Culture

The Great 78 Project is preserving our sonic past

The Internet Archive will soon be home to hundreds of thousands of audio recordings that would otherwise be lost forever.

George Blood runs a studio in Philadelphia piled high with audio-visual equipment. But among all that equipment, Blood has a special four-armed turntable that makes him the perfect candidate to permanently archive the hundreds of thousands of random, discarded 78 rpm records amassed by The Internet Archive and New York's Archive of Contemporary Music. It's an ecclectic batch of audio from another time. Blood and his team of archivists are finding new historical artifacts every day, and making sure that they'll be playable well into the future.

In a special episode of our podcast, The Outline World Dispatch, Zoë Beery reports from Philadelphia about how the Great 78 Project plans to preserve our aural history for generations to come.

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Full Transcript

Adrianne Jeffries (Host): Hi Zoe.

Zoë Beery: Hi Adrianne.

Adrianne Jeffries: You recently went to Philadelphia.

Zoë Beery: I did; it was my first time there.

Adrianne Jeffries: What’d you think?

Zoë Beery: Well, I didn’t see a lot of it. I spent the whole time in a pretty small office complex that is called George Blood Audio. It’s a number of rooms with a lot of really old machines for playing back different kinds of media. It’s really cramped and it’s really noisey, and it’s really cool.

George Blood: We work in 147 different audio visual formats. We don’t quite dumpster dive, but we’ll hear of facilities going out of business and anybody and everybody I know that I come upon in the trade knows that, if you see tape machines, we will take them sight unseen.
A tape cleaner at George Blood’s facility

A tape cleaner at George Blood’s facility

Zoë Beery: That’s George Blood. He’s been doing preservation and transfer work for almost three decades, and his small staff of engineers and librarians spend their days bringing remnants of the twentieth century into the twenty-first. Places like museums, libraries, and private companies and collectors send their obsolete media to George, and his studio turns it into digital files. Like this transfer of a reel-to-reel travel film.

Film: There are no automobiles on the island but you can go anywhere by horse and buggy...

Zoë Beery: Right now, they’re in the middle of one of the biggest jobs they’ve ever done: The Great 78 Project. It’s a partnership with New York’s Archive of Contemporary Music and the Internet Archive, which you may know by its URL, archive.org. And a lot of the material they’re working with is in really bad shape.

George Blood: Cracks, broken discs, chips around the edges, things that have been played too many times badly, scratches either because a needle ran across or the materials weren’t handled properly.

Zoë Beery: These are the sorts of things you have to deal with when you’ve been tasked with archiving over 200,000 78s, which are the thick, heavy records that came before the more popular LP album format, which is what you would buy in a record store now.

78s are named for their playback speed – 78 revolutions per minute, instead of an LP’s 33 and a third. And instead of vinyl, which is plastic, they’re made out of shellac, which is bug resin.

Packing 78s for shipment

Packing 78s for shipment

A 78 can’t hold a lot of sound – only between three and five minutes per side. But three million of those sides were recorded all over the world between 1898 and the mid-1950s, which means that 78s as a format hold a lot of information about what people cared about in the first half of the twentieth century. And in many cases, the physical records are the only version of these sounds that exist.

Things like lessons for telegraph operators in Morse code, stories in many different languages, field recordings, and self-help records. And because they’re on an old format, it’s all at risk of disappearing.

George Blood: As we get farther and farther from the time when any given format was dominant, the ability to reproduce those – the existence of the machines, of working machines, people to service and keep those machines working, spare parts – all that is falling by the wayside.

Zoë Beery: George’s studio is not the only one in the country that’s able to do this work. But he landed the Great 78 Project because he invented something that saves time archiving 78s, which were manufactured in unpredictable ways.

George Blood: 78s aren’t standardized for speed, equalization, or stylus size. Each of the labels is trying something a little different. So all of these factors are interacting...

Zoë Beery: ...and making it really hard to know what size needle to use, which is an important choice, because using the wrong one damages a record. And if that record has been played back multiple times with the wrong needle over many years, an archivist has to deal with that damage when they choose their needle. So should they capture the record exactly as it is, damage and all, or try to balance that with a slightly more enjoyable listening experience?

George Blood: The normal way of doing stylus selection is to put a stylus, listen to a disc, take it out, put another one in, listen to it, and it takes a lot of time.

Zoë Beery: Too much time to get through something like the Great 78 Project without totally losing it. So, the archivist faces a tough decision: What is the one version of this sound that should be preserved forever? George’s answer was to figure out a way not to have to choose.

George Blood: So we have here on the turntable four styli – four cartridges and four tone arms that are recording simultaneously. We put a different stylus in each tone arm, and then we keep them all.

Adrianne Jeffries: So he built a machine that has four needles on a record at once?

Zoë Beery: Yeah. It looks like a weird robot. They’re just sort of gliding there perfectly smoothly, all doing exactly the same thing. They’re all recording simultaneously on the same record. When that’s done, when the needles are done doing their thing, one of George’s archivists uploads all of the files onto the Internet Archive website so that people who are looking at it, whether they’re just listening, or they’re a researcher, or another archivist, can choose the file transfer that works best for whatever they’re using it for.

George Blood's four-armed turntable

George Blood's four-armed turntable

Adrianne Jeffries: OK wait, so you said earlier that there are over 200,000 of these records that he’s trying to preserve. Where did he get so many records?

