Belfer Audio Archive struggles to be heard

Director Jenny Doctor charges to improve Belfer’s profile among students and faculty and to bring the archive out of the dark with 50th anniversary celebration.

Recordings, antique record players charmed with rustic luster and state-of-the-art audio equipment fill a bunker of sound that would make any audiophile drool.

However, despite a wealth of sonic recordings and scholarship, the Belfer Audio Archive at Syracuse University is currently suffering a tragic irony: one of the most extensive recordings of audio in North America is struggling to be heard.

Photo: Jessica Cabe
David Harrington, founder and artistic director of Kronos Quartet, and Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, discuss recording methods and the music of Kronos Saturday at Syracuse Stage. This "In Conversation…" event is part of Belfer Audio Archive at 50.

Founded by Walter L. Welch in 1963, Belfer is the fourth largest audio archive in North America. With the most sizable collection of Edison cylinders in the country outside the Library of Congress, nearly half a million 78 rpm discs, approximately 65,000 LPs and catalogues of magnetic tape, it is a treasure trove of sound.

“Belfer’s extensive collections distinguish the libraries and the university,” said Matthew K. Dames, interim dean of libraries. “There are relatively very few institutions that own and make available the unique and rare items that we do.”

However, with rapidly changing audio technology and lack of funding, Belfer’s 50th anniversary celebration titled “Belfer Audio Archive At 50: Experiencing the History and Future of Sound Technology” is an effort to raise the archive’s profile on campus.

Jenny Doctor, appointed director of Belfer in January 2012, is charging to improve the archive’s profile among students and faculty through the celebration to bring the archive out of the dark.

A Chicago native, Doctor was raised and nurtured on the art of sound. “I was in four orchestras,” Doctor said. “I played piano, viola and violin. Everyone in my family played an instrument. We went to concerts and we went to the opera.”

Though soft-spoken, Doctor’s eyes began to widen behind her thick glasses as she talked about her childhood introduction to audio recording. It was the influence of her mother that had the most profound effect.

“What was going on around the house determined my career in a big way because my mother played the radio all the time,” Doctor said. “And I eventually ended up, after a very circuitous path, becoming a musicologist who specializes in music on radio.”

Within Doctor’s petite frame, she cradles a library of passion and excitement, including a monumental academic pedigree – double bachelors in piano performance and mathematics, a masters in music, and a PhD – and a boundless passion for audio to rejuvenate the Belfer Audio Archive.

“Unfortunately around the 1990s, the funding for the Belfer stopped, and it went dark for about 15 years,” Doctor said. “And now we’re trying to bring the Belfer back to life.”

Dames empathized with the archive.

“Belfer’s location – next to the Bird Library – places it a bit outside the normal North Campus traffic flow,” Dames said. “By holding these events in other places on campus, we will be exposing more people to Belfer’s rich resources and piquing their curiosity to learn more.”

The archive as a whole is a part of the library’s Special Collections Resource Center, and Doctor is striving to not only capture students’ attention with the celebration but also keep them coming back to fuel their scholarly curiosity.

Along with her colleagues at Belfer, Doctor is laboring to digitize and make a bulk of Belfer’s early recordings available to stream online.

“We’re working really hard to make it easier for students to reach these recordings,” Doctor said. “When that happens, I think Belfer will become much better used because we will be bringing it into the 21st century.”

Johanna Keller, director of the Goldring Arts Journalism program, agrees with this technological tactic.

“Time has sped up the curse of our Digital Age,” Keller said. “If it is not available at your fingertips from your dorm room, it is too much trouble to track it down. This is a shame because there are sounds in that archive that can change the way we think about culture and about history.” 

After a tour through the Belfer archive, Doctor came across some of these sounds on a cart of 78 rpm discs. The records were of various classical recordings sleeping in their yellowed and crisped album sheathes.

Doctor held and talked about the recordings as if they were more than pieces of history: they each had their own personality. The real wealth of Belfer is witnessed in this quiet moment – the physical exchange between scholar and media.

Through the 50th anniversary celebration and Doctor’s efforts, students and faculty will incorporate Belfer’s sounds into their own academic works. And if it is lucky, Belfer Audio Archive will be buzzing with future audiophiles and not be drowning in the sound of silence.

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