Monday, April 25, 2011

The Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive

When I first stumbled across the website I was immediately reminded of the book Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky. There is something very heroic about trying to save culture and history. Since culture is not static, the only way to save it is by preserving media: books, photographs, art, and recordings. What Lansky did for books, Professor Alex Hartov of the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive is doing for recordings. Professor Hartov was kind enough to spare some of his time and answer a few questions.

JF: So tell me, what exactly are you a professor of?
AH: I am a professor of engineering sciences as they call it here. I was trained as an electronics engineer.  I taught until recently, a class in electronic instrumentation and also image processing. The research that I do is in biomedical engineering. I do instrumentation for medical imaging.

JF: Do you have any background at all in radio as an engineer?
AH: No I never did anything with radio broadcasting. I always had a strong interest in ham radio and international shortwave and so forth but never worked in that field. I understand it pretty well from the technical point of view and the production point of view.

JF: So it's just a coincidence that you turn out to be the savior of so much radio history?
AH:Coincidence perhaps, but I have an interest in audio technology and a fascination with old recordings and preserving old sounds. Even though I'm an engineer it feels very much like magic that you can hear peoples voices who have been long dead.

JF: I read you are a sound collector. What do you collect?
AH: I certainly collect records and recordings. Sometimes I'll find stuff that people recorded themselves in the form of discs. There was a period of time you could cut discs in various places. Later, people recorded on discs at home, there were home appliances that would cut records. Those are interesting to me. It could be music they taped off the radio or somebody talking about their adventures on vacation. I usually seek those anonymous home made recordings. I have found a number that are quite interesting: some cantorial practice, and some radio checks from various sources. It's hard to categorize. I myself go around recording people who let me.

JF: Can you give me an example?
AH: I have done some interviews. When I was in Israel I interviewed some older folks there. I have an interview from some Yemenite folks who were in the airlift that took place in 1949. I have a number of interesting anecdotal recordings like that. ...I have a number that I've put on the site.

JF: Do you accept any modern recordings into the archive?
AH: Well it depends. We have deliberately set out to be an archive of impossible to find material, but of course impossible-to-find is relative. Much of what was made on LP can be found on CDs. We bracket the sound era from the beginnings of recorded sound to the end of the LP era. Anything that's put out on CD we don't deal with except for what is historically significant or possibly a reissue of hard to find stuff —like the Vernadsky Archive in Ukraine. We have their CDs with their permission I might add. That's one of our rules. If it's on CD we ask before permission before putting that online.

JF: Any other rules about what goes in the archive?
AH: We're not discriminating in terms of what we put online. I mean by this that it could be humor it could be in bad taste, it could be very serious material that only scholars would be interested in listening to or it could be entertainment. As long as it has some relevance to Jewish history and culture we are takers.

JF:I understand you have some radio transcriptions in the archive. 
AH: Yes that's true we have quite a number of those.What happened is that there used to be a radio show in the Boston are called the Joseph Tall hour. It broadcast for quite a long time. Joseph Tall was my wife's grandfather on her mother's side. He was her mother's step-father—that's the lineage. He he had this show on some time in the late 1920's. It was a Yiddish program that played every day on one of the local stations.
JF: I think that was on 1510 WMEX-AM. 
AH: That's possible, yeah. I got some of the details from Larry Tall, who was related. The show evolved into a weekly broadcast and at some point turned into English. It continued like that I'm told until 1973 when they shut down. Over the years obviously they accumulated a sizable record collection and they themselves on occasion would make recordings. I got a lot of those records from Eddie Gilman who was the last person that ran the program.It was in his house and just sort of rotting away in the basement. I took an interest and asked Eddie and his wife if I could borrow the records and transfer them to a digital form and listen to it. They were happy that I took an interest so they let me have it.

JF: How big is the archive now?
AH: The archive has approximately 31,000 items in it.

