New York’s ARChive of Contemporary Music (ARC) has been preserving audiovisual materials since 1985, and a little over a year ago, it partnered with the Internet Archive to bring its Great 78 Project to the public. Along with audiovisual digitization vendor George Blood L.P. and additional volunteers, the Great 78 Project to date has put over 50,000 digitized 78rpm discs and cylinder recordings on the Internet Archive, which can be listened to in all their crackling glory.
An ongoing project, the Internet Archive actually has over 200,000 donated physical recordings, most of which are from the 1950s and earlier. These early recordings were made from shellac, not the resin that records are made with today. A brittle material, shellac became outmoded around 1960 as it often creates unusual levels of surface noise and can quite literally break apart in your hands if not handled appropriately. Without digitization, it’s possible some of these recordings would eventually crumble and be lost to history forever.
The Internet Archive’s focus in digitizing the records lies in genres that are less commonly available and are overlooked. The collection offers expansive selections in early blues, bluegrass, yodeling, and, as Jessica Thompson of Coast Mastering notes, even several Novachord synthesizer recordings from 1941.
Digitizing these older records is a complicated process — different types of styluses can affect how a record sounds when played, and playback speeds were not standardized until around the late ‘20s, meaning there is debate about the “correct speed” at which a record should be played. Preservationists working on the project also have to take into account aesthetic decisions like microphone placement and what frequencies the record’s material is able to replicate (which is stunted compared to modern sound playback). The goal is not to remaster a record or remove all existing playback artifacts from variables like how many times it was played or how it was originally recorded, but to preserve the disc as a “historical artifact.”
In Internet Archive’s Great 78 Project database, you can search by creator, who digitized the record, the year of the original recording, and more. When listening to a recording, there are often alternate takes, or multiple versions of the same song that have been recorded with different styluses. They’re all available to leave comments on and download. If the collection feels overwhelming, it has a Twitter account that tweets a link to one of its newly digitized 78s every 10 minutes, and they also suggest utilizing specialized searches like this one, which only shows recordings marked as being in very good or mint condition.
If you want to help contribute to the Great 78 Project, it is always looking for volunteers to help improve metadata, contact collectors, donate 78s, and more. Or you can just pop on one of their collections and soak in a bit of musical history that, thanks to these volunteers, can now be listened to, pops, warbles, and all.