Reasons for archival silences: lack of access & challenge of media

Here’s another one to file away: a story about Duke getting a CLIR grant to digitize a collection of North Carolina folk music, recorded in the field by a early 20th-century folklorist, on wax cylinders and aluminum disks.

“Until recently, there has been no non-destructive way to recover audio on historical wax cylinders and aluminum discs, which require a mechanical stylus and can be damaged if played today,” said Craig Breaden, Audiovisual Archivist in Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

The Duke recordings will be digitized using a new non-contact technology, known as IRENE, at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Massachusetts. IRENE takes ultra-high resolution visual scans of the grooves imprinted on the cylinders and discs and mathematically translates those into digital sound files that are remarkably faithful to the original recordings. Because there is no actual contact with the recording, IRENE’s scans can also capture sounds from damaged media.

– See more at:


So, another example where materials did exist, but were largely inaccessible. Digitization will allow the voices muted in this “silence” to be heard. I have a feeling I’ll be using that metaphor of voices that aren’t present and ones that are muted pretty extensively. Although there’s a difference between these muted voices–and the earlier example of letters written by Native Americans–which are in fact transmissions of the actual voices themselves, and cases in which one must read against “the archival grain” in order to unmute voices from the past. I think I could really get into writing about this.

Reasons for archival silences: lack of access & challenge of media

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