Case Study: The Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive

DJSAWhen Dartmouth College engineering professor Alexander Hartov discovered hundreds of old records in his wife’s uncle’s basement in the 1990s, he knew he’d happened upon an important collection of rare sound recordings.  His wife’s uncle, Eddie Gilman, had been the host of “The Yiddish Hour” radio program in the mid-1950s.[1]  Professor Hartov collects sound—even carrying a tape recorder to capture worthy examples as he travels—and he knew these recordings provided an invaluable window into mid-20th-century Jewish American culture.[2]

“I always had an interest in audio, and it seemed very sad to me to see these things going to the dump,” Hartov said. [3]  In 1996, he began cleaning the records and preparing them for transferal to digital files.  What started as a personal labor of love became a comprehensive online archive of historic Jewish sound.[4] ”I wanted to restore the sound, otherwise it would just rot and disappear.”[5]

Professor Lewis Glinert, Professor of Hebrew in Dartmouth’s Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures, soon joined Hartov and the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive was born.  Hartov is the archive’s technical director, and Glinert is responsible for the conceptual design of the web site as tool for teaching and research.  Together, the team has preserved more than 47,000 audio tracks since 2002;[6] Hartov estimates there may be as many as 100,000 tracks in the digitization backlog, and the archive is still accepting donations.

Still a work-in-progress, the collection has grown beyond Gilman’s recordings to include folk songs and theater pieces, cantorial readings, stories and songs for children, speeches, music by Jewish composers and historical recordings, among other items… Among the more historically significant recordings is the radio broadcast of the United Nations vote on the creation of the state of Israel. The range of languages represented in the archive include Russian, Hebrew, French, Yiddish, Arabic and other rarer languages, such as Ladino, an archaic form of Spanish that incorporates some Hebrew elements.[7]

The Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive (DJSA) is now one of the largest online Jewish scholarly archives in the world.[8]  It is accessible to Dartmouth users for free; other researchers may register to use the site, as well.  “There is apparently no website anywhere that permits scholars around the world to listen to a wide range of Jewish recordings. And anyone studying music or other recorded material is no doubt aware of how difficult it is to persuade outside libraries to loan recordings,” said Glinert. “With Dartmouth’s world renown as a center for computing technology, this site will place us at the forefront of the online revolution in Hebrew and Jewish studies.”[9]

There are no plans to ever make any of the recordings downloadable.  Due to the complexity of copyright restrictions, the collections will remain playable only through the web site’s playlist feature.[10]  The DJSA does not let researchers take physical possession of the material.  One can only listen to it through the online portal.

Currently, users can search for sound recordings by keyword, album/collection title, track title, composer, lyricist/source, performer, country, genre, language, theme, and occasion; alternatively, the collections can be browsed by album/collection, genre, language, occasion, theme, recent additions, or alphabetically.

Speaking to Professor Hartov via email, I learned that not all the material from “The Yiddish Hour” was on tape; in fact, very little of it was.  Hartov had many commercial recordings (78s, LPs, etc.) and a number of “acetates” (studio-made recordings on metal discs covered with a soft, engravable material), but almost no tapes (perhaps as few as two tapes of studio recordings and a few “carts,” similar to 8-track tapes).  All the material is still in the DJSA’s possession, and the majority is still quite playable, with the exception of some of the acetates, which were so deteriorated that no further playing is possible.

When Hartov initiated the project in 1992, there were serious limitations on what was possible to do affordably.  Furthermore, he believes using top-of-the-line equipment and transferring at 96kHz, 24 bits, would be pointless for 78rpm recordings, or even scratched and damaged LPs.  Now, the archive does “raw” (unedited and unprocessed) transfers in 16 bits at 44.1kHz standard audio format, mono or stereo.

Equipment used includes turntables (several Numark TT-1Pros), styli based on groove size (custom-made by specialists in the UK), a specialty preamplifier (MK2, with equalization based on record type), and an M-audio 16/24 bit digitizer at 96kHz capability.  Software currently in use in the archive lab includes Audacity (a free audio editing workstation) plus custom audio processing (DeNoise and DeNoiseLF from ClickRepair in Australia) for post-processing.  For tape-based material, the archive uses cassette players and reel-to-reel players (including Otari, Sony, and Revox).

