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IU Libraries’ Archives of Traditional Music hold a large collection of about 7,000 wax cylinders, rivaling only the Library of Congress in size in the U.S. (Photo by Emily Sterneman, University Information Technology Services)

Preservation project saves sounds of the past

Audio preservation engineers complete massive wax cylinder digitization project

This article originally appeared in Inside IU Bloomington >>

Indiana University's Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative met a major milestone this summer by completing its wax cylinder digitization project.

Wax cylinders are antiquated audio recordings made of thin brown or black wax. They can be easily damaged just by the heat from your hands, and dropping one could destroy it.

Experts in IU's Research Technologies division manage the safe storage of all this data for future generations of scholars.

IU Libraries’ Archives of Traditional Music hold a large collection of about 7,000 wax cylinders, rivaling only the Library of Congress in size in the U.S. Though frequently accessed by patrons through open-reel tape copies made decades ago, these tape copies suffered from numerous technical problems and are now, themselves, obsolete.

Wax cylinders weren't the only medium suffering from age and obsolescence. IU has audiovisual pieces on formats of all kinds, and time was running out to retrieve any of it.

In recognition of the dire state of all audiovisual objects everywhere, IU allocated $15 million in 2013 to the newly minted Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative to digitally preserve and provide access to all 325,000 of the university's significant audio and video recordings by 2020. In 2017, the initiative added the digitization of 25,000 film reels to its goal. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities partially funded the wax cylinder digitization, in particular.

Experts in IU's Research Technologies division manage the safe storage of all this data for future generations of scholars. Digitized audio and video content is stored long term in IU’s Scholarly Data Archive (SDA), a massive storage service co-located at IU data centers in Bloomington and Indianapolis.

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