Project IRENE Using optical scanning to digitize ethnographic field recordings on wax cylinders

Project Overview


Project IRENE at UC Berkeley is a collaborative effort, funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation, with team members from the UC Berkeley Linguistics Department, UC Library, Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and the particle physics division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The project aims to use the innovative technique of non-contact optical scanning, to create digital versions of the audio recorded on the nearly 3000 wax cylinders in the Hearst Museum collection over a total of three years. 

The cylinders themselves were recorded in the field by UC Anthropologists under the direction of Alfred Kroeber between 1900 and 1940. They recorded Native Californians from many regions, and cultures speaking and singing; reciting histories, narratives and prayers, listing names for places and objects among many other things, all in a wide variety of languages. Many of the languages recorded on the cylinders have transformed, fallen out of use, or are no longer spoken at all, making this collection a unique and invaluable resource for linguists and contemporary community members hoping to learn about or revitalize languages, or retrieve important pieces of cultural heritage. 

Scholars and community members are already engaging with the collection through the California Language Archive (CLA), which facilitates restricted access to existing transfers. Though transfers already exist, they are not exhaustive, are often of poor quality and, largely, have not been made digital. This project will increase the scope and ease of access to the collection by creating digital versions of the entire collection, at higher, more easily listenable quality and turning them over to the CLA, who will provide access under appropriate restrictions.


In a video produced by the MacArthur Foundation, Carl Haber explains the method used for Project Irene. Because of his significant contribution to the field of audio preservation, Carl was awarded a 2013 Macarthur Fellowship.