One of the stated goals of the DJSA has been “to create a permanent, easily navigated database for these sounds.”[11]  Their current strategy for dealing with technological obsolescence and related issues that could jeopardize the accessibility and thus preservation of these recordings is to “deal with it when the time comes.”  Hartov noted that this has already been something of a problem, recalling that when he first started the project, he used a Mac proprietary audio format (snd), which is no longer supported.  “Fortunately, the multimedia community has developed lots of great audio utilities out there and it is not difficult to update your files if necessary,” he said.  “At the moment we save our original transfers (raw data) unedited and a working copy in mp3 format with high bit rate for quality (320kbs).  If necessary, we can either re-do a transfer since we have all the material, or re-process existing data with better software.  The software I use now, is the result of some evolution and is very good, but it is possible that things will get even better.”

The DJSA currently uses a MySQL database to store the metadata about the songs and collections that comprise the archive. They use PHP to provide a web interface to the MySQL database, and the audio files are streamed using QuickTime.   Hartov recently enabled playback on portable devices such as iPhones and Androids, and a playlist feature has been added to the website at users’ request.  Listeners can now add tracks to a playlist and hear them in a user-determined order. If users always access the site with the same computer and browser, the playlist will automatically load, provided cookies are not deleted. The playlist can also be saved as a text file on the user’s computer and distributed; the tracks can then be imported at a later date into another computer, providing a backup mechanism.[12]

As previously mentioned, Hartov and Lewis estimate that they have approximately 100,000 recordings in the archive’s digitization backlog, but this is only an estimate.  “I have no idea how many hours it would take,” Hartov said, “I’m afraid that if I counted, I would quit right now.”  The archive occasionally has volunteers and sometimes hires talented students who are skillful web programmers.  The DJSA has never hired professional help, such as programming or audio processing professionals, as it is simply too expensive. Lewis and Hartov, both of whom have academic appointments in their respective departments, are the archive’s only permanent staff.  They are currently open to accepting volunteers.

The archive’s flow of donations varies widely, with accessions sometimes comprising entire libraries, as was the case recently with Hebrew College’s recordings, and before that the collection from the Bronfman Jewish Education Center and the music collection from the Folk Dance program at Brooklyn College, to name a few.  The DJSA has also collaborated with Hebrew College and the Jewish Music Institute (London University) on digitization projects involving their rare collections of Israeli and British recordings. They also receive a steady influx of much smaller, private collections, but these accessions cannot be collectively underestimated in terms of size and time required to insure their preservation.

At this time, the DJSA has 6,677 authorized and active users, and is heavily used for pedagogy.  They do not keep records of exact numbers, but Hartov monitors requests coming in groups from particular institutions that are teaching courses and using the archive, sometimes even getting advance warning from the instructor.  On that basis, he can confirm that the archive is used as resource material by many classes teaching Hebrew, or Yiddish, or studying various aspects of Jewish culture (e.g. Yiddish theater.).  Some instructors have returned to the archive several years in a row.

Many users are also cantors, rabbis, and students studying cantorial performances, with the majority of new user requests often falling into this category.  Others are students of various disciplines, and there are also collectors and enthusiasts looking to complete discographies and undertake other related research.

The DJSA’s outreach consists mainly of the email message sent to all users who have requested access:

You have been granted access to the Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive.  Use the user name and password you have entered in the registration sheet.  If you forgot it, please contact us for a new user/password. Please note that one cannot download tracks from the archive, one can only listen to them while they are streaming online.  Your account will be authorized for six months, at which time you may request for a re-authorization.  We have no choice in the matter.

Please pass the word around about our existence.  Acknowledgements in any publications, documentaries, radio or television pieces resulting from consulting our archive will also be greatly appreciated.

Lastly, if you have recordings you can contribute, we will be most grateful.  We are interested in all sorts of recordings, including commercially released (LPs, 78s, cylinders, tapes), home made, field recordings, interviews, musical performances, services, recordings by your own band or choir, etc.  Contact me for more details.  Note that we do not necessarily need to take possession of the recordings if that is not your wish, we can use digital copies.

The archive does not advertise, but some other sites refer users and researchers to them through links, and Google is often efficient in matching up searches for more obscure recordings with the DJSA’s holdings.  Hartov reported that he receives a lot of requests ultimately begun through these simple Google searches.  The archive enforces no policy regarding gift copies or acknowledgement requirements, but they do ask to be sent courtesy copies of material made possible by research done through the web site.

In addition to making recordings available for online listening, the archive also presents associated materials (album covers, liner notes, etc.) on the web site.  Their holdings also include a large amount of sheet music, songbooks, and other related material, but they have no plans at the moment to start another archive or to integrate that into the current web site.

