Stories etched in wax: Preservation project saves sounds of the past

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.

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.

Wax cylinders don’t look like much, but these pieces of delicate wax have stories to tell. Some wax cylinders speak of Native American culture 125 years ago. Some are the earliest known recordings in China from 1901. Many are recordings of extinct languages. Still more of them are field recordings from notable ethnologists like Franz Boas, Edward S. Curtis and George Herzog, who advanced the study of culture with their work. And a rare few are simply our historical counterparts from 1920, lining up the family to shout their names at the wax, or perhaps play a little tune for posterity.

Read more: Indiana University

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