JF: It's a physical archive too, not just the digital archive online?
AH: that is correct. I have the records on shelves being preserved for the long term.

JF: How did an Engineering Professor end up in charge of the archive. 
AH: It's not a project that came out of any particular department at Dartmouth. It was my creation in the sense that after I had accumulated some number of transfers that I did from the records I got from Eddie Gilman I actually took an interest in that material and thought about what we can do with that. Some people suggested I look into the commercial end of things and do re-releases. But that's not my bag. I was not interested in that at all. I talked with a faculty member here in the Asian and Middle-Eastern Languages Department. He also teaches courses in the Jewish Studies section here. His name is Lewis Glinert. He's a professor and he's quite well-versed in Hebrew letters and modern Israeli society. He's the one who said we should probably post that on a website where people can access the materials.

His experience as a scholar in Jewish Studies is that it's very difficult to access audio materials from a library if you cant go there. Basically audio material is not circulated —and for understandable reasons. It's fragile; it's a physical media that if damaged, is no good anymore. Books are a lot more resilient in comparison. He thought this was a good way to bypass that problem —just make it available on the site. Since we were doing this under the umbrella of Dartmouth we asked the College what their thought was on it. After discussing that with college council we came up with an arrangement that the college was definitely enthusiastic about. As long as we have certain ground rules regarding who can access that material so as to not violate copyright. Now we've been in business since 2002.

JF:  Have you ever tried to work with other archives of Jewish recordings?
AH: At one time we thought of entering into some collaboration. That didn't pan out in large part I think because there were some issues as to who would be responsible if we were found to have violated copyright law. There was some anxiety on the part of the respective institutions... there were some cold feet. Keep in mind this was taking place in the days of Napster. People were just giving away thousands of MP3 files to each other. There was a sensitivity to the matter that is understandable.

JF: Where do you stand on the current state of Copyright law?
AH: It's outdated in many ways. Not even considering the pre-972 stuff and orphan material, the way it's conceived of right now is a relic of the days when manufacturing the material pretty much gave you a monopoly on it. It was extremely hard to reproduce. Today reproduction is cheaper than manufacturing by a long shot.

JF: How does the archive work?
AH: It's basically in large part a volunteer project. It's me and Lewis. Dartmouth has been very generous in supporting us by paying work study students to do some of the work.  Largely the digitization I do myself. I sometimes have students working on adding material online and working out the website maintenance.

JF: Do you take volunteers from off campus?
AH: It's not something that's easy to manage. That's the problem. One form of volunteering that I have benefited from in the past is people sending me transfers or sending me records from their own collections. Other than that I haven't been able to count much on volunteers. People do send a lot of records.

JF: Do you ever solicit for materials you want to add?
AH: As you know in order to get access to our archive, if you are not on the Dartmouth network, you need a username and password. When I review those requests I sometimes spot somebody who might be of interest and I ask them if they have their own recordings. One example of this is Gary Bart who is the grandson of Jan Bart who made a lot of cantorial and Yiddish recordings. He had a lot of the test pressings, studio cuts and tapes that his grandfather did. He didn't know what to do with it, so he gave them to me. I have quite a bit of that sort of material that you won't find anywhere else.


JF: Do you have a long term goal for the Archive?
AH: I hope it will last as long as I'm around and past that. From the institution's point of view it's quite simple. They're willing to perpetuate the site in it's current form or any future form it may have —as long as there is demand for it. They don't have any plans for shutting us down. I had reassurance of that recently in fact. One thing they are hesitant about is housing the physical records and that's understandable because that is a fairly great expense. My long term plan for that, if Dartmouth eventually decides not integrate it into their library, will be simply to donate them to FAU [Florida Atlantic Univeristy Judaica Sound Archives]. They apparently have long term plans to maintain their Judaica Archives. I already put that in my will actually.

JF: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
AH: If there are any folks interested in getting involved in a more direct way, or have expertise and are willing to help we can arrange something. More here: Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive.