Just for the record: LPs in the Music Library

(Photo by Lars Halle)

(Photo by Lars Halle)

A little over a hundred years ago, Enrico Caruso recorded his legendary tenor voice onto a wax disc for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in Milan, helping to launch an industry that for the next eighty years was dominated by one medium: the phonodisc record. In the 1980s, the compact disc replaced the long-playing vinyl record (LP) in favor of what some consider to be a cleaner sound, supposedly longer shelf-life, and undoubtedly greater storage convenience. Today, compact discs are facing a similar fate, thanks to the development of digital ways to store recorded media. Today’s iPods can accommodate thousands of hours of recorded music, and it is difficult to dispute the convenience of such an amount of music stored in such a small device, versus the shelf-space the same amount of music would consume in its forerunners’ form.

That said, an immense amount of recorded music has not yet made the transfer into the digital world and survives almost solely in its immediate predecessor’s format, twelve inches tall, fractions of an inch thick, and considerably susceptible to scratches and deterioration. Since the record was the dominant medium for so long, the Music Library retains a highly selective, large collection of recordings over the course of time, and until last November, most of it remained idle.

In recent years, the Music Library has undertaken the painstaking process of weeding out duplicate and damaged items, and then manually cataloging each of the remaining 9,095 LPs in order to make them searchable in the library’s online catalog. This effort has involved several staff members, as well as student assistants, whose persistence has made the contents of our collection of LPs readily available. Many of these performances are historically significant, and provide layers of interpretive context for repertories both standard and “off the beaten track.” Furthermore, many LPs provide extensive recording documentation and performance notes that are unavailable elsewhere, even for those select recordings that have been chosen for digital re-issue.

One of our music students, Robyn Muse has discovered the library’s collection and prefers it to compact discs owing to the expansive selection of works and performances. She also finds the comprehensive program notes that accompany phonodiscs to be useful. “It helps to be able to understand what you’re listening to,” she explains.

Aside from rarity and historical significance, there is still an appeal when it comes to long-playing records. Particular groups of audiophiles claim that analog phonodisc recordings produce a different “depth” or “warmth” of sound that the digital media do not reproduce. Our student Robyn finds that compact discs sound “flat” compared to the “more real” sound of LPs. “It’s a more true representation of the artist,” she says, referring to the quality of sound on phonodiscs. “You can hear the colors better.” Sampling this experience for oneself is fairly easy. The Music Library makes available several record players in its listening area. The recordings are easily searched, and appear alongside compact disc recordings in the online catalog.

In the long run, the greatest challenge that LP-lovers face is preservation. While the digital medium is by no means permanent, its shelf-life is predicted to surpass that of its vinyl predecessor. The Music Library hopes to one day secure the funding to successfully archive all of its LP records digitally, further preserving the timeless nature of the recorded performances. Until then, feel welcome to take advantage of this vast treasure of unique recordings and get to know the medium that represented the recording industry for more than eighty years.

Have a look at these related websites:

Enrico Caruso Museum of America

British Library Online Gallery of Record Players

Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry

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