Zoë Beery: So, the original set of records that started this project off came from the Internet Archive itself. Since they’re known for hosting so much old stuff, the guy who founded it, Brewster Kahle, has just slowly accumulated 78s over the years, from museums, libraries, collectors, anybody who has it and is like, “Oh, they like old stuff. Maybe I’ll give it to him!” And because there was this problem with how long it takes to properly transfer a 78, he was just letting them sit in cold storage in San Francisco because it was going to be a nightmare to do it. Until he met George, who had this turntable that fixed the problem. And now he just ships a pallet of 78s to Philadelphia about once a month.

After a little over a year of doing transfers, the project has gotten a pretty good cross-section of the kinds of things that were recorded onto 78s. There’s nearly every genre of music that existed at the time, from some of the first Argentine tangos ever distributed, to Hawaiian music played by Hawaiian performers but marketed to white audiences.

And while the music is nice to listen to, much of it has been digitized before, and the archive only includes it for the sake of completeness. It’s not really what makes the Great 78 Project worthwhile.


George Blood: One collector had passed away and we got the collection from the family. As they were going through the collection, they found a lacquer disc, an instantaneous recorded disc.

Zoë Beery: That collector was Jan Walikis. He was a lifelong 78 enthusiast who hosted a polka show on a college radio station for almost 25 years. And this is a recording of Jan, as a kid, accompanying his mother on the accordion. Jan died in 2012, and his widow donated his 78 collection to the Archive of Contemporary Music. But, she didn’t know that it contained a recording of her husband as a child.

George Blood: We digitized this and then sent the original back to the family, repatriating this cultural artifact, not just a bit of his history but a way for the family to connect with this beloved, departed person, and these are the kinds of things that you happen upon as part of this mass digitization project.
‘Sonny Walikis and his Squeeze Box’ on 78

‘Sonny Walikis and his Squeeze Box’ on 78

Zoë Beery: Jan’s accordion solo isn’t something that someone at a garage sale would want, and neither would 78 collectors. They spend their lives hunting for astronomically expensive or very rare platters, usually blues or classical. They wouldn’t want this either: a sound effects record from before movies had sound effects. Or this, a novelty song whose entire joke hinges on movies having sound being a new thing. Or this, a charming reminder of some of the cultural values that were commercially viable while 78s were being produced. And that’s one of the less objectionable examples.

Without an archiving project that makes no judgment on the value of the contents that it’s saving, this evidence of what people liked to listen to, or how they liked to express their misogyny or racism or homophobia, would end up in a trash bin. So would things like this.

This terrible joke is from a 1918 comedy skit called “Abie at the Ball Game.” It’s a three-minute monologue about struggling to understand baseball. It stars Abie Kabibble, the main character in a comic strip called Abie the Agent, which ran in newspapers across the US in the first few decades of the twentieth century. At the time, Abie was one of the only Jews in pop culture who was not an anti-Semitic caricature. And for Jews who wanted to assimilate into American society, he was proof that they could succeed.

The Abie disc is one of about three dozen entries so far in the Great 78 Project that are by or for Jews. One of George’s engineers, Liz Rosenberg, transferred the collection.

Liz Rosenberg: There was just a bunch of Yiddish and Jewish records all together. There was a song about Purim and I was like, “Really?” And then it was followed by a bunch of joking, comedy records about learning Yiddish, like how to ask for more food at the table sort of things...

Zoë Beery: This 1948 recording is from a series called Basic Yiddish, which features an American comedian named Sam Levenson delivering lessons in conversational Yiddish. Although, they wouldn’t really be useful for someone who’s actually trying to learn the language.

But instruction isn’t really the purpose here. In the decade before they were released, Nazis had murdered nearly half of the world’s Yiddish speakers. And while there were plenty of American Jews who were fluent, they wanted to be more like Abie the Agent – assimilated. So Basic Yiddish isn’t for language learners – it’s for a culture recovering from genocide, that wants to connect with a piece of their history that had become a symbol of both tragedy and resilience.

George Blood: Why do we have to save these discs about teaching Yiddish? I mean, you can get textbooks for that, you can probably get CDs and do that online. Why do we want to preserve these? Because the material is presented is representative of how that community was reaching out to others in the community or the wider world to say, “this is who we are, we’re here.” And so it represents, for that community, a touch to their past, which I think we can all be empathetic to.

Zoë Beery: The Internet Archive’s 78 collection is about a quarter of the way digitized at this point. But the project just keeps growing, as people find out about it and donated their own collections. When it’s done, it will be the world’s largest collection of 78s. George is still going around to conferences to share his turntable, but he really likes to share it with the public, too, as he did last year at the Internet Archive’s 20th anniversary party.

George Blood: Families that brought small kids who are getting close to bedtime who will come up. And we’re playing music of things before their grandparents, and watching them dance and just be inspired by – yeah, somebody felt this musically, to write it, to perform it, and we put it on disc so that other people could experience this and I’ve got six-year-olds dancing to foxtrots that they’ve never been exposed to before.

Zoë Beery: There were record collectors there, too, and other technical dorks who geeked out over the turntable, but seeing those kids dance to records that aren’t too long for this world, that will probably shatter before those kids can own a 78 – that’s what keeps George going through the next hundred and fifty thousand 78s.

George Blood: For as much fun as we have with the music, as much as I enjoy working with the Internet Archive team and the people here, who doing great work, you met them – to get out and these people who I would never would have otherwise met, listening to these music, it’s where we realize it’s worth doing.

If you'd like to start exploring The Great 78 Project, their Twitter account tweets a new side every hour.

Zoë Beery is a freelance journalist in New York. She previously wrote about America's history of sterilizing prisoners.
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