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The Daily Tar Heel

Library Gets Sonic Link to Past

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.

"It's a really valuable tool that allows us to listen to these lost recordings and make them available for generations," Weiss said.

The machine also has capabilities that allow it to elicit higher-quality sound from worn or warped cylinders. "It allows you to do a number of tricks you couldn't do with the original machine to get more sound out," Weiss said.

The library had been debating the acquisition of a new machine when the archeophone's inventor, Henri Chamoux, made an impressive demonstration at a sound archivists' conference at Wilson Library in May.

The instrument cost about $16,000; the purchase was made possible by a gift from alumnus Ben Jones. Jones also donated funds for a workstation that digitizes audio recordings, enabling the library to transfer wax cylinders to CD and eliminate extraneous noise.

The library is using the archeophone to make copies of all its cylinders for preservation, with versions available on CD for researchers and patrons to use.

The archeophone also gives the Manuscripts Department a reason to expand its collection. "We haven't been collecting cylinders because we didn't have the playback capability," Weiss said.

The library hopes to work with other South and North Carolina institutions to preserve their wax cylinders as well.

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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