Site delivers music to masses

Site delivers music to masses

Library of Congress adds digitized folk music, history to online audio files

The Library of Congress uses a streaming audio server to distribute audio files on its American Memory Web site. The original recordings are posted without alteration.

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The Library of Congress has added 686 recordings of folk music by more than 300 performers to its American Memory Web site, as part of a growing collection of audio files available via the RealServer streaming audio server from RealNetworks Inc. of Seattle.

Since the library began making its special collections available on its Web site, at, in 1995 as part of the National Digital Libraries program, it has digitized several hundred hours of folk music and oral history among almost 2 million digitized items.

'We're not a radio station, but our numbers are pretty good,' said Tom Bramel, digital project coordinator for the library's American Folklife Center.

During one week, site visitors made 5,024 requests for 1,686 audio files, according to Lariat Stats 2.2 from Lariat Software Inc. of Seattle, the library's statistical analysis tool.

The most recent addition, the Southern Mosaic collection of folk music gathered in 1939 by folklorists John and Ruby Lomax during a three-month, 6,500-mile tour of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, quickly rose to the top of the library's hit list, Bramel said.

Other collections are the oral histories called 'Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada' and 'California Gold: Northern California Folk Music.'

Check it out

The library has pioneered techniques for posting and integrating different media on the Web. Digitized collections include books, maps, typescripts, manuscripts, photos and movies, each type handled depending on its condition and content. For instance, the library staff must decide whether it is more important to see what a manuscript looks like or to read what it says.

Each digital object must have metadata recorded to describe it, further data about its structure and even more data about its management within the library system.

Most of the digitized Web materials, as well as the software servers managing the objects, reside on IBM RS/6000 servers under the AIX operating system. On a separate RS/6000 server, the Internet gateway receives and translates Hypertext Transfer Protocol object requests.

The audio material primarily is being digitized from acetate media, much of it recorded or commissioned by the library itself.

'For the most part, we're dealing with things we can clear through copyright,' Bramel said. 'We go to a lot of effort to make sure.'

The Lomax collection, for instance, was recorded for the library, which equipped the couple with recording equipment for their expedition. Material on the 12-inch acetate disks was transferred to digital audio tape, and from there to .wav files for high-quality downloads, and to RealAudio files for more economical streaming audio.

As with visual material, the library must make decisions about the degree and type of detail that is preserved in digital files. The WAV format was chosen three years ago because it was in common use when the library began studying the project. RealAudio was also readily available, and its files are smaller.

The library makes no effort to clean up the recordings it puts on the Web.

'Our philosophy is to put up what a person would hear if they came in to listen to it here,' Bramel said. 'If you're listening to a field recording, you don't want to take out the dog barking or the baby crying in the background. Accuracy is real important to us.

'Of course, the RealAudio isn't accurate, because it throws away a lot,' he added. 'But we try to make the .wav files as accurate as possible.'

The sound files are not as large as the motion picture files on American Memories, but they do take up quite a bit of storage. A 2 minute, 39 second version of 'Amazing Grace,' sung by Jesse Allison, Vera Hall and Dock Reed and recorded in Livingston, Ala., takes up 7M.

'Big Leg Rosie,' sung by Frank Mison and Gulfport Red at a state prison farm in Parchman, Miss., runs for 2 minutes, 16 seconds and takes up 6M.

The library does not expect to run out of storage soon. It has 4.6T available, of which 2.6T is used. RealAudio files are encoded by the so-called 14.4 algorithm, designed for 14.4-Kbps modems.


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