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For the record: exploring UMKC’s Marr Sound Archives

Tucked away in the quiet halls of the Miller Nichols Library exists a treasure trove of recorded sound.

The Marr Sound Archives has a collection of recordings including all kinds of music, speeches and spoken word, radio broadcasts and more. According the archives’ website, the collection “serves the students, faculty, and staff of UMKC, as well as local community members and scholarly researchers around the globe.”

The archives was founded in 1986 with a gift of around 42,000 sound recordings from then professor Gaylord Marr and his wife Olga. Since then, the archives has amassed a collection of over 400,000 items.

Over the years, the collection has come to include several forms of audio, as well as some film and video.

“We have about 50 formats, but that includes video and film,” said Derek Long, head of the Marr Sound Archives. “We have about 22 audio formats. Most of them are LPs, a big portion is 78 RPM shellac discs. We have about 1,500 cylinders, many CDs and microcassettes.”

According to archive curator Chuck Haddix, who also serves as the host of KCUR’s “Fish Fry,” the collection is comprised entirely of gifts from collectors all across the United States, as well as a few from other countries,.

“Our archival collections, generally speaking, come from people that are involved in the creation of the collection,” stated Haddix. “Usually, when it comes to the commercially issued recordings, we deal with record collectors. We don’t collect records – we collect record collectors. When they want to find a home for their collection, then they contact us. We just have to determine if we want to take it on or not.”

The collection has grown so large that the archives must be selective when accepting new pieces.

“When we add a collection, there’s a couple of criteria. A: We don’t have it. B: It builds to the strength of the collection, or it expands the collection of what we already have,” Haddix explained. “Also, condition is considered, and we can also use collections to upgrade our holdings and get cleaner copies.”

The archives receive thousands of new pieces every year.

“We’ve been offered collections of 500,000 records. We get collections of 5-to-7,000. This last year, we received a collection from a rep for Deutsche Grammophon, and I think that was about 10-to-12,000 pieces,” said Haddix.

The archives outgrew its original location on the second floor of the library, so it was moved to a larger space on the ground floor. It now utilizes the Miller Nichols Library “RooBot” which stores approximately 30 percent of the archives’ collection, according to Long.

The archives’ staff work diligently to digitize older recordings to make them more accessible to researchers and save them from degradation. However, how quickly the pieces get digitized can vary widely.

“There are two big factors. One is the type of format it’s on. So if it’s on a format that is at risk of degrading, if there are some items that are falling apart, we want to get the items digitized and transferred so we can get the content off of them before the item degrades,” Long explained. “The other factor is institutional priority. How significant was the person? How is it important for research or a class?”

The archive takes in about six student employees every semester. Most come from the communications and history departments, as well as the conservatory. There are two work-study positions, and the rest are paid student assistants. The positions generate a lot of interest and tend to be highly sought after.

“The students are really productive. They create the finding aids. They process collections, inventory collections, file records,” said Haddix. “They are very engaged.”

The archives’ aim is to provide invaluable educational resources through the use of recorded sound, and to preserve that sound for future generations.

“The idea behind an archive is making [the material] available as far out in the future as we can so people can use it in the future for research,” Long said.

With its needle perfectly in the groove, the Marr Sound Archives is keeping the tables spinning for students, faculty and researchers wishing to gain insight into the past through modern ears.

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