Buried Treasures

February 19, 2009

dsc00486They say never look a gift horse in the mouth.  But what if that horse is hauling three truck loads of free, rare and historic 78-rpm records to your door?

In July, When Syracuse University received a gift of about 200,000 78-rpm records from the family of the late Morton Savada, the library’s holdings doubled in size, making it the largest collection of antique 78-rpm records in the world outside the Library of Congress. The donation, consisting of Savada’s entire inventory from his famed “Records Revisited” store in Manhattan, garnered national attention after the story was picked up by the Associated Press and The New York Times. As University officials bask in the glow of good publicity, the anxious library staff is faced with the task of unloading and cataloguing 1,300 boxes of records.

“The biggest challenge is to catalog the recordings,” said Suzanne Thorin, Dean of the Libraries at SU. “So that they can be found by scholars and others who want to listen to or study them. The size of the collection is daunting, yet the collection is so rich in history that we believe it must be available.”

The painstaking job of cataloguing the collection must be broken down into manageable steps. According to Melinda Dermody, head of arts and humanities services for the SU Library, the first stage is determining which records are duplicated within the collection. Because Savada ran a record store, he had multiple copies of albums. Next, the audio archive research specialist will compare the Savada collection with the current 78 collection at SU. If the library already owns a copy of a particular record, the specialist will decide which copy is in better condition. Extra copies will be sold. As for the extra copies, “there are other archives that might want donations of the ones we aren’t able to use,” said Dermody. Selling the extras, possibly through auctioneers, is also an option.

Absorbing the collection will be SU’s Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive, commonly known as Belfer Archive. Located in a small stone building next to the Bird Library on the SU campus, the Belfer’s storage is already at maximum capacity. Meanwhile, the Savada Collection sits in the basement of the Warehouse, SU’s satellite building near Armory Square, where it will remain until a new off-site storage facility is built.

Constructed in 1982, The Belfer Archive was the first building in the world specially designed to house audio collections. Savada, familiar with the archive and its staff from his meetings with the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), bestowed his legacy to Belfer upon his death on February 11, 2008.

But users can’t just waltz into the Belfer, grab a stack of 78s, and play them on one of the archive’s many antique turntables. Whereas Savada’s store was made for browsing, records in the Savada Collection will be made available in a digital format on special request, to protect these fragile records from unnecessary wear and tear.

Developed at the turn of the century, the 78-rpm disk is the ancestor of the modern LP. The records ranging from 10 to 16 inches in diameter are made out of various materials such as shellac, lacquer, vinyl or even aluminum. Thick and heavy, each disk weighs nearly a one-half pound, and the entire Savada collection weighs in at about 50 tons.  By the mid-1950s, the 78-rpm record was replaced by the LP which plays at 33 rpm.

Library staff members are not quite sure what they will find in the boxes, as Savada never catalogued his store. However, the majority of the 78s are thought to have been produced from 1930-1950.

“I think that the context of these recordings are important in the teaching world,” said Thorin. “Because, yes, there are Duke Ellington recordings, and yes, the music industry can use them, but there are also speeches, spoken word, recordings sent overseas during WWII. These are ways for the social history of the country to come alive for students.”

The donation from Savada reestablishes the Belfer Archive and Syracuse University as one of the core audio collections in the United States, along with Yale, Stanford, the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress, according to Thorin. SU’s status as a top audio archive audio research laboratory slipped in the late 80s due to budget cuts, Thorin, a former Opera singer and music lover, began the process of reviving and restructuring Belfer two years ago.  The University won a $250,000 grant last year from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to catalog its existing collection of 78s recorded on the Decca label.

Thorin estimates that the process of cataloging the Savada collection will take several years. “Trying to prioritize to get the hottest stuff out first is the way libraries do it,” she said. “We hope we will get another Mellon grant to continue the work.”

“If we hadn’t started (restructuring) and we hadn’t received the grant, I don’t think I would have taken the Savada Collection,” Thorin said. “We’re experiencing a kind of ressurection. I think Belfer is the crown jewel of Syracuse University.

For a audio soundslide on the Savada Collection click here.

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