the supporting paper documents that go with the recordings,” Ferko said. “They hosted all kinds of performers from around the world for 20 years and had very sophisticated recording equipment.”


Ferko is currently working on cataloging a large personal collection from San Francisco native Jack Lund that was donated to Stanford after his death in 2009.


“He had a very strong interest in classical music. He attended concerts, supported the San Francisco Symphony and traveled the world meeting great artists,” Ferko said. Lund’s entire personal collection, which includes hundreds of 78 rpm records as well as written letter correspondences with musicians, photos and concert programs, is being added to the Archive.


The Archive is impressive in its depth, evidenced by collections like the Monterey Jazz Festival collection, which holds each consecutive recording of the annual Monterey Jazz Festival in Monterey, Calif., beginning in 1958. It is also staggering in its breadth. Ferko has come across a variety of unique and quirky recordings in his time at Stanford and can trace musical and recording trends over the course of its history.


“I came across a record once with a label marked ‘Man Walking on Gravel,’ and I had to listen to verify. But it is just that, the sound of a man on gravel. Flip it over and you find the track ‘Two Men Walking on Gravel,’” Ferko said. “Back then, recording sound effects was a novel thing.”

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