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From Deep in a Mountain, a Cache of Classics

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A huge number of musical gems, including an as-yet unknown volume of classical tracks, are now being transferred from a subterranean storage facility to the Library of Congress, in what the Library has described as "a major gift to the nation."

The transfer of 200,000 metal, glass and lacquer master discs dating from 1926 to 1948 include seminal recordings of jazz, pop, country, spoken-word and “light classical" and is the largest single donation ever received by the Library’s audio-visual division.

“What I’ve seen so far of the classical is some Andrés Segovia, some Jascha Heifetz,” said Gene DeAnna, head of the recorded sound section of the Library of Congress. “There appear to be maybe 30-40 sides of classical 78s, including alternate takes, probably very short pieces. But there could be album sets in here too. We’re just not sure yet.”

The Library of Congress, which anticipates the complete cataloging of the trove to take between five and ten years, began to receive the recordings last month in what Vinnie Freda, executive vice president for digital logistics and business services at Universal Music Logistics, describes as “the first phase of a long term relationship.”

“It always bothered me that no one has been able to access that music for so long, especially with the digital era when everyone could have access to much of the world’s music collection,” explained Freda. “I talked to the Library two years ago, and we formed a mutually beneficial relationship in which we retain copyright. Meanwhile, the Library, in their mission to preserve American music, would embark on a digitization program and allow us to have a copy of the digital file they make.”

Classical music will likely be the first among the collection’s genres to be made widely available to the public, DeAnna explained, owing to the greater number of published works that will now fall into the public domain under Title 17 of US copyright law. “Copyright issues will certainly be much easier for classical music prior to 1923,” said DeAnna.

The vault itself, called Iron Mountain and located near Boyers, Pa., conjures images of a bat-cave of national treasures. “You literally drive your car into this mountain and there’s an entire city down there,” explained Freda. “You drive down what looks like a tunnel, and it’s a grid. You drive to where our vault is located, carved out of the mountain. Not all of our catalogue is in there, but our deep catalogue is down there.”

Now, a good portion of that catalogue is making its way to the Library of Congress in the first of what will likely be a series of transfers. “We live in an era where anything can be digitized and made available to a mass audience at less expensive rate than in the past,” said Freda. “This is an opportunity for us as guardians of historical materials to make them available and to have people understand the history and what has led to what we’re hearing today.”

For the Library of Congress, it will be a labor of love. “It’s a mile of audio, about 5,000 linear feet,” said DeAnna. “This stuff hasn’t been looked at for half a century. It’s going to be a big discovery.”