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New York Philharmonic gives historic archives new life by digitising them

Tom Macaulay | May 31, 2017
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of conductor Arturo Toscanini the orchestra added his materials to its digital platform.

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The New York Philharmonic is the oldest symphony orchestra in the USA, but looked to the future to promote its history and embarked on an ambitious digitisation project. More than 1.3 million pages of printed programmes, photographs, conducting scores and other items from its annals have been made permanently available online to the public in the Leon Levy Digital Archives.

Users can virtually turn the pages of the documents and pan, zoom, rotate and view thumbnails of anything they like in the treasure trove of music history. The initiative has made the Philharmonic the first major symphony orchestra to provide open access to its performance history data.

Alfresco Content Services provides the backbone of the content management system. The open-source software company provided a scalable solution for an enormous undertaking that supports any file type, heavy daily use and continuous streaming of vast volumes of data

"Before we did this, people had to come to New York City and sit in our reading room," says archivist and historian Barbara Haws. She's worked at the Philharmonic since 1984, helping to secure, preserve and make available its ongoing history.

"I thoroughly enjoyed that, because I got to meet a lot of people and talk to them and learn what they were doing. On the other hand, Leonard Bernstein's score of Mahler's 5th Symphony has now been viewed more than 25,000 times.

"Imagine 25,000 visitors coming into our reading room and handling that score. It would have turned it into fragments and dust very quickly. The idea that you can show something 25,000 times to somebody and it still is pristineis really mind-blowing."

The orchestra turns 175 this year while one of its legendary figures from the past has his own momentous anniversary. It is the 150th birthday of acclaimed former conductor Arturo "the Maestro" Toscanini, and to commemorate it the orchestra has made the Toscanini Era (1925-1945) the fifth release of the digitisation project.

The 1,300 folders contain around 70,000 pages including business documents about the 1928 merger of the New York Philharmonic and New York Symphony that formed the orchestra of today. There are also hand-coloured glass lantern slides that illustrated programmes for the Young People's Concerts, and home movies of the 1930 tour to Europe that established the Philharmonic's international reputation.

They started prepping and shooting that material in autumn 2016 and launched it in March this year. It's been viewed 8,500 times a week since then, with the UK the second most common location of clicks after the States.


The historic undertaking

The Philharmonic plays more concerts than any other symphony orchestra in the world. This left it with a collection of six million pieces of paper containing records of their performances.


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