Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed April 10, 1997
Contact: Mark Nickel

The digitized American memory

Brown to digitize 1,500 African American sheet music items, 1850-1920

Brown University will digitize 1,500 pieces of African American sheet music from the John Hay Library, under a $72,000 grant from Ameritech. The digitized music will become part of the National Digital Library Program at the Library of Congress.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- A small but significant part of Brown University's massive sheet music collection will become part of the nation's digitital memory next year through a partnership between the Library of Congress and Ameritech.

Ten libraries across the country have received grants totaling $600,000 to support conversion of significant American materials into a digitized format accessible over the Internet through the National Digital Library of the Library of Congress. Materials from the 10 libraries include 19th-century photographs of the American West and South, a collection of architectural lantern slides, American environmental photographs, and first-person materials from the South, including narratives of former slaves.

Editors: Additional information on the national grants program is available by fax or Internet from the Library of Congress and Ameritech. Contacts are listed at the end of this release and are available through Brown's web site.

Brown University's Sheet Music Collection at the John Hay Library contains approximately 500,000 items, making it one of the largest collections in the country. While individual items date from the 18th century, the collection contains primarily American vocal music published between 1840 and 1950. Categories include music of World Wars I and II, music from the Yiddish-American stage at the turn of the century, Confederate imprints, Broadway show music, music from films, and a large collection of general popular music from the 19th and 20th centuries.

African-Americana is one of the most important and heavily used parts of the collection. Many items date from the pre-Civil War heyday of blackface minstrelsy and abolition, including many songs associated with the historically important novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The collection reflects important elements of American history, including Reconstruction, the urbanization and northern migration of African Americans, the emergence of African-American performers and musical troupes, turn-of-the-century ragtime, and the early days of jazz, blues and African-American musical theater of the 1920s.

In addition to the musical notation that documents songs and instrumental works, the collection offers lithographs and other cover art that provides a visual history of racial attitudes and commonly accepted stereotpyes. Certain graphics and song titles, particularly the so-called "coon songs" from the turn-of-the-century, bespeak racial attitudes that were commonplace and unremarkable then, but are disturbing now. The collection has supported many research projects and several books.

Work on the digitizing project is scheduled to begin this fall. SlideMakers, a Providence computer graphics business, has been selected as the vendor and will deliver page-by-page images to the John Hay Library staff in three formats: GIF, TIFF and JPEG. Library staff will inspect images for quality control and will link the images to bibliographic records. In all, there will be approximately 22,500 images (1,500 titles averaging five pages each with three different image formats per page), occupying more than 70 compact disks. The finished digital collection is scheduled for delivery to the Library of Congress by Dec. 31, 1998.

Additional sources of information:

Guy Lamolinara, Library of Congress: 202/707-9217 or email to [email protected]
Rick Aspan, Ameritech: 312/364-3570 or email to [email protected]

The American Memory at the Library of Congress: