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  • Listening to the ArchiveSound Data in the Humanities and Sciences
  • Carolyn Birdsall (bio) and Viktoria Tkaczyk (bio)

For it will retain a perfect mechanical memory of many things which we may forget.

Thomas Edison1

On 22 August 1940, the German astronomer Harald von Klüber used a gramophone to record a brief speech about universal time. In this wartime recording, von Klüber discussed the relativity of time and the need for a global time standard. Temporal convergence, he proclaimed, would facilitate punctual communication, travel, and transportation—three aspects crucial to Germany's conduct of World War II but also relevant for a range of different research disciplines that were concerned with temporal accuracy. As von Klüber referred to the newest technologies for measuring and synchronizing time with elaborate quartz clocks and wireless communication, he was also performing what he understood by standardized time, through the medium of sound recording: in order to reproduce his measured, persuasive voice, the gramophone disc needed to be played back at an exact, predefined rotation speed.2 [End Page S1]

When von Klüber made his recording, the technology of phonography had for some decades been regarded as offering a new means of preserving, measuring, and reproducing events in real time, particularly for the purposes of historical inquiry—as had photography and later film. A myriad of contemporary accounts affirms these technologies' promise to capture time. They are replete with references to the camera as historian and cinema as a new historical source, emphasizing the ability of photography and film to produce and archive indexical traces that could serve as evidence of past events.3 In the case of the phonograph, inventor Thomas A. Edison had initially proposed a diverse set of applications, yet the mechanical recording and exact reproduction of sound, too, was soon framed more narrowly as a time capsule for future generations.4

The possibility of preserving sounds—and thus of subjecting such temporal phenomena to sustained scrutiny—meant that before long, phonographs (later gramophones) were being adapted to the needs of scientific research and related institutional agendas.5 From around 1900, scientific sound archives in Europe were founded for the systematic collection, preservation, and study of phonographic recordings: the phonogram archives in Vienna, then Berlin, and the phonographic collections of universities in Paris, Leiden, Zurich, and St. Petersburg. Many of these projects staked encyclopedic and preservationist claims, mostly with the aim of collecting and researching all the world's languages, musics, and sounds.6 At the same time, these archives regarded themselves as technological laboratories to develop and test new devices for the recording, storage, and reproduction of sound.

Starting from this early florescence of sound archiving initiatives, our Special Issue shows that the scientific sound archives were conceived according to temporal projections of past, present, and future. In some cases, sound data were intended for immediate reuse; in others, recordings were stockpiled for imagined future uses. Not uncommonly, sound holdings gave rise to research that was either futuristic or anachronistic—subject, [End Page S2] then, to the particular institution's own archival time.7 Recording and playback devices, too, were imagined as facilitating time-travel: they could help users to listen to recorded materials at exactly the same rotation speed (synchronized time), to accelerate or slow them down for detailed analysis (relative time), to preserve a constantly growing body of sonic heritage (linear-historical time), or to analyze and compare the archival holdings at any one moment (transcended time).8 On the other hand, the creation and management of recorded sound collections was a costly, laborious, and, above all, time-consuming process. Not only did it take time to listen to recordings, but substantial processing time was required for the tasks of copying and editing, duplication and marking up, indexing and cataloguing. Another temporal consideration was the limited shelf life of recording media: from the outset, historical actors were aware of the fragility of wax cylinder carriers (later of magnetic tapes) and the damage caused by playback, as well as the difficulties of long-term preservation arising from physical degradation, generation loss, and, increasingly, format obsolescence.9

Picking up on the complexities of these time-related...


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