Belfer Audio Archive Tour

On Tuesday I had an opportunity to tour SU’s Belfer Audio Archive, the 4th largest sound archive in the country. It recently doubled in size in 2008 when Morton Savada, the owner of NYC’s Records Revisited donated more than 200,000 78s, making it the 2nd largest collection of 78s in the the US (second only to the Library of Congress). But Belfer also has a large collection of cylinders (22,000, in fact), some of which have already been digitized and made publicly available within their searchable and browseable digital library.

The studio for digitizing the archive

I was invited in because of a possible collaboration with Soundbeat, the Archive’s snappy audio blog that produces a daily podcast on one recording from the archive per day. Jim, Soundbeat’s thoughtful producer, has been working with instructors at SU to have their students write scripts for various episodes. Since each episode is only 90 seconds, the scripts are quite short (125 words) and tell a specific story. And since the episodes require research — both primary and secondary — the project would be a natural fit with a composition class.

A phonograph cylinder

Since I’m gunning for a WRT 205 section this spring, it looks like I might try to match up the goals of that critical research writing course with a collaboration with Soundbeat. What I’m trying to sort through first are issues with invention and exigence. How would a student choose a recording they are genuinely interested in? How would that recording and the script fit into a larger unit of inquiry? Likewise, what should the writing process look like for such a short piece? What research methods will be necessary in order for my students to write informed pieces that tell the right story? How will I balance the project alongside the other WRT 205 outcomes?

Right now I’m trying to think about how these recordings might work in a course more broadly focused on remix culture, which is necessarily countercultural and will get the class thinking about intersections of discourses from agents and groups who have traditionally been silenced (i.e. DJs in the Bronx). I also like this idea because Belfer has some obvious restraints to making their recordings publicly available (restraints that will affect our choices for Soundbeat) and so it will open up conversations about copyright, IP law, creative commons, artistic license and access. For instance, although Belfer owns half a million recordings, only 1,600 cylinder recordings are currently available for download from the site. They will, of course, digitize more and the public can get streaming copies of the other copyrighted recordings upon request, but they have to submit said request and wait their turn in the queue, which can take weeks or even months.

But I’m also interested in the idea of having students work backward from a contemporary point they’re interested in and finish the course having written a very lean script for Soundbeat (as opposed to a 15-page paper). When I think of work in our field, like Jeff Rice‘s “The 1963 Hop-Hop Machine,” I think students will invent and find good work through juxtaposition, which is another value of remix culture.

In any case, if folks who are reading this have other ideas, I welcome them in the comments.