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Cutting-edge technology helps Lilly Library digitize original ‘War of the Worlds’ recording

Oct 24, 2017

Indiana University media preservation specialist and audiophile Patrick Feaster was nervous.

He’d planned to fly to the East Coast carrying a set of World War II-era lacquer discs featuring Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, delivering them to the only company in the nation capable of retrieving audio from the degraded discs.

The discs are just a small part of the IU Lilly Library’s extensive Orson Welles collections. With the assistance of a $25,000 grant from the National Recording Preservation Foundation and help from the university’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, IU Libraries is preserving many of its rare, original recordings of Welles’ radio productions, including “Mercury Theatre on the Air.”

Patrick Feaster
Patrick Feaster drove the “War of the Worlds” discs 15 hours one way – in a box custom designed by IU Libraries’ E. Lingle Craig Preservation Laboratory – to have them digitized.Photo courtesy of Patrick Feaster
A machine that digitizes discs
A machine is used to obtain audio from IU’s old lacquered “War of the Worlds” disc at the Northeast Document Conservation Center.Photo courtesy Patrick Feaster

But after Feaster thought more about the trip, he started to worry.

“These are glass discs with a thin veneer of lacquer coating, which are extremely fragile. They’re broken, but the grooves could still be lined up,” he said of the delicate items that had been stored at IU’s Lilly Library for decades. “Then I started to think: What happens if the TSA wants to examine my ‘mysterious’ package? I was playing out all these different scenarios, and it just seemed too risky.”

So he hopped in his car – carrying the discs in a custom-designed box created by IU Libraries’ E. Lingle Craig Preservation Laboratory on campus – and drove more than 15 hours one way to Andover, Massachusetts, home of the Northeast Document Conservation Center. Experts there can preserve audio from grooved media using a touchless optical-scan technology, which retrieves sound without damaging the physical object.

“The process was developed experimentally by the Library of Congress and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, among other places, but the NEDCC is the first place to make it work as a commercial service,” Feaster said. “These are recordings that, just a few years ago, would’ve been beyond recovery.”

Lacquer discs are a format that must be preserved quickly, so time is of the essence, he said.

Orson Welles
Orson Welles recording one of his broadcasts.Photo courtesy of IU Libraries

“These discs can deteriorate without warning, almost literally overnight,” Feaster said. “So anything in that format needed to be digitized yesterday.”

Welles’ live radio series debuted in 1938. The most famous is “War of the Worlds” – a broadcast that purportedly incited mass panic among listeners, who believed the adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel about an alien invasion was actually happening.

“These materials are treasures of great interest to scholars, students and the general public,” said Erika Dowell, associate director and curator of modern books and magazines at the Lilly Library. “There are more than 20,000 items held at the Lilly Library that pertain to Welles’ activities on stage, in radio and on film, as well as his personal and political life.”

The Lilly’s copy of “War of the Worlds,” as well as the other broadcasts, are Welles’ personal copies, Feaster said.

“These are what Welles would’ve listened to if he’d wanted to go back and hear the production,” he said. “Even before the transfer and new preservation, the Lilly’s copy of ‘War of the Worlds’ was better-sounding than any of the commercial copies. It has better audio, and I am sure that virtually no one has heard it.”

Erika Dowell
Erika Dowell shows one of the Orson Welles lacquer discs to a student at the Lilly Library.Photo courtesy of IU Libraries

And that’s an important distinction when it comes to Welles, Feaster said.

“An awful lot of what made his broadcasts so distinctive needs to be heard to be appreciated,” he said. “There are nuances of voice, timing, the layering of music and effects. It’s important to be able to listen and listen well.”

IU Libraries’ Lilly Library will celebrate the launch of its web project, “Orson Welles on the Air,” at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26 in the Moving Image Archive screening room on the ground floor of Wells Library. RSVP to hear Feaster share a guided tour through Welles’ radio innovations during either of two sessions.

Additional information about the project, including streaming access to the newly digitized sound recordings, is scheduled to be available at starting Oct. 26.

Listen to an episode of the Through the Gates podcast featuring Feaster discussing the university Welles collection.  

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