The Great 78 Project

Announced a month ago with 15,000 digitized “sides” of 78 RPM records, I am trying to understand it and to understand myself through it. B George of the Archive of Contemporary music is also the Internet Archive’s music curator but he does not know as much about 78s because he specializes in LPs — mostly from the 1980s on. So we have donated collections and he is going through them and picking large sections to be digitized. The slant on our contribution of recordings to this project really comes from the collections that have come in.

Barrie Thorpe collected and donated to the Batavia Public Library in Illinois decades go, we have that collection of maybe 40,000 records. “Tercat” is from Rhode Island. A collection of polka, others…

I am interested in keeping the collections together because I think that is where much of the value is, but I am not sure. Maybe these are not original collections but remixes by the next generation.

I want to know what the early 20th century sounded like. Midwest, different countries, different social classes, different immigrant communities and their loves and fears. I am not looking for the great record, the unfound gem, I don’t think. At this point I am looking for ‘discovery’, for inspiration, for leads I can follow up on, maybe I am looking for a rationale for spending time and money digitizing this stuff.

As a librarian, I see justification through others — is it useful? Did someone say “thank you” or “I love what you do”? But what is this collection or collection of collections? “Selection” is easily muted if you go for “comprehensive” — an easy out.

But what is this? How about a “modern discography”? A reference collection that is more than a listing in a book of the releases of a particular label — more than one that has pictures of the labels. This one has the digitized sound recordings.

This “reference collection” moniker works because we do not really care if we have the physical disc (though that is nice because we can go back to it to re-record or study it, or at least know it is safe). What we want is it to be findable with a click.

For instance, I am reading a book called, “Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records” by Amanda Petrusich. In it, she talks of many records, performers, labels, collectors, re-issues. I want to click on the paper page and hear it. I want citations to turn into blue links so I can more deeply understand what she is talking about. Is this weird? I don’t think so. Footnotes were always supposed to be hyperlinks, we just did not have the tech with paper. But now we have ebooks — let’s bring the citations to life. To do this we need a reference collection, ta-da.

But there is something more for me personally — I get a thrill as the materials come online. Each disk is a revelation. It feels like when I was in college and I would buy a used record for $3 and bring it home and play it — “retail therapy.” Ownership and discovery and possession. We just made a Twitter feed out of the newly available digitized 78s… we will see if anyone else likes it.

I also like playing a list of 78s based on a search — all hillbilly, all yodeling, all by a performer. It is less curated than a compilation LP or CD. It is serendipitous. It is kind of random. It has discovery feelings. Maybe if it is a new way to find things more like how Youtube goes from one video to the next. A new thing?

So what is this? A reference collection? A collector’s dream? A discovery radio station? The soundtrack of the early 20th century? All Good. All Fun.

All told, I would say the Great 78 Project is building a reference collection.

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