Digital History: Digital Project Review

Digital History

Review- The National Jukebox: Historical Recordings from the Library of Congress

National Jukebox: Historical Recordings from the Library of Congress. Created and maintained by the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Library of Congress, and Sony Music Entertainment, Inc., Washington, D.C., Reviewed Feb. 2017.

About a year ago, I found myself trying to make room for a family member’s spring-cleaning collection of old vinyl in an already-full record cabinet. Caught between a desire to keep these cool old records- for posterity’s sake!- and a pragmatic understanding that I would never, ever, throw on a 2.5 minute Dee Dee Sharp single, I eventually just left the record crate in front of the cabinet, where it has lived ever since.

The National Jukebox gathers comparable cobwebs in a similar scenario, tucked into a corner of the Library of Congress website. The project (clearly ambitious) took a lot of money, time, and effort to bring to fruition, and it has great potential to serve as a valuable educational resource. Unfortunately the seemingly-abandoned site doesn’t appear destined to achieve this legacy as things stand.

The project is the lovechild of the LOC Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation and Sony Music Entertainment (which now owns the rights to recordings made by Victor, Columbia, OKeh and other labels). Granted a license to stream the music, LOC launched The National Jukebox in order to “present to the widest audience possible early commercial sound recordings, offering a broad range of historical and cultural documents as a contribution to education and lifelong learning.”

To this end, a lengthy and laborious digitization process beginning in 2010 resulted in the online presence of 10,000 78 rpm recordings spanning 1901-1925. The technical aspects involved in the conservation and digitization process is documented in detail on the site, and it is a welcome sight to come across a web project that acknowledges all of the painstaking work behind the scenes. The trials of archiving of AV materials has gotten a lot of attention lately, and it’s interesting to see these archivists doing what they do best- preserving things! And preserve they have- the audio quality of the recordings is remarkable, and the metadata accompanying each song is top-notch. So far, so good.


An example of an item available on the National Jukebox. (Note the racism disclaimer!)

That’s why the disappointment of user experience stings so sharply. The website is a basic HTML/CSS/JS template job. It is not particularly visually appealing, navigation is slightly confusing, and the user is straitjacketed into streaming songs through an embedded Adobe Flash player. I suspect that the provisions of the Sony Music Entertainment copyright agreement were severely limiting to the website architects; they had to strike a balance so each song was “accessible” but not rippable. But this choice was not a sustainable one, not even for 2010; many tablets and smartphone browsers do not support Flash plugins, eliminating mobile potential for the site’s use.

While I understand the limitations inherent in the streaming-only caveat, the project has a more glaring and unforgivable flaw, at least in the eyes of a public historian. Namely, the site lacks almost entirely any interpretation of the material- there is no contextual information for the songs, nor resources for implementation in educational or museum settings. This severely reduces the practical value of the project and seems to endorse an unfortunate “build it and they will come” mindset.

A second phase of the project (unlikely to materialize) would be to better emulate another project linked to from the National Jukebox’s home page: The Library and Archives Canada’s “Virtual Gramophone” project. Following a similar idea, the site strives to showcase early Canadian recorded sound. However, it is more user-friendly, offering RSS feeds instead of locking a listener into Flash. In addition, history, contextual information, and educational resources for utilizing the collections in the classroom are prominently displayed.

It is always a shame to see a massive project like this sink into neglect and decrepitude. It is particularly disheartening in this case because there were clearly plentiful resources bestowed upon it at some point. In this way, it feels as if the project is unfinished, forgotten, frozen in time at its last readily-apparent update in June of 2012. It sits, like my Dee Dee Sharp record, in a purgatory of wanted-but-of-limited-use, gathering cobwebs.