The library's archeophone, one of only seven worldwide, plays aging wax cylinders that are too fragile to be played on traditional cylinder phonographs.
"Nobody's been able to play and listen to these for decades," said Sound and Image Librarian Steven Weiss. "The archeophone provides a new way to play them back safely."
Wax cylinders were the first medium for recorded sound, Weiss said, predating 78 rpm records.
The Academic Affairs Library's Manuscripts Department, which houses all the library's archival material, has about 80 wax cylinders. Others are scattered throughout the University.
The cylinder collection includes valuable material like interviews with Thomas Wolfe's mother and field recordings of African-American songs and sermons on St. Helena Island, S.C., recorded by late sociology Professor Guy Johnson in the 1920s.
"They may be among the first recordings of African-American spirituals in the country," Weiss said.
Many of the cylinders are part of the Southern Folklife Collection, one of the nation's foremost archival resources for American folk music and popular culture.
The cylinders are fragile, Weiss said, and often get moldy. They can be brittle and easily cracked, and once they are damaged they are irreparable.
The archeophone's stylus can be adjusted to place less weight on the cylinders' grooves than older players, allowing them to be played without damage.