Facilitating Discovery of Historic Sound Recordings: Classroom and Research Strategies

Activity: Talk typesOral presentation


The Belfer Audio Archive at Syracuse University Libraries holds one of the largest collections of sound recordings in the USA, specializing in formats dating from the 1890s to the 1970s. The co-presenters encourage student interaction with these collections, guiding their research and understanding of the recordings’ cultural significance and relevance. Experience shows that immediate engagement with music on pre-LP recordings is often lacking, especially given sonic imperfections that characterize playback from original media. Therefore, we create opportunities for students to discover and engage with historic recordings – to hear them, research them, and ultimately reference or repurpose them in their own creative thinking.
The Belfer Director presents as a case study her “Music and Audio Cultures” class, aimed at teaching communications and audio arts students about music’s dissemination through radio and sound recordings. They are generally unfamiliar with terminology for articulating ideas about music or basic resources for researching it. In one assignment, each student produces a 2–3 minute digital audio piece, using two Edison cylinder recordings (selected and downloaded from the Belfer digital collection) to illustrate some aspect of music/sound in the world today. The student’s voice-over narrative includes both researched information and original thoughts about the music/sounds that move from foreground to background in the digital soundscape.
The first challenge is engaging students’ interest in the cylinders, because they have little connection with recorded content issued a century ago. On the current website, students make discoveries using a browseable genre list, generated for the digital view. In a parallel paper, our catalogers discuss how they plan to give patrons meaningful access to Belfer recordings using new kinds of subject access points, both in the general catalog and in our future digital platform.
For the music librarian, a second challenge is connecting students with library resources to research these historic recordings. The library’s current music resources guide uses a musicological approach that assumes music-specific knowledge and is incomplete for other aspects of these students’ needs. The music librarian instead presents the research guide developed for this class. It introduces non-musicians to music-specific sources such as discographies and basic music reference, and provides a pathfinder to resources in areas outside of musicology. This presentation describes the information approaches explored in developing the course research guide and identifies additional types of resources and collections needed to support this class, including historical news sources, radio and media catalogs, recorded sound and music industry histories, and materials to help non-musicians engage with music.
PeriodJun 23 2015
Event titleJoint Congress of the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives, and Document Centres and the International Musicological Society
Event typeConference
LocationNew York, United States, New YorkShow on map