Project IRENE brings lost cultures back to life

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Alejandro Serrano/University Library/Courtesy

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In Moffitt Library, Project IRENE, which is working to digitize nearly 3000 century-old recordings of several Native American languages, is entering its third year.

IRENE, which stands for “Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.,” is a custom-built machine that uses advanced imaging techniques to create detailed maps of the grooves on the surfaces of wax cylinders. These recordings were gathered and preserved in wax cylinders in the early 1900s under the direction of famed campus anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. With these images, the recordings can be played without physically touching — and therefore damaging — them.

Lynne Grigsby, the head of library applications and publishing, said these wax cylinders work in a similar way to records.

“You would have a stylus that would sit and it spun so you could play it. … You could still do that today with these,” said Grigsby, “But each time you played it, because it’s wax … it deteriorates.”

Olivia Dill, the only full-time paid employee of the project, however, converts the images into sound without physically damaging them. According to Dill, a physics and history of art UC Berkeley graduate, IRENE takes millions of measurements across the cylinder to gain the necessary resolution. According to Dill, each cylinder takes about 3 hours; as such, the imaging process is a bottleneck to the project.

According to Carl Haber, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a major contributor to the project, said he first became aware of the fragility of sound recording in the early 2000s. He and his colleagues had the idea to use a method of measurement they were using in their work in particle physics to also preserve the wax cylinders. According to Haber, they are currently working to improve the technique to allow the digitization of records that might be broken into dozens of pieces.

“We learned about the whole issue of sound recordings and their fragility,” said Haber. “We had the idea to use an optical method to scan the surface. … Through that analysis, we could extract the sound.”

Dill and Grigsby said some of what is on the recordings is not available to the public due to their sensitive nature, especially the songs.

“Particularly with the song material, it’s oftentimes sacred or ceremonial or it was only meant to be heard by certain members of the community,” said Dill.

According to Dill, some of the recordings are not recorded anywhere else. Some are even recordings of a tribe with no surviving members. Certain communities, she said, have used the collection to reintroduce the language back into their culture.

Dill said that the recordings eventually end up in the California Language Archive, an online repository.

“I spoke to a woman, and she told me that her generation … used to listen to the collection,” said Dill. “Now the next generation … are learning it from their aunts and uncles. … They’re the first to learn it from a person and not a grainy audio recording.”

Contact Michael Lee at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @_HyunkyuL.

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