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U-M to digitize 19th-century sheet music collection

Photograph of Jack Kevorkian, taken in front of his painting "The Gourmet (War)" at Ariana Gallery in Royal Oak, Michigan. Courtesy the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library.

By Lynne Raughley

In the early 20th century, the Edison Phonograph Company amassed a large collection of 19th-century American sheet music to select from it works to record for the American public. The recording company closed in 1929, but the Edison Sheet Music Collection remained, making its way to the Henry Ford family and into various other hands before the University of Michigan Library acquired it in 1989.

Thanks to a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, over the next two years the U-M Library will catalog and digitize one-third of this collection, or more than 30,000 of its some 100,000 titles. The grant is part of CLIR’s Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation.

According to Kristen Castellana, music librarian at the U-M Library, the Edison Sheet Music Collection is one of the world’s largest collections of its type, and is noteworthy both for its size and its unique holdings—as much as 75 percent represents previously unknown editions.

The digitization project will result in the largest online collection of pre-1870 sheet music and will bring to light a substantial portion of a repertory that is currently unknown from an era that saw the birth of a distinctly American genre of music.

“This material reveals much about public opinion and the social and political issues of the times,” Castellana said. “There is music about political campaigns, race and slavery, temperance, women’s rights and contemporary trends.”

She adds that the digital collection will “strongly represent music with themes related to the Civil War and its aftermath, including death, absent fathers and sons, and injured veterans returning home.”

“U-M’s digitization effort will be a landmark cultural achievement for musicians, students and scholars across the globe,” said Mark Clague, associate professor of musicology and American culture at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “This one project will basically double the world’s archival knowledge of America’s 19th-century popular sheet music.

“The nation’s lyricists and composers have much still to reveal about the United States and how it came to be. Personally, I can’t wait to use have my students explore this new treasure trove.”

The digital collection will be discoverable via the library catalog, Mirlyn, as well as through WorldCat, the HathiTrust Digital Library, Google Books and the Digital Public Library of America.