In recent years, station volunteers have been putting energy into organizing and cataloging our own collection of ‘shellac.’ WDRT Board Member and volunteer Bob Hill has spearheaded the organizing and curating of our 78 library.

What do find special about WDRT’s 78 collection, and 78 records in general? 

As I work through the donated 78s and those that I have purchased and donated to WDRT, I was not surprised to see a large amount of post WWII pop music. What I was impressed by and still find hard to wrap my head around is the sizeable collection of early Vaudeville artists who were drawn to the medium as a way of extending the experience of their performance. In these records I find myself lost to some degree because I did not have a first hand experience with seeing the Vaudeville performance that the record represents. The
pacing is slow and some of the references lost. The hard part is making the leap to the fact that these recordings are, in many cases, more than 100 years old. It is amazing to hear work from this time period in history, before WWI and well before motion pictures and many radio shows. Live performance ruled the day and the “record” was an
extension of that experience. It was not until later that artists recognized the recorded medium as a mode of expression all its own. To listen to early Vaudeville recordings without the aid of research and study can leave the listener confused and questioning how this was entertainment at all. We have to be reminded that these artists assumed that the reason you bought the record is so that you can remember / relive the performance. In all of the records that I have listened to and collected, only this period of recording creates that
dissonance and wonder. Will I ever fully understand these recordings without the possibility of ever experiencing the live performance.

Do you have any favorites or specific 78’s you’ve found in the collection? The expression of Jazz on 78 is pure. I love listening closely to the record and hear the occasional distant side talk between musicians, clearing of throats and other sounds that modern recording would never allow. Keep in mind that these early Jazz recordings were the result of capturing one take of musicians playing live in a studio. There were no tracks or tape to isolate and layer the music together. In most cases it was a single microphone capturing
everything. As artists and producers, you kept the one you thought was the best. In some cases it was the only one you could pay for. Many of these early artists did not transfer over to 45 and 33PM formats, either because they did not have the following or they had passed on. In many cases the only way to hear this music is to play the old 78s.
Those are my favorite, finding an early Jazz artist that only recorded on 78.

What is the process for organizing the records?

With such a large and varied collection, it is important to get all of the records into a database and at the same time sort out the best copies of what we have. Ideally, to make the collection useable, you want to ultimately store them by genera and artist. Since artists jumped between labels, it makes it difficult to categorize and ensure that all duplicates are found. In my opinion, following the steps below provides WDRT the best opportunity to catalogue and manage a collection of this size.

1. Secure a space with tables and chairs for sorting
2. Get all known 78s in one location
3. Take all records out of books, bindings, sleeves and boxes (Save all books and sleeves)
4. Sort all discs by label (Clean as many as possible)
5. Work one label at a time and sort by number
6. Enter information about each record into a DB (Still to be built) Note condition of best copy and list number duplicates
7. Repair any damaged books and group by artist
8. After all records have been sorted and entered into the DB,
Complete as many books as possible by populating the books with the correct records from the collection (Use duplicates first)
9. Enter information about the completed books into a DB. Note condition of the best copy and list duplicates
10. After all books have been entered into the DB, Re-Sort the books and records by genera and artist
11. Store the best copy if possible as an archive and make duplicates and completed book available to DJ’s for use in shows.
12 As new stock (Donations) come in, Look them up in the database, update DB with information or add a line to the DB if the record does not exist. Clean the record, check to see if it competes an open book and place it in the collection by genera and artist.

As you can see, this is a big task and we are working with very old and fragile discs that if dropped will shatter. To accomplish the effort, people will need to be dedicated and careful. As with any large collection, it is easier to manage after it is organized.

Sound like something you might be interested in helping with? Patient hands are still needed to sort discs, enter titles into a database and build shelving. We’re also still taking donations of records. Email volunteer@wdrt.org for more information.