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A Library of Two Million Sound Recordings

February 14, 2012

Tonight, we had a guest speaker in class. Will Susich, who went to Pratt, is now the assistant archivist for the ARChive of Contemporary Music.

The ARChive collects, preserves and provides information on the popular music of all cultures and races throughout the world from 1950 to the present. Since the ARChive’s founding in 1985 our holdings have grown to over 2 million sound recordings, making the ARChive the largest popular music collection in the United States.

They keep 2 copies of just about every LP and CD from 1950 on. And have some earlier ones too. Will said that he was looking through the LP collection, and found Robert Johnson’s recording. One of nine copies known to exist, ever. Just there, in the collection! (I might have squeaked when he said that.)

I am interested in the way a small staff works so closely on these archive projects, with limited resources. And they seem pretty relaxed- they use their own homegrown cataloging system, for example.

No, they do not spend all day every day listening to the LPs in the collection. Mostly, the LPs are to be kept pristine, and not touched or played, except to be digitized for specific client requests.

Like The Poets House, the ARC runs on donations. And so one of the archive’s tasks is to process the donations that come in. They keep 2 copies in good condition, and then have a semiannual record sale of what they don’t keep. But what donations! The Board Of Advisors for the ARC includes the likes of Todd Rundgren, Lou Reed, and Keith Richards, who is putting a lot of money and research into curating their blues collection. (Yes, I squeaked at hearing that, too.) Almost as soon as I wondered whether David Hinckley knew about the archive, I found his name on the site as a donor. Unsurprised.

The ARC exists to collect and preserve music as a historical resource. Even the DJ dance records of the late 80s. The archive works with researchers who are looking for specific, sometimes hard-to-find music. Say, if someone’s putting on a revival of a play that hasn’t been done in a long time, they might come to the archive to chase down an obscure cast recording. As I understand it, there’s a fee for that service, which is an income source, along with grants and partnerships.

World music is another big resource. And a place where they’re using the webspace to great effect. The ARChive has put together an impressive compendium of Muslim World Music on the web. And they’re putting together one this year on Brazilian world music. India is slated for 2013.

They also maintain a collection of music books- not sheet music, but things like biography and history and commentary. I would love to get in there and browse!

I had to ask about Christmas music, because how could I not? Yes, they have a Christmas music collection. As the most junior member of the staff, Will wryly admitted that he gets “stuck with it,” and it is definitely not his favorite thing.

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