As an ageing record spins untouched by the spokes of a gramophone at the Roja Muthiah Research Library, M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar's timeless song Un Azhagai Kaana from the movie Thiruneelakantar is converted into 2-d black and white images by a device called IRENE, preserving it for posterity.

Other than the Library of Congress in the United States, Roja Muthiah Research Library is the only institution that has IRENE (Image Reconstruct Erase Noise Etc), an ingenious device that helps in archiving audio content of old records without scratching or even touching the record, says G. Sundar, director of the library.

IRENE, which reached the library two weeks ago, has just been set up, and will help the library archive audio content from records which are too fragile to be played with a conventional player or are deteriorating. “A high-end camera captures images of the grooves as the record is rotating. The software acts as a virtual needle by detecting the edges of the grooves. These images are then converted into sound files,” he says.

IRENE was developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkley, by a physicist Carl Heber and a software expert Earl Cornell. “One day the physicist was listening to a radio interview where the discussion was about the importance of preserving audio records without scratching the surface and spoiling the record. That is how the idea was born,” says Mr. Sundar. Audio content from broken records, too, can be digitised using the equipment. The air pillows beneath the surface act as a shock absorber, ensuring that even if a truck passes by, the equipment does not pick up the vibrations. The audio content, Mr. Sundar says, is captured as in the original.

The good thing about the equipment, he says, is that everything from shellac to vinyl records of any speed (Rotations per Minute) can be digitised.

The project was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and subsequently by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Started as an experiment, IRENE was first sent to the Library of Congress, U.S. “The University of Chicago, whom we are working with, approached the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That is how the equipment came to us,” There was some deliberation on whether the equipment should be brought first to EMI Archives in London or here. Since we had more records which were degenerating, it came to India,” says Mr. Sundar.

Other partners in this project include the University of California, University of Chicago, Phonogram Archive in Berlin, Smithsonian Institution, and the Edison National Historic Site and National, among others.

Roja Muthiah's project to create a comprehensive audio archive started a few years ago, with Sruti magazine's collection. Most efforts to collect records in the country have been on an individual level. “Many, such as Professor Champakalakshmi, V. Sriram and P.M. Belliappa have given their entire collection of records to us. We have also approached V.A.K. Ranga Rao who has a collection of over 40,000 records. We want more people to come forward,” he says. However, not many individuals want to part with their collections.

He hopes the library can archive close to 40,000 records in the next five years. “Since our interest lies in archiving Indian records, through our partners in the collaborative project, we are ascertaining the feasibility of digitising records of singer Gauhar Jaan, who was one of the earliest performers to record music. A set of these records are with EMI Archives in London,” he adds.

The next challenge, Mr. Sundar says, is to find funding to digitise the records. “It is quite sad that we have to look to the West to find support for such ventures. We are approaching several foundations. But foundations and individuals can come forward to support this project. It is, after all, our shared heritage,” he says. The library will soon also get an ultra- sound cleaning machine to clean the records before they are placed in the equipment. As of now, a brush is used.

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