NY Philharmonic’s Archives Strike the Right Note

By Pat Burke  |  Posted 11-23-2015 Print Email

The New York Philharmonic’s digital archives rely on open-source technology to create a robust look into the institution’s rich past.

Digital archives provide a statement about an organization’s reverence for the past as it keeps an eye toward the future. For the New York Philharmonic, preserving fragile documents and records that shed light on the personality of some of music’s greatest artists, including scores marked by Leonard Bernstein, has been an undertaking both challenging and exciting. Mitch Brodsky, digital project manager at the New York Philharmonic, has helped create a comprehensive, high-resolution digital archive that makes the online experience as satisfying as researching at the reading room table.The Philharmonic’s archives, officially called the Leon Levy Digital Archives, relies on open-source technology to tie the archives together. Brodsky shares with CIO Insight how the archives allow researchers to access the archives from anywhere, anytime, for free, why it’s important to preserve pieces of the past and a few surprises uncovered during the archiving process.

CIO Insight: The New York Philharmonic has a rich and storied history dating back to 1842. How are its physical archives stored, and were they ever in any danger of being lost to time and degradation?

Mitch Brodsky: Record-keeping has been a priority and a tradition since the founding of the orchestra in 1842. Formed as a cooperative organization, all assets and decisions were recorded to maintain accountability and transparency. While the orchestra no longer operates under the cooperative model, the tendency to hold on to things has never gone away. This tendency to record and preserve is, miraculously, what makes the Philharmonic Archives such an incredibly rich collection today.

The physical archives are located in a temperature- and humidity-controlled space at Lincoln Center and welcomes researchers across many disciplines from all around the world. Of course, all archival records face threats, and the most common threat–more than natural disasters, mishandling or even decaying paper–is simply the garbage can. It is one critical role of the archivist to guide the organization’s record-keeping processes so that records are vetted for their historical significance before being discarded forever. In other words, they ensure that the stuff worth preserving makes it to the archives in the first place.

While there are specific items that do present special preservation challenges–such as early 20th century newspaper scrapbooks that are extremely fragile to the touch–the Philharmonic has been fortunate to have avoided major catastrophes over the years, aiding in its ability to amass a uniquely rich and comprehensive collection.

CIO Insight: What items are the archives composed of?

Brodsky: Currently, the Digital Archives makes available every printed program since 1842, scores marked by Leonard Bernstein, Andre Kostelanetz and others, music parts marked by orchestra musicians, a portion of our vast photo collection, and business records between 1943 and 1970.

CIO Insight: Can you think of a particular item or piece of media that surprised you or really stood out during the digital archiving process?

Brodsky: My favorite item in the digital archives is a Mahler 6th Symphony score marked by Leonard Bernstein.

This item shows many sides of Bernstein–in the opening pages, a beautifully written stream of consciousness gives a window on his deep level of artistry; and on the first page of music, a huge “Mahler Grooves” bumper sticker shows his sense of humor and love of fun. It is these kinds of artifacts that help us understand the great artists of our collective past through their own personal expression.

CIO Insight: How do the Philharmonic’s digital archives improve the user’s online experience?

Brodsky: Prior to the Digital Archives, the only way to do serious research in our collection was to visit us in person. For many people, that meant expensive travel and dealing with scheduling constraints. As well, it increases physical handling of the collection which poses a preservation risk.

Now, researchers are able to access the archives from anywhere, anytime, for free. We have made an effort to be comprehensive and digitize in high-resolution so the experience online mirrors the experience at the reading room table.

This ease of access to the collection will help scholars generate new knowledge faster and more deeply than before. It also allows the Philharmonic to leverage these digitized materials internally, whether for marketing and social media, fundraising, or even looking back on administrative decisions of the past.

CIO Insight: What technology ties together the archiving system?

Brodsky: Alfresco forms the foundation of the Digital Archives, as it stores all the digitized documents (3 million pages by the end of 2018). Our system also relies heavily on Apache Solr, an incredibly fast, customizable and reliable open-source search server. The glue that ties it all together, though, is a migration tool developed by our Alfresco partner Technology Services Group, called OpenMigrate. This tool has the ability to transfer data between all parts of our system, including image ingestion, Solr indexing, OCR processing and derivative creation. Our implementation would have been far more painful without a reliable bulk migration tool.

CIO Insight: By definition, digital archiving is a time-consuming process. How difficult of a process was it, and how has Alfresco helped streamline it?

Brodsky: When we began building the Digital Archives in 2009, there was no model for us to follow. The most difficult part of the process for us has also been the most fun part–creating the model as we go along. This means developing workflows for digitization that combine the very physical process of document preparation, photography, metadata refinement and QA, with the very digital experience of making these materials available in a robust online platform.

Alfresco has helped us achieve our goals because of the flexibility and transparency it offers as an open-source product. This flexibility allows us to invent, build and ultimately grow organically with the platform, and this has been its greatest strength in our situation.

CIO Insight: Why is it important to create a digital archive for an organization such as the Philharmonic, or for any entity with a deep history?

Brodsky: Creating a digital archive is a statement about an organization’s reverence for the past with an eye toward the future. Not only are we better preserving these millions of records better through high-resolution digitization, but we are also able to share, leverage, discuss, and learn from these materials by making them accessible in a searchable platform. Further, we are building tomorrow’s archives by capturing today’s born-digital records and integrating them with our rich past. These activities ultimately allow us to build new connections and discover new relationships with our greatest allies – our audiences around the world. 


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