Racing Against Time

New York Public Library as seen from across Fifth Avenue New York Public Library. Image via Adobe Stock.

The New York Public Library is taking a comprehensive approach to digitizing 700,000 audio and video recordings across multiple collections.

“If humans have done it in the twentieth century, the New York Public Library has some recordings of them doing it,” laughs the library’s William Stingone, who serves as its associate director for special collections. As Stingone puts it, the nation’s largest public library has audiovisual materials that run the gamut from political speeches and protests, especially around AIDS and LGBT activism, to bootlegged recordings to the only existing recordings of historical performances. Used by thousands of researchers, students, artists, and historians, preservation of these materials will influence future generations.

“Our biggest body of material is in music or the performing arts,” he says. “These are generally extremely rare or unique recordings of moving image or sound, that typically come from the creators themselves.”

The Dumb Girl of Portici [featuring Anna Pavlova], 1915. Courtesy of The New York Public Library, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Treasures include the archives of Mikhail Baryshnikov and The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound, with nearly 700,000 recordings and more than 100,000 printed items on virtually every format ever invented to record sound. Wax cylinders, acetate and aluminum discs, magnetic wire recordings, 78rpm recordings, audiocassettes, compact discs and digital audiotape, are just a few. Among these rarities are the Mapleson Cylinders, recorded at the Metropolitan Opera House just after the turn of the 20th century; Irving Berlin singing his own songs; and thousands of limited edition and private-issue recordings of major operas and symphonic works. “We have some special performances that would be lost to history if the recordings degraded to the point that they are unplayable,” Stingone says.

In 2013, with Foundation funds, NYPL completed a comprehensive survey of all these collections, evaluated the media on which they were stored, and assessed the capacity of the library to preserve them. “That report has helped frame our thinking about the most comprehensive approach,” Stingone says.

A project of this scale at a large institution like NYPL involves collaboration among staff across many different departments—from curatorial, preservation, and processing to digital, fundraising, and engineering. “There are 20 to 25 people working on this at any given time doing inventory, bar coding, digital transfer in-house, coordinating the large-scale digitization being done by vendors, and checking back in with the curators on progress and priorities,” says Stingone.

Thankfully, he reports, “We have yet to discover something that is irredeemable; and that’s why we are doing this now, so that we never get to that dark place.”

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more in this series

Recordings at Risk

A Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) grant program is supporting the preservation of rare and unique audio and audiovisual content of high scholarly value.


Saving Sounds of the South

The Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill is working to preserve rare recordings of folk music greats.


Preserving AV Materials Across the Atlantic

The British Library’s innovations can be adopted by a variety of organizations, increasing AV preservation and allowing greater access.


What if History Were Lost in Translation?

To protect America’s audio-visual patrimony, NEDCC provides services that take greater care and concern for materials than commercial automated processes.