Half hidden in the hill just east of E.S. Bird Library, the Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive was the first facility of its kind in the world built specifically to preserve an audio collection. More and more faculty and students are discovering that its door opens upon a world of possibilities: Belfer contains 340,000 audio recordings in a variety of formats; a recording studio with two control rooms, both for studio recording and preservation mastering activities; a public research reading room; and a classroom/phonograph display gallery.
Syracuse University Library began its audio archive in 1963 with the acquisition of the Joseph and Max Bell Collection of some 150,000 sound recordings. The archive and a laboratory were housed in the off-campus Continental Can Company building until, with support from Diane and Arthur B. Belfer and the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust, the Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive facility opened in 1982.
From the 1970s to the early 1990s, Belfer was a leader in the development of international standards for preservation and dissemination of sound recordings, and in research on sound recording and production methods. Sadly, budget cuts made it necessary to scale back the operation, which went into maintenance mode, with a full-time curator, Susan Stinson, assisted by a part-time cataloger and work-study students.
Nevertheless, since 1993 students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) Music Industry Program, have been getting hands-on experience in Belfer s laboratory. Sound engineering professor James Abbott teaches music recording by conducting sessions in Belfer s studio. More advanced students use the studio for independent study projects.
Students of David Rezak, faculty advisor and instructor for Syracuse University Recordings, a student-run label, have used many cuts from Belfer (for example, a 1980 recording of Dizzy Gillespie with the SU Jazz Ensemble) in their CD releases.
Students also helped create a historic compilation of sounds from the University s world-famous Holtkamp organ, which is located in Setnor Auditorium. The resulting CD continues to bring recognition to the performers, the instrument, the archive, the Setnor School of Music, and the student label.
The laboratory part of Belfer received a boost in 1999, when the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency, funded the Radius Project, which revived a project that had languished since 1985: to develop a laser cylinder playback system that could reproduce historically accurate (sonically correct) sound in a non-destructive, flexible, and cost-effective manner. With additional development, the Radius laser reader could be used to play back Belfer s distinguished collection of cylinders for preservation, teaching, and research purposes without damaging the often-fragile cylinders themselves.
A New Vitality
Belfer acquired a full-time engineer, Robert Hodge, in December 2003, which reflects the Library s renewed commitment to Belfer. The position is partly supported by the Fleming Educational Unitrust, directed by Fine Arts Professor Emeritus Frank Macomber.
Recently, the influx of students from CVPA, as well as other schools and colleges, has increased. For example, Belfer hosted 10 Freshman Forum classes in 2004 2005. According to curator Susan Stinson, When students come into Belfer they see displays of historical audio formats and phonographs an instant education in the 100-plus-year history of sound recording.
Faculty in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and of Engineering and Computing Science have been using the laboratory to remaster Belfer recordings and to transfer their own LPs to compact disc for classroom use. Fine Arts faculty members plan to showcase Belfer when they host the American Musicological Society s annual meeting in April 2006.
Revitalized interest in Belfer among campus partners has encouraged the Library s associate university librarian for Collection Services and manager of Belfer, Peter McDonald, to pursue large-scale plans for Belfer, which involve partnerships among music industry leaders and sound archive professionals. Such plans are in concert with Chancellor Nancy Cantor s vision for building a creative campus that is engaged in the community and in the world.
According to McDonald, Belfer is poised to serve as a center of digital excellence. The archive could play a leading role nationally in the creation, management, and dissemination of digital sound content, which would also tie in with CVPA s Music Industry Program and its digital rights management work.
There are myriad opportunities for campus collaborations. McDonald continued, The archive will become a magnet for graduate scholarship and internships a veritable digital laboratory for theses and dissertations with programs in CVPA, the School of Information Studies, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Newhouse School of Public Communications. Furthermore, as the material in Belfer is digitized, it will grow in utility for students working on documentaries, news clips, movies, and other media formats.
The Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archive is poised for an exciting future. Not only will it continue to serve a growing constituency on campus with expertise and world-class collections, but it is equally rising to a national leadership position in the areas of music copyright, digital recorded-sound repositories, and public access to the world s heritage in sound.
Gregory Griffin and David Rezak
From the Spring 2005 Library Connection newsletter