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Carnegie Hall’s Archives Begins Digitizing

After several years of planning, Carnegie Hall's Archives began a multi-year project this past July to digitize its collections for preservation and research. Carnegie Hall's Archives and Rose Museum Director Gino Francesconi introduces this exciting new project that will culminate in our history being made easily available for online research and broader public access.

It's an exciting time for us—and one for archives, in general—as digital technology has likely solved the archivist's dilemma of collecting history, preserving it, yet making it available for research and broader public access.

It might be hard to believe that for the first 95 years of its existence, Carnegie Hall did not maintain an official archives or any consistent approach to documenting its history. In 1986, as the Hall's 100th anniversary approached, a formal decision was made to establish an archive with the goal to curate one retrospective exhibition and to document past, present, and future events. Collection of our history became our top priority. Hundreds of trips were made to flea markets and antique fairs. Thousands of letters were written. Appeals were made to the public through the media and advertisements. And the public responded! One article in the American Association of Retired Persons magazine, at the time called Modern Maturity, generated more than 15,000 programs, recordings, posters, photographs, tickets, autographs, and personal memories.

By the time of the 1990–1991 centennial, we had curated one retrospective exhibition, plus 10 additional exhibits around New York City.  We also opened the Rose Museum for visitors and concert patrons, a place to showcase newly found archival treasures onsite at Carnegie Hall.

We have now been collecting Carnegie Hall's history for 26 years. There are nearly 50,000 events documented through hundreds of thousands of items that include house programs, posters and flyers, booking ledgers, photographs, recordings, autographs, and correspondences, in addition to administrative files. Each year, we receive information requests from staff and outside researchers who are as varied as the history of the Hall: authors, journalists, students, scholars, teachers, media professionals, and also those who are curious to know more about Carnegie Hall.

Those requests were once received by postal mail or phone. Today, nearly 90% of our requests are through email, oftentimes beginning with "I didn't find the information I was searching for on your site." There is an ever growing population that expects quick access to information, and if they can't find it online, then they assume it simply doesn't exist. Internet communication continues to evolve and link us in ways that seemed impossible a few years ago. The possibilities are limitless. What lies ahead a few years from now?

There is a wonderful sense of satisfaction when we're able to reply almost immediately to a request from anywhere in the world with a digital copy. The process of opening mail, photocopying an item, and mailing it to a researcher seems prehistoric by comparison. And how often did we receive the same request and found ourselves photocopying the same original document? When we began scanning, it was done on a project-by-project basis without any formalized or ongoing plan. But from the first scan, we learned it was the most logical way to allow access, while protecting and preserving original documents.

For scholars, there is also something special to be learned and experienced by handling the original materials. In our collections, we have items that have never been available for that tactile sensation because of condition or requirements—something we hope to remedy with this new project. For example, we have thousands of house programs in tight, thick, heavy, unwieldy volumes. The acidity in the paper has made many pages brittle and fragile. Access to these is limited. In our audiovisual collections, we have nearly 6,000 pieces in 18 different formats that range from 16-inch lacquer discs to audio cassettes to ¾-inch video tape. Roomfuls of equipment would be needed to play or view these formats, and many are or will soon be obsolete. Access to these is not possible.

When we began to collect materials, we could overlook the limited lifespan of artifacts. "At least we have them," was what we would say, because for most of Carnegie Hall's history, we did not. As time has progressed, our philosophy changed: "Why have them if you can't access the information?"  

So, as the gaps in our history have narrowed, the priority has shifted from collecting material to preserving it and making it available. We explored grants for preservation and learned quickly that a professional assessment of our entire holdings was required before we could apply for any grant. Needless to say, we were thrilled when we were awarded a grant to assess our collection. This assessment began a quest for knowledge about digitizing and what it could mean for us.

We contacted institutions with digital-archive programs at various stages of development. We followed sites and blogs online, attended workshops, and made onsite visits to repositories, such as the Brooklyn Museum, New York Public Library, The Juilliard School, Museum of Modern Art, and New York Philharmonic. They were all more than helpful with invaluable, daunting, and educational information. And the timing of it all was perfect because we were given the opportunity to apply for the grant last year, which has since led to two matching grants.

Since July, we have hired consultants to help steer us and a digital project manager to corral it all. We've prioritized our collections and our first batch of concert programs, from 1891 to 1910, which are now at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts being conserved and digitized. The access to materials achieved through digitization is technology at its finest; for archivists, it's the perfect solution of making available the data we collect, while preserving it for future generations. We are well on our way!

Digital Archives Project
Carnegie Hall History

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