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The Library of Congress Adds a Jukebox

With its new National Jukebox, the Library of Congress is making more than 10,000 early-20th-century recordings available, no quarters required.

The free online music repository features streaming versions of recordings from Victor Talking Machine Co. that were made between 1901 and 1925, a period predating the use of microphones in recording. Sony Music Entertainment provided the music from its catalog. More recordings housed by Sony, from Columbia Records and OKeh, will be added to the jukebox.

The library was assisted in its work by the University of California at Santa Barbara, which had previously created a database of Victor recordings that helped the library organize and select music to include in the project and make the jukebox material more easily searchable. Recordings from Santa Barbara’s collection were also digitized for inclusion in the jukebox.

James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, says the online archive will help restore work that has largely been forgotten.

“This is a signal moment in the recovery of a great deal of American creativity that people don’t have access to,” he says. “They haven’t heard it.”

He says the National Jukebox is part of a broader effort by the library to make millions of documents available online.

The idea for a National Jukebox has been years in the making, says Gene DeAnna, head of the library’s recorded-sound section. After an agreement was finalized with Sony in 2009, digitization of the more than 10,000 recordings began in 2010. It took about 15 minutes to convert each four-minute track, Mr. DeAnna says.

The recordings will help people better understand the foundations of current music, he says, and he hopes that their accessibility will encourage their further study by scholars.

“I think if things aren’t on the Internet, they’re being ignored, even by scholars,” he says.

Samuel S. Brylawski, the editor and project manager for the Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings, at Santa Barbara, says the recordings will be of interest to musicologists, who can study how the same piece was recorded by different musicians, and also provide insight into early-20th-century cultural norms.

The jukebox includes more than just music: It also includes speeches and comedy, much of the latter playing on ethnic and racial stereotypes. For that reason, the library includes a disclaimer that some of the material may be considered offensive.

But Mr. DeAnna says it’s important to carry those recordings as well.

“We don’t want it to be taken out of context and hurt people, but nonetheless they were made,” he says. “We don’t want to censor history.”

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