Amid these thousands of hours of audio material, both Glinert and Hartov can point to especially memorable recordings, and can point to recordings that stick with them as scholars, collectors, and teachers.  The New York Times mentioned one such recording in its 2002 profile of the DJSA:

On a recent morning the eight students in Dr. Glinert’s freshman seminar, ”Jerusalem: Vision and Reality,” watched as he located on the computer system the song ”Rozhinkes mit Mandlin,” or ”Raisins and Almonds.” The sounds of an orchestra filled the room, and after a few bars, the rich tenor of Richard Tucker, the opera star.

Written by Abraham Goldfaden for ”Shulamis,” a 1917 Yiddish opera, ”Rozhinkes mit Mandlin” was eventually adapted as a lullaby. Dr. Glinert, whose grandmother used to sing the song to him, said the song could be related to the class’s study of Zionism.

”In the temple corner sits a widowed daughter of Zion, rocking her only son,” Dr. Glinert read from a translation of the lyrics. ”She sings, ‘Some day you will trade in raisins and almonds, now sleep little one, sleep.’ ”

The class discussed the lyrics’ possible meanings, including that the woman wasn’t really a widow, but felt like one while her husband was away working. A student suggested that the song illustrated a hope that future generations would restore Jerusalem to the great city it once was. Dr. Glinert suggested that the hardships of Israel and its people were reflected in the woman’s crying over her child.

Matthew Schwartz, 18, a freshman from Roslyn, N.Y., who prefers the sounds of Billy Joel and James Taylor to cantorial music, said the sound helped him better understand not only the texts, but his Jewish faith as well.

”It adds another dimension to the learning process,” Mr. Schwartz said. ”It brings you closer to formulating your own personal connection to what you’re reading.”[13]

“I know of nothing larger,” Glinert recently told Dartmouth Now. “It’s gone beyond my wildest dreams, really. I never knew half of these things were out there.”

In their Fall 2012 article in the Association for Jewish Studies’ magazine, Perspectives, the pair discussed some requests they’ve received:

The requests can be poignant. Someone wrote that his grandfather, a gifted young singer, had perished on an El Al flight shot down in 1955. The DJSA has his only recording. A cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev e-mailed for access to support his work with the Jewish community. One young American wrote:

“I had the pleasure of having dinner this holiday season with Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman and he told me of one of the most amazing voices spiritual or otherwise he had ever heard. The name was Joseph Rosenblatt. He said he lost the recordings he had in a move many years ago and told me if I ever found them that he would love to get them again. If you can help me hear the Cantor and get Ornette a copy it would be much appreciated.”

We happily obliged.[14]

Hartov said, via email, “We have many very rare items, some unique.  I know (after the fact) that an item is rare when I get offers to buy some of our recordings.  I am biased towards the older, pre-WWII material.  I am still processing much of it.  All of it is exciting to me.”[15]

If you are interested in volunteering with the DJSA, or want to know more, contact Professors Hartov and Glinert.


[1] Dartmouth News

[2] Zezima

[3] Zezima

[4] Glinert, p. 58

[5] Zezima

[6] Chapman

[7] Dartmouth News

[8] Chapman

[9] Dartmouth News

[10] Interview with Alexander Hartov, October 10, 2013

[11] Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, October, 2013

[12] Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, October, 2013

[13] Zezima

[14] Glinert, p. 59

[15] Interview with Alexander Hartov, October 10, 2013

Works Cited

Chapman, Keith. “Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive Plays Host to Rare Recordings | Dartmouth Now.” Dartmouth Now. Dartmouth College, 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.

“Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive אוצר ההקלטות היהודיות של דרטמות.” About the DJSA. Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive, 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

Glinert, Lewis, and Alex Hartov. “The Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive.” AJS Perspectives (2012): 58-59. Association for Jewish Studies. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.

Lindholm, Jane, and Patti Daniels. “VPR: Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive A Treasure Trove.” VPR: Dartmouth Jewish Sound Archive A Treasure Trove. Vermont Public Radio, 4 Apr. 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

“New Digital Archive Will Preserve Music and Other Sounds of Jewish Life.” New Digital Archive Will Preserve Music and Other Sounds of Jewish Life. Dartmouth College, 7 Aug. 2002. Web. 10 Oct. 2013.

Zezima, Katherine. “Religion Journal; Reclaiming Sounds of a Discarded Yiddish Culture.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 30 Nov. 2002. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

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