The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound of The New York Public Library is one of the richest resources of recorded sound in the world. The aural landscape that helps define a community, a country, or a cultural era can be studied through the Archives' extraordinary holdings, which cover virtually every aspect of recorded sound—from Mozart to Maria Callas to Motown, from symphonic works to presidential speeches, from radio dramas to television specials. A vital research facility for performers, musicians, scholars, critics, and the recording industry, the collection also plays a leadership role in developing technology that allows for the transfer of sound from obsolete to accessible formats. Through special recording projects—often pursued cooperatively with other archives and record companies—the Archives' collection and preservation efforts ensure that the spoken and musical sounds of the century will resonate for current and future generations.
The scope of the collection draws users from many disciplines: critics comparing multiple recordings of a musical selection, opera singers preparing unfamiliar roles, instrumentalists studying a new piece before first rehearsal, actors preparing for auditions by studying dialect tapes or musical theatre recordings, filmmakers in search of topical songs for soundtracks, and performing groups in search of new repertory. Rare items such as pre-Glasnost underground videos of Russian rock groups, Fiorello La Guardia's Talks to the People radio broadcasts, and recordings of famed black vaudevillian Bert Williams draw researchers and historians from many fields.
The Archives contains approximately 700,000 recordings and more than 100,000 printed items. Resources—available for study free of charge—include:
Virtually every format developed to record sound—wax cylinders, acetate and aluminum discs, magnetic wire recordings, 78rpm recordings, audiocassettes, compact discs, digital audiotape—can be found in the Archives. Rarities include the Mapleson Cylinders, recorded at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1901-3 with such legendary singers as the De Reszke brothers, Milka Ternina, and Lillian Nordica; Irving Berlin singing his own songs; and thousands of limited-edition and private-issue recordings ranging from Kirsten Flagstad's Metropolitan Opera debut to world premieres of major operas and symphonic works.
Recorded Literature and Speech
Readings by major poets, novelists, and essayists and pronouncements by world leaders bring to life the power, poetry, and nuance of the spoken word. Recordings range from the speeches of John F. Kennedy to private recordings of Tennessee Williams reading from his own works.
Materials that complement those of the other research divisions—dance, music, and theatre—of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts can be found in the Archives' collection of videotapes and videodiscs. Representative items include opera and music performances, rock videos, master classes, and public television broadcasts.
Printed materials cover the entire field of sound recording—artistic, technological, and economic—from the 1890s to the present. Included are discographies, record company catalogs, album liner notes, and periodicals. Industry trade publications document the rapid evolution of recording technology and equipment.
Special Features, Public Programs, and Outreach
Through numerous special projects, the Archives fulfills a dual mandate: safeguarding rare and fragile items, while making material easily available to the widest possible audience. Preservation and recording projects extend the boundaries of the Archives beyond those of a basic research facility.
Although users of the Archives study its resources primarily through tape and disc playback, much of what is heard has been derived from rare cylinder, acetate disc, and shellac disc originals. In the Archives sound studios, staff engineers have pioneered methods of sound preservation and transfer, helping to set standards for the field. With specially designed playback equipment, styluses, and transfer technology, engineers can extract sound from early formats with maximum information content, minimum extraneous noise, and minimal alteration in vocal timbre. Results frequently match the quality of the original studio recording.
Exemplary projects include the transfer of sound from turn-of-the-century wax cylinders of Metropolitan Opera performances and the remastering of Toscanini performances originally recorded on the Selenophone, an experimental sound-on-film format used during the 1930s.
Historical Issues and Reissues
The commercial release of rare materials in the Archives helps to widely disseminate masterworks of musical recording. Projects are conducted in cooperation with record companies, such as RCA Records reissue on CD of all commercial recordings made by Arturo Toscanini, or independently, such as the six-record Mapleson Cylinders album produced and sold by the Archives. The recording industry frequently turns to the Archives for studio-quality master tapes when launching historical reissue projects.
By special arrangement, staff conduct talks for professional associations and student groups with an interest in sound recording preservation and archival issues.
Cooperative Archival Projects
Projects pursued jointly with members of the Associated Audio Archives promote broad and comprehensive access to sound archives nationwide. Efforts include the microfiche indexing of 600,000 78rpm discs held by five of the major American sound archives. Through a New York State cooperative project, the Archives has transferred rare and unique acetate discs with a New York focus to more durable formats, ensuring that this great historical legacy will be passed on to future generations.