Brown University has been the recipient of an award in the 1996/97 Library
of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition. The grant
will allow for the digitization of 1,500 pieces of African-American related
sheet music, dating from 1850-1920, from the collections of the John Hay
Library. The African-American Sheet Music Collection, one of the largest
and most notable of its kind, includes titles relating to the abolitionist
movement and the Civil War, blackface minstrelsy, African-American composers
and performers, the Ragtime era, and black musical theatre. The music will
become a part of the National Digital Library Project at the Library of
Congress and be mounted, along with the associated bibliographic records,
at its American Memory site.
Conversion of part of the Library's extensive collection of African-American related sheet music to electronic format will place before the scholarly community and general public a cohesive resource for the study of the history and culture of African-Americans from 1850-1920. This significant body of material illuminates many aspects of American culture and society from this period, including theatre, music and dance, publishing history, and music printing and illustration, as well as a variety of social concerns and events. Additionally, the scanning of a body of material of this size will prove important in developing guidelines for the digital reproduction of other collections, as well as aid in preservation by reducing the number of times original materials need to be handled by scholars.
The African-American Sheet Music Collection includes many songs from the heyday of antebellum blackface minstrelsy in the 1850's and the abolitionist movement of the same period. It features numerous titles associated with the novel and the play Uncle Tom's Cabin, so greatly influential in its day. Civil War period music includes songs about African-American soldiers and the plight of the newly emancipated slaves. Post-Civil War music reflects the problems of reconstruction, the beginnings of urbanization, and the northern migration of African-Americans, notably in the Harrigan & Hart shows of the 1880's. Sheet music of this period further documents the emergence of African-American performers and musical troupes, first in blackface minstrelsy, and later in the beginnings of the African-American musical stage in the late 1890's. The works of popular African-American composers, including James Bland, Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, James Reese Europe, and Will Marion Cook, are also a prominent feature of this period. Particularly significant and important in the collection are the visual depictions of African-Americans, including photographs of African-American musical performers, often in costume, which provide much information about racial attitudes over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Digitized images can be easily downloaded to personal workstations, facilitating the comparative study of covers, photographs, and music for the first time. The high quality of the images produced will render them useful to performers, as well as musicologists. Access to the content of the collection will be through full cataloging records, which follow a format for scores, using Library of Congress subject headings and classification. The records include access points for composer, lyricist, arranger, performer, musical production, publisher, plate number, portraits, illustrator or lithographer, first line and first line of chorus. There will be a link in the bibliographic records to the digitized images. Introductory materials will be produced, which will include sample thumbnail illustrations, information about the Collection's history and scope, notable names, subjects and access points, and a selected bibliography for further reading.
The goal of the Library of Congress's National Digital Library program is
to make approximately five million items available over the Internet by
the year 2000. Rare collections of Americana, which were previously available
only by visiting the institutions that hold them, will then be freely accessible
online. The African-American Sheet Music Collection is closely related to
several existing collections in the American Memory program, such
as the African-American Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P.
Murray Collection, Selected CivilWar Photographs from
the Library of Congress, 1861-1865and, particularly,
The American Variety and Stage, ca. 1870-1920. The
posters, scripts, films, and recorded sound in that series include many
examples from the late minstrel stage and African-American variety shows
of the early twentieth century that find close parallels in the Collection.
The African-American Sheet Music Collection will also relate closely to
the forthcoming American Broadsides Project and the Historic American Sheet
It is certain that the addition of Brown University's significant collection of African-American sheet music to the National Digital Library Program will be of great benefit to scholars of American history, culture, and music worldwide, and will greatly enhance the collections of rare Americana currently available in digital format in the American Memory Program.
The daily direction of the project is the responsibility of Mary-Jo Kline, Curator, Special Collections, and Rosemary L. Cullen, Curator of the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays, assisted by Robin Rao. More information about the Library of Congress's American Memory Program and the African-American Sheet Music Project can be found at the following web sites: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/, http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/award/brown.html and on the Brown Library homepage under Digital Projects.