In a corner of the Digital Imaging Lab in the basement of UC Berkeley’s Moffitt Library, recent graduate Olivia Dill is checking on the latest shipment of fragile wax recordings from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. These hard wax tubes, invented by Thomas Edison in the 1880s, are one of the earliest sound recording media.
Dill is one of several part-time staffers tasked to scan 2,713 of these rare and fragile items made over 100 years ago by the renowned anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber. Taking a newly invented portable recorder into the field, Kroeber was able to capture the linguistic and cultural diversity of California’s Native American community, recording languages now threatened with extinction. The Hearst Museums’s wax cylinder holdings of native speakers are the third largest in the country. Only the Library of Congress and the University of Indiana’s archives have more.
The $450,000 digitization project is now one year into its three-year timeline. Leading the team is a quartet of researcheirs funded by the National Science Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, and UC Berkeley.
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