Sound Innovations: Howard Belding Gill and Robert W. Bullock Recordings

Two red vinyl discs

Generally multiple discs were kept together in one sleeve as seen above. Box 3, Howard Belding Gill papers (MS-1995-018)

Many unique or rare archival audio recordings in Burns Library collections have been unavailable to researchers due to the fragility of their storage media (think: cassette tapes, vinyl records, and their predecessors). Any time a recording is played might be its last, so during playback it is important to digitally capture the recorded content for long-term preservation and access. Until recently, the archives of both Howard Belding Gill and Robert W. Bullock contained many hours of recordings that have lingered in silence.

The Howard Belding Gill papers document Gill’s professional career, notably as superintendent of Norfolk Prison Colony and as founder and director of the Institute of Correctional Administration. In addition to the newly available audio recordings of class lectures, events, and dictation, the collection contains artifacts, awards and certificates, clippings, correspondence, notes, photographs, photograph albums, scrapbooks, and typescript, manuscript, and carbon-copy drafts of his writings and speeches.

The Robert W. Bullock papers relate primarily to Bullock’s ministry as a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston. In addition to the newly available recordings of his local interfaith radio talk show, “Talking Religion,” the collection includes a significant body of sermons as well as correspondence, manuscripts, meeting information, and photographs.

Photo of Jack Kearney, Digital Archives Specialist, Boston College Libraries

Jack Kearney, Digital Archives Specialist, Boston College Libraries

Jack Kearney is the Digital Archives Specialist in the Boston College Libraries. He has been digitizing hundreds of recordings and lectures from these collections. Gabe Feldstein, Boston College Library’s Digital Publishing & Outreach Specialist, recently chatted with Jack about the digitization process, and what it is like to work with dated and rare audio materials. In a departure from the usual narrative style of our Burns Library blog, we’re pleased to present this interview. Our thanks to the Digital Repositories Team for helping Gabe with this interview and to Jack, for sharing his expertise.

Question: There are so many different types of audio media in Burns Library, especially from the Howard Belding Gill Collection. What was the most difficult to deal with?  Why couldn’t they just make vinyls? 

Answer: While digitizing the Gill Collection, I transferred both audio cassettes and Edison Voicewriter dictation machine discs.  The dictation discs were by far the most challenging format I’ve encountered in my entire career. Audio cassettes, a more familiar format,  have their own problems too, such as cracked or broken plastic shells. This is fixed by simply rehousing the tape. However, and generally speaking, cassettes can provide reliable playback for audio capture if they’ve been stored with adequate temperature and relative humidity control.

The dictation discs were another story altogether.  In the 1950s and ‘60s, personal recordings were made with reel-to-reel tape recorders or dictation machines. One such dictation machine was the Edison Voicewriter, which is likely what Gill used to record his class lectures. 

Image of an Edison Voicewriter vinyl disc

An Edison Voicewriter record. The person being recorded would speak into the “Voicewriter” and then it would be saved on flimsy red vinyls, like the one you see here. The discs are thin to the point of being translucent and flimsy to the touch.

The red vinyl discs used with this machine are significantly flimsier than the more common LPs. However, it was the narrow grooves of the recordings that presented the real obstacle to digital reformatting. The grooves are so narrow that a modern LP stylus (or “needle”) is too large to stay in the groove, which results in incessant skipping.  So I did some research and also got in touch with Karl Fleck, the audio engineer at NEDCC in Andover who had recently transferred our reel-to-reel tape recordings from the James W. Smith and Joe Lamont Irish Music Recordings.  Karl advised me to use a smaller diameter conical stylus as opposed to the traditional modern LP record stylus, which has a larger tip and is elliptical in shape.  We followed his advice, and this conical stylus succeeded in improving playback for a majority of the discs, especially some of those that were basically unplayable before with the original stylus I was using.  There were also some issues with the playback speed varying from disc to disc, but I was able to correct the speed digitally for the access copies using Pro Tools audio software.

Image of two styluses.

The stylus on the right is the newly-ordered stylus with a smaller diameter, compared to the original, standard stylus on the left. If you zoom in very closely, you can see the very tip of the needle and indeed they are different in size, but only barely to the naked eye.

Close-up image of original and new styluses

The image on the left shows the original stylus, the image on the right is the new thinner stylus. Fractions of a millimeter in diameter distinguish the two, but it is enough of a difference to be able to meaningfully digitize these records – the original stylus is too thick.

Question: If the copies that we are listening to now are available digitally, can I get them on my own laptop?

Answer: These particular recordings from Gill are being made available for listening only onsite in the Burns Library Reading Room via a laptop that was set up for this very purpose.  Researchers will know this when they consult the finding aid and request to come in to review the materials. Generally, the archivists at Burns Library assess collections like this for privacy restrictions, copyright, or other concerns, and decide how it should be made accessible.  Access levels are noted in the collection’s corresponding finding aid. For example, the finding aid for the Gill collection notes: “Conditions Governing Access: Phonograph records have been digitally copied; all original media was retained, but may not be played due to format. Digital use copies can only be accessed in the Burns Library Reading Room.”

Question: Once you’ve finished digitizing or migrating all of the archival content, is there any content that we don’t retain?  For instance, content that’s private, or doesn’t relate to their professional work? Or, at this moment, is the goal to just salvage everything we can, and then suss out what might be pertinent?

Answer: We digitize the entire set of materials that have been prioritized for preservation, especially when the original format is at risk of either degradation or obsolescence, but as described above the level of research access to the different materials within a collection may vary.  (For example, another note from the Gill finding aid reads: “Selected student materials and prisoner records are closed due to privacy restrictions, including the entirety of the Institute of Correctional Administration student materials.”) Unlike print materials, you can’t just take a look at audiovisual recordings to determine their content; they need to be played back.  So, depending on how in-depth the labeling is, you don’t really know the full extent of the content until you are able to view or listen to them. Because of this, the archivists may decide access levels for material after it is available in digital form and can be fully described. If content is determined to be irrelevant to the collection, the archivists deaccession it. This might happen if, for instance, a recording turns out to be just someone’s duplicated version of an already-published work.

Question: For the Gill collection there are audio cassettes, audio tapes, and phonograph records from the early ‘50s.  Are certain types more stable than others? The phonograph skips a lot, but are those records, once they are captured properly, more secure than cassettes and tapes?

Answer: Every recording medium including records (especially older 78s etc.) has its specific issues–again, the conditions of storage over time have a lot to do with that–and cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes can pose different sorts of issues because of their makeup of magnetically-arranged particles bound to an underlying tape.  However, the irony is that analog media such as those above could theoretically remain more stable over time than digital media, as long as the equipment is still available to play them back! This is why it’s imperative that we capture materials like digital video tape, digital audio tape (DAT), and optical discs while we still can. We recently encountered this with the Bullock collection, which contains 66 audio recordings on CD-R.  I’ve captured audio CDs in our collections before, but this was the largest set of CD-Rs I’ve dealt with at a single time. In order to ensure the scalability of the project and the preservation quality of the output, we employed a new capture workflow recommended by the special collections libraries at NYU and Yale, among others.  It uses capture software that analyzes a computer’s optical drive and reads the data on the disc multiple times for accuracy, which helps account for the relative lack of error correction ability in audio CDs.

We invite researchers interested in working with these, or other Burns Library materials, to contact us for more information.

  • Gabriel Feldstein, Digital Publishing and Outreach Specialist, O’Neill Library, Boston College
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