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A library with no books

An audio library has been accumulating audio sounds since 1929

9:00am, June 14, 2014

Another bird gets added to the Macaulay Library. A bioacoustics researcher with Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, Russell Charif records a sandhill crane near Calpine, Calif. 

Karl Fitzke

It all started in 1929. That’s when someone brought in the recorded melodies of two songbirds — a rose-breasted grosbeak and a song sparrow. These are among the oldest recordings in the Macaulay Library at Cornell University. Since then, this audio library has added a huge number of animal sounds and videos — but no books.

As the library obtains new recordings, archivists work to catalog and store them. Audio curator Greg Budney explains that his team might extract all of the blue-jay songs and chirps from a recording and store them in a separate file. This will make it easier, at some later date, to find those individual files. Someone need only search for blue jay.

Like a library book, every audio or video item also gets a unique catalog number.

The first recordings were made on cellulose nitrite film, which is flammable. Later, biologists cut phonograph discs in the field as they recorded animal sounds. Then came reel-to-reel tape technology. Most recently, experts have converted everything in the library to digital files. They’ve stored these on a computer network. The library also has held onto its old film and disc recordings. And for protection, all of the new digital files have been backed up at a different site.

Some of the library’s latest recordings — from May and April 2013 — capture the sounds of a potentially new species of owl. Two people recorded the hoots in the Middle Eastern country of Oman. (No surprise: They’re calling it the Omani owl.)

Although the library has undergone many changes throughout the decades, its biggest has been the move to give everyone near-instant access to its holdings. In the 1980s, people had to write a letter to get access to a sound, Budney notes. The library then would make a copy and ship it out. The whole process could take weeks or months. “Now anyone with Internet access can play over 200,000 audio and video recordings whenever they care or need to,” he says. 

Power Words

archive  To collect and store materials, including sounds, videos and objects, so that they can be found and used when they are needed. People who perform this task are known as archivists.

cellulose nitrate film  A type of film that was used in motion pictures until about 1951. It is highly flammable, so fairly unstable over time.

curator  Someone who manages a collection of items, for instance in a museum, library or art gallery. This person’s primary job is to design exhibits, organize and acquire collections and do research on the artifacts included in the collection.

digital data  The type of data recorded and stored as a series of ones and zeros.

digitize  To convert data, often pictures or sound, into a numerical form that can be processed by a computer.

flammable  Something that can burn (go up in flames) easily.

phonograph disc  Commonly known as a “record." This flat plastic disc is inscribed with a spiral groove. The groove usually starts near the periphery and ends near the center of the disc. It’s used to record sounds, especially commercial music performances.

reel-to-reel tape  The magnetic tape used to make sound recordings. A rather old technology, it requires that a plastic tape be threaded through some recording machine and then onto an empty reel that will spin over time, winding up the recorded audio signals.

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