Imaging, Reconstruct, Erase, Noise, Etc. - IRENE finds words
November 6, 2019 2:42 PM   Subscribe

"A lot of Native people chose to work with linguists in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and [linguist Andrew] Garrett believes that they did so because they wanted to save Native knowledge for themselves and later generations" An article by Xiaxun Ding about the project to scan and digitize unplayable and/or damaged Edison cylinders to recover Native language data. "[A]ccess to the digitized files is limited to indigenous community members and approved researchers only. Garrett says that approximately 95 percent of requests for access to cylinder recordings come from community members."
posted by jessamyn (7 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I nearly owned an Edison Phonograph. The day before I was due to pick it up from a school, for free, the building it was in burned down. They're not expensive, and the idea of retrieving (even in a crude way) some of the recordings I've seen piled up in junk shops, is quite appealing.
posted by pipeski at 3:42 PM on November 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

We have some of those at a museum here in Australia that relate to a linguistics project I am on. The early anthropologist whose work we are digitising recorded a language on these in the late 1800s that is no longer spoken. The cylinders are too fragile to play and need to be laser scanned, but there are no machines in Australia that can do it, and we can't get approval to take them overseas. Maybe one day we'll be able to recover what's on there though. The community in question would really like to hear their ancestors speaking and singing.
posted by lollusc at 6:50 PM on November 6, 2019 [7 favorites]

[A]ccess to the digitized files is limited to indigenous community members and approved researchers only
Eh? What is the rationale for that?
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 6:51 PM on November 6, 2019

Eh? What is the rationale for that?

As I understand it, there's potentially a lot of sensitive information in them that the ethnographers at the time may have been collecting in ways that weren't particularly sensitive. And it's thought, through the lens of today, that the reason many people originally participated in these was for the stated purpose of preserving the language (and possibly culture). So it's one thing if people from their own communities want to listen to and learn from the recordings but they don't just want to open them up to the larger world of free internet content and subjecting them to context collapse. That's my take, but the Heart Museum, where these cylinders are stored, has this statement about Repatriation and Traditional Care and it's possible this falls under one of those cases. I may be wrong about that.

Garrett is really clear they they want to maximize access despite these restrictions and points specifically to the Society of American Archivists Core Values Statement and Code of Ethics.

I should have linked to the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages archive originally.
posted by jessamyn at 7:26 PM on November 6, 2019 [11 favorites]

Excellent post, thank you!

One of my favourite songs from the last few years, Jeremy Dutcher’s ethereal and beautiful “Mehcinut”, was inspired by similar wax cylinder recordings of indigenous speakers:
The classically trained operatic tenor and composer from the Tobique First Nation in New Brunswick studied 110-year-old wax cylinder recordings of his ancestors from the Canadian Museum of History, which later became the inspiration for the album [Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa]....

Dutcher says he wanted the album cover to represent that process.

"When you look at the album cover you can see wax cylinders on the floor, which were what these recordings were collected on, using the phonograph machine in the middle there. And I'm seated in the chair with this traditional jacket on, I wanted to represent that time that these songs were collected.”
There is a sample from the cylinders in the middle of “Mehcinut,” and it gives me wonderful chills when I listen to it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:48 PM on November 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

> The cylinders are too fragile to play and need to be laser scanned

I was always under the impression that the wax cylinders would degrade with time, even if not played. But it turns out that if they are stored properly (constant 10 degrees Celsius) they are pretty darn stable.

Very interesting article about that and all materials used for wax cylinders and the later disc-shaped records--brown wax, black wax, shellac, vinyl, and a lot more--at Chemical & Engineering News.
posted by flug at 9:53 PM on November 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

When you look at the album cover you can see wax cylinders on the floor

Oh gosh, his album cover (also near the bottom of hurdy gurdy girl's link) reminded me so much of this classic photo of American ethnographer Frances Densmore making a phonographic recording of Blackfoot leader Mountain Chief.
posted by jessamyn at 11:27 AM on November 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

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