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The Belfer Audio Archive: A Sleeping Giant

The Belfer Audio Archive as you know it — the bunker-like building on the East side of Bird Library at Syracuse University — was built in the year 1982. The archive itself, however, was founded in 1963.

Back then, the collection was housed in the basement of a place called Continental Can Company. Walter Welch was the curator, and he helped grow the collection to the 560,000+ items it holds today; this makes it one of the largest audio archives in the country.

“… The Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive is truly a sleeping giant on this campus.”

(Harvith, 1995)

I didn’t know anything about the Belfer, much less the extent of its offerings, until Belfer director Dr. Jenny Doctor along with audio and moving image archivist Patrick Midtlyng visited IST 511 one evening during my first semester in the Library and Information Science (LIS) program.

There I was fresh off a corporate job, making the switch to librarianship, not quite sure where this would take me, but knowing I wanted to explore it all. Jenny and Patrick started talked about the Belfer’s collection which was comprised not just of 78s and LPs, but tape, cylinders, and something called wire.

Cylinders?

Wire?

I had never heard of these music formats. I have played guitar for years, written and recorded albums, released albums for other bands through the record label I co-run, yet here was this gaping hole in my knowledge. My curiosity skyrocketed. I had to know more. How does this fit in with librarianship?

Visiting the Belfer

I arranged a visit with Jenny and Patrick to see the space firsthand and to explore possible internship opportunities so that I could gain some experience in the field. I was amazed to enter the Belfer and find a classroom full of early phonographs, a case outside holding a talking machine from 1901, a tin foil phonograph, and so much more. There is also a Live End/Dead End studio where VPA students record and a control room from which in-house sound engineers complete preservation, digitization, and restoration work on recordings.

Making connections

After that visit, I stayed in touch with my newfound Belfer connections. I landed an incredible internship over the summer helping Catalog Librarian Jennifer Vaughn process a small portion of the estimated 65,000 LPs the Belfer holds.

The section I worked on lives in closed stacks at the Belfer. Jennifer and Jenny recommended numerous articles and books about the history of sound recording so that I could bone up on the formats with which I was unfamiliar. In the meantime, I cataloged LPs.

The cataloging process

Each disc, of the few hundred completed over the summer, received either copy cataloging (meaning we were able to link the disc we had in hand to an existing record on Worldcat) or original cataloging.

I found original cataloging to be the fun part. This involved inputting the information by hand, finding the catalog and matrix numbers, checking for artists and performers’ notes, etc. The discs were then re-housed in Disc-o-Files and poly sleeves.

Finally, each received a handy little Syracuse University barcode which was read into the database so that you can now browse and find the discs just like any other item in the classic catalog.

It is important to note, however, that these are non-circulating items and to reiterate that the Belfer’s stacks are closed. If you browse the classic catalog and find an LP you’d like to listen to, you can arrange to do so through Special Collections on the 6th Floor of Bird.

Gaining experience

The 150-hour internship came to a close all too quickly, but now I am working as a graduate assistant this fall. Now I can continue the work I started over the summer.

To anyone new to the field or new to the LIS program (or any program!), I highly recommend reaching out to people you come across who are doing work you find interesting. Chances are they’re willing to talk with you about it, and who knows, you might find doors opening that you didn’t even know existed.

Visit the Belfer Audio Archive website to learn more. You can also stream more than 2,000 cylinder recordings here.

Jen Bort

Jen Bort

Jen Bort is a second-year LIS graduate student at Syracuse University (G’17), a Music Cataloging Assistant at Bird Library, and a Research Assistant at the iSchool. She holds a B.A. in English and communications/journalism and is the co-founder of bettyElm Records. Bort lives close to campus with her husband and their four-year-old bichon-poodle, Baxter.

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