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Wax cylinder recordings.

Sonic Postcards

Collector John Levin combines a new initiative with an endowment and collection

The UC Santa Barbara Library Early Recordings Initiative takes a collecting strategy common in the art world and applies it to early sound recordings, allowing people to sell, donate, or combine the two when giving their collection to the UCSB Library. John Levin, a collector of 19th and 20th century wax cylinders, established the initiative to encourage fellow collectors to donate artifacts rather than storing them in attics or selling them piecemeal. In a few generations, wax cylinders in private collections will disintegrate. The Early Recordings Initiative will help prevent this fate, documenting the musical, social, and cultural life of late 19th and early 20th century America.

“Collectors have been confronted with a binary choice: to realize the value of their collection by scattering it by private sales through auction houses and other outlets, or donating it to get a tax deduction,” said John. “The rationale against the latter has been a pervasive belief that the stuff is sold anyway. I wanted to model a different paradigm.”

John’s paradigm has three pillars: the Early Recordings Initiative; his gift of 3,200 rare and unique early commercial records to join the existing John Levin Collection; and an endowment to help curators preserve and digitize artifacts through the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. John supports the endowment now and also through his estate plan.

First invented by Edison in 1877, cylinders are about the size of a soda can and made of a hard soap with the texture of wax. Early in his collecting, John became focused on how to play them without inflicting wear. He reached out to David Seubert, a curator in the UC Santa Barbara Library’s Special Research Collections, who had already developed an end-to-end process to catalog, digitize, restore, and publish recordings through the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive.

“It was a really foresighted thing to do,” said John. “If you look at the other important audio archives in the world, very few of them are as comprehensive as UC Santa Barbara.”

“John has one of the best collections of 19th century sound recordings in the world, and by ensuring their long-term preservation at the UCSB Library, he is further cementing UC Santa Barbara’s role as the premier research institution for the study of early recordings in the U.S. An institution’s relationship with its donors can often be seen as passive, but this partnership models a new and exciting approach to the curation of our collections by leveraging the different strengths of collectors and institutions,” said Seubert.

These fragile recordings cannot be fully studied and understood until there is a critical mass accessible to a wide audience of scholars, enthusiasts, and the public. In collaboration with the UCSB Library and UCLA, John has developed his own cataloging system for the collection. A commitment to open access for all artifacts — not just a collection’s gems — influenced John’s choice to bequeath his collection to UC Santa Barbara and to provide a financial commitment in his estate plans to grow the endowment. John trusted the UCSB Library to keep it available to the public and guard against deaccession, or the sale of artifacts.

“The Early Recordings Initiative was central to doing this. It pulls together my collection, the endowment, and my goals,” said John. “This gift is for people who want to know what the world sounded like.”

He’s wanted to hear the past since he was child in the early 1960s, listening to an Edison phonograph for the first time on a farm stand in rural Long Island, New York. John will remain an active partner in the John Levin Collection and Early Recordings Initiative. Ten years ago, he worked with Seubert to share a record called “Haul the Woodpile Down” online. The post, called Incunabula 2, went viral in the classic banjo world. Perhaps a hundred people could have listened to the original wax cylinders before they wore out forever. Now, 125 years later, they have been heard by thousands.