The IRENE Technology Helps Preserve a Lost Native Alaskan Dialect
An Audio Mystery Arrives in a Box . . .
The accession list was marked simply: “4 records.”
In 2013, the Alaska and Polar Regions Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) received a large collection of the works and papers of anthropologist Dorothy Jean Ray (1919-2007), who was best known for her ethnographic studies of native Alaskan peoples. The collection was comprised of Ms. Ray’s manuscripts, papers, and correspondence, and there was no information provided about the four audio discs, except the hand-written labels.
The receipt of the fragile glass-base discs began a process of discovery for Curator Leslie McCartney and Collections Manager Robyn Russell at the Oral History Program at UAF.
"With audio collections, you can't look in the table of contents – you can't thumb through them like a book to find out what it contains. You have to have playback," says Robyn Russell. "We knew that these recordings were unique and we could see that they were extremely fragile. We didn't dare put a stylus to them. They were essentially hidden gems."
Enter IRENE, a new audio preservation technology developed by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and tested at the Library of Congress. The IRENE system takes ultra-high resolution photographs of the grooves on discs or cylinders and then software translates the images into sound – all without touching the object's fragile grooves.
Now that Leslie and Robyn have heard the intriguing audio on these recordings, their search has taken them back to WWII and the island of Attu, the westernmost island in the Aleutian chain – and to the little-known story of the island's residents during the War and after.
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