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New York Philharmonic puts Toscanini archive online for worldwide audience

The New York Philharmonic is digitally archiving millions of documents and making them available online

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The New York Philharmonic has put documents related to the life and work of musician Arturo Toscanini into a digital archive in the latest stage of a project that has already made millions of documents available online.

The 175-year-old orchestra has been digitally archiving records since 2011 using open source software from Alfresco. There are already more than two million documents in the digital archive.

The organisation recently made publicly available 1,300 folders of documents, including 70,000 pages of material and a dozen marked scores, related to Arturo Toscanini.

Toscanini is an acclaimed Italian conductor of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Toscanini Era (1925-1945) archive is the fifth release of the New York Philharmonic’s Leon Levy Digital Archives. Online users can pan, zoom, rotate, magnify, view thumbnails and turn pages.

The project uses the Alfresco Digital Business Platform to capture, secure and manage content.

The New York Philharmonic’s historian and archivist of 33 years, Barbara Haws, was the first archivist at the orchestra. “The orchestra has been documenting itself since its first performance in 1842 so there was a lot of material,” she said. There are in excess of six million documents in its collection.

“We created very sophisticated databases to help us find what we had to find to answer research questions whenever anyone asked. But these were not publicly accessible,” said Haws.

Digitising musical records

In 2002, as the cost of digitisation started to reduce, the organisation began thinking about connecting the information held in the database to the items it related to. It first looked at scanning the documents, but decided the process would be too slow and expensive. When a photographer said he could shoot 2,000 pages a day with a single camera, Haws decided this was the way forward.

The orchestra’s archiving team started taking pictures of the material in 2009. It received a grant from the Leon Levy Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the project.

The organisation set a target of 1.3 million pages in three years, and at the same time set up the infrastructure and user interface to make the documents freely available online. To date, about 2.5 million documents are digitised, 1.5 million of which are available online.

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible, so users simply have to go to the New York Philharmonic website and click into the digital archive site to view documents,” said Haws.

The Toscanini archive was opened to the public to tie in with what would have been his 150th birthday this year.

Connecting data with images

Alfresco is “the bedrock” of the archive, according to Haws, and has been used since the project began.

Explaining the archiving process, Kevin Schlottmann, digital archives manager at the New York Philharmonic, said images are matched up with metadata imported from the orchestra’s databases, which becomes the copy of record, and this is then pushed out to the front end to make it available to the public. “Alfresco is the lynchpin that sits between the two,” he added.

The Toscanini archiving project took nine months, and was completed in March 2017.

Haws said the digital archive has dramatic improved access to the orchestra’s records. Whereas in the past people had to book to view materials in person, the digital records now allow thousands of people to view the documents without any risk of damage.

The archive is not cloud-based, but the materials are hosted in the New York Philharmonic’s datacentres. The IT department at the organisation has “been instrumental in making it work”, said Schlottmann.

It is possible, however, that it could be stored in the cloud in the future. “We are always evaluating our options because things change so quickly in terms of storage costs and internet speed reliability,” said Schlottmann.

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