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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.

They previously used different databases to find and control the information, whether locating historic documents or finding out how many times they'd performed Beethoven's 5th Symphony since being founded in 1842.

"By 2008 it seemed obvious that the next step was to digitise this material and make it available," says Haws. "We started creating some models of what this would be and cost estimates of what it would take, and then identifying what the underlying platform should be to maintain it all.

"We identified Alfresco for three main reasons: One, it was an enterprise version. Two, it was scalable because we saw our history as only growing. Three, it could handle any format: audio, video, JPEGs, anything."

They wanted to use open source so they weren't bound to any particular client or protocol. They also considered software developed by Isadora, but felt it lacked the support they required in comparison with Alfresco.

The Philharmonic began to digitise the first archives in 2008. They were developed on the Alfresco platform and used Technology Services Group (TSG) software to control the flow of metadata and images into and out of the Alfresco repository.

This lets the orchestra import data in large quantities, upload photographs to the system and add digital functionalities to the files.

"Too many times when people start big digitisation projects, they feel they have to start over," says Haws. "We had spent nearly 20 years creating these datasets. We wanted to use those and our knowledge of the collection as an underlying metadata control system to handle the actual digitised images.

"Alfresco just provides us with a very flexible underlying system that we could use to adapt to different situations and different document types as we moved along."


The finished platform

They had originally looked at scanning the documents but decided it would be too slow and not allow for batch processing. History students prepared the documents which were then captured by photographers, before each image was checked for defects and to see if any had been missed. They used different open-source plug-ins to help process, crop and standardise the variety of documents on the platform.

Three years later the site launched. The archive has since received more than 1.2 million visits across 5.5 million pages. Alfresco ensures the heavy usage and scalable content is stably managed and easily accessed.

Music lovers and academics can look at how a conductor, handled, managed and interpreted an individual score, and how the New York Philharmonic musicians dealt with a certain part over time. Its uses have extended from musical research to socio-economical.

"We've also started to put up on GitHub our performance history databases, which then can be downloaded and used and manipulated for other kinds of research projects that we could hardly imagine," says Haws.


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