October 2011: 3-D Imaging Technology Preserves Audio Collections
"I think it’s good for people to understand on the grassroots level that there’s this research that’s going on, that it’s publically supported, and that it can benefit a whole range of stakeholders."
- Dr. Carl Haber, Physicist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
A Solution for Large Scale Digitization of Special Audio Collections
Libraries, archives and museums across the country face a similar crisis. Many of the audio recordings contained on antique grooved media are broken, too fragile or too degraded to play back on traditional systems. Several years ago, Carl Haber, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and his partners created an elegant solution to this problem. They developed IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) a machine which takes high-resolution photographs of the grooves on old disc records and digitally reads the images to reproduce the sound they contain.
Process Improvements for Increased Accessibility by Archive Professionals
In its first iteration, IRENE, which used two dimensional (2D) digital microphotography could only read media with left-to-right grooves, typical of shellac or lacquer records. With funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, however, Haber and his colleagues were able to expand the technology to include three dimensional (3D) imaging to read those media with data in the vertical element of the groove, such as wax cylinders. Now, with funding from a 2009 IMLS National Leadership Grant for Libraries, Haber and his partners are working to broaden the impacts of the IRENE/3D project and its potential uses. Research funded by the most recent IMLS grant is concentrated on making IRENE/3D more accessible.
A large part of the recent efforts has been in simplifying workflow so that archive and museum professionals can use IRENE without the assistance of a specialized scientist. Haber and his team have also created a transportable IRENE unit for the University of Chicago which it plans to use in archival collections in remote locations such as Madras, India. Other areas of focus include utilizing IRENE to read collections with great historical value such as experimental sound recordings created by Alexander Graham Bell and his partners, currently at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Preservation Has a Positive Impact on Student’s and Higher Learning
The IRENE/3D project has done more than breathe life into old recordings, however, it has also helped broaden the horizons of nearly two dozen physics and engineering students. Research interns from both the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Applied Sciences in Fribourg, Switzerland, have worked with Haber over the course of the project. Haber explains that the IRENE/3D project provides some of the world’s brightest students with insight into the broader applications of their learning, "They’re going to have learned something about how science and technology can benefit other fields outside of cell phones and pocket entertainment. There’s this whole other dimension—preservation science—and I don’t think they ever would have known anything about that or ever learned about that."
Sharing the Technology with Diverse Audiences and Stakeholders
Unsurprisingly, students aren’t the only ones interested in the project. Thanks to exposure in the media and efforts to share his research at conferences and in journals, Haber has had no shortage of attention from archives, museums and members of the public. "We’re almost continuously hearing from potential new partners. People come along all the time with a new artifact or collection that they want to restore and they think that it won’t be possible with normal methods," he says.
Haber is open to these inquiries, as they provide the chance to test the limits of the technology while letting silent recordings speak again. Among the most memorable requests were those of a record producer with a recorded message from a young Janis Joplin to her family and the Montana State Historical Society’s request to restore the voice of a rare gypsy fortune teller penny arcade machine from the early 20th century. Haber feels it’s important to make the technology available to anyone with interest. "Typically if a person contacts us and it’s going to be something small we will often try to do it…I think it’s good for people to understand on the grassroots level that there’s this research that’s going on, that it’s publically supported, and that it can benefit a whole range of stakeholders."
Looking Forward with IRENE/3D
Haber anticipates that work on the IRENE project will continue beyond the end of the current grant. Going forward, Haber envisions a number of new directions for the technology. He is interested in creating a machine that would combine the 2D scanning and 3D scanning capabilities into a single unit and refining IRENE/3D to be faster and able to scan more kinds of media. Some older recordings such as those with cracking lacquer or those made from metal, still provide a challenge for IRENE due to their uneven or reflective surfaces. Haber also sees finding new institutions to partner with as a "natural next step".
Currently, there are only three locations – Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the Library of Congress and the University of Chicago—which have an IRENE unit. Pending the receipt of future funding, Haber would be interested in creating new machines for museums or archives with large, important collections, citing the importance of collaboration in expanding access to the IRENE technology, "Our general approach is to try to be open and inclusive."