New York Philharmonic gives historic archives new life by digitising them

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of conductor Arturo Toscanini the orchestra added his materials to its digital platform


The New York Philharmonic is the oldest symphony orchestra in the USA, but looked to the future to promote its history and embarked on an ambitious digitisation project. More than 1.3 million pages of printed programmes, photographs, conducting scores and other items from its annals have been made permanently available online to the public in the Leon Levy Digital Archives.

Users can virtually turn the pages of the documents and pan, zoom, rotate and view thumbnails of anything they like in the treasure trove of music history. The initiative has made the Philharmonic the first major symphony orchestra to provide open access to its performance history data.

© Alfresco Content Service / New York Philharmonic (all images)
© Alfresco Content Service / New York Philharmonic (all images)

Alfresco Content Services provides the backbone of the content management system. The open-source software company provided a scalable solution for an enormous undertaking that supports any file type, heavy daily use and continuous streaming of vast volumes of data

"Before we did this, people had to come to New York City and sit in our reading room," says archivist and historian Barbara Haws. She's worked at the Philharmonic since 1984, helping to secure, preserve and make available its ongoing history.

"I thoroughly enjoyed that, because I got to meet a lot of people and talk to them and learn what they were doing. On the other hand, Leonard Bernstein's score of Mahler's 5th Symphony has now been viewed more than 25,000 times.

"Imagine 25,000 visitors coming into our reading room and handling that score. It would have turned it into fragments and dust very quickly. The idea that you can show something 25,000 times to somebody and it still is pristine…is really mind-blowing.”

The orchestra turns 175 this year while one of its legendary figures from the past has his own momentous anniversary. It is the 150th birthday of acclaimed former conductor Arturo "the Maestro" Toscanini, and to commemorate it the orchestra has made the Toscanini Era (1925-1945) the fifth release of the digitisation project.

The 1,300 folders contain around 70,000 pages including business documents about the 1928 merger of the New York Philharmonic and New York Symphony that formed the orchestra of today. There are also hand-coloured glass lantern slides that illustrated programmes for the Young People's Concerts, and home movies of the 1930 tour to Europe that established the Philharmonic’s international reputation.

They started prepping and shooting that material in autumn 2016  and launched it in March this year. It's been viewed 8,500 times a week since then, with the UK the second most common location of clicks after the States.

The historic undertaking

The Philharmonic plays more concerts than any other symphony orchestra in the world. This left it with a collection of six million pieces of paper containing records of their performances.

They previously used different databases to find and control the information, whether locating historic documents or finding out how many times they'd performed Beethoven's 5th Symphony since being founded in 1842.

"By 2008 it seemed obvious that the next step was to digitise this material and make it available," says Haws. "We started creating some models of what this would be and cost estimates of what it would take, and then identifying what the underlying platform should be to maintain it all.

"We identified Alfresco for three main reasons: One, it was an enterprise version. Two, it was scalable because we saw our history as only growing. Three, it could handle any format: audio, video, JPEGs, anything."

They wanted to use open source so they weren’t bound to any particular client or protocol. They also considered software developed by Isadora, but felt it lacked the support they required in comparison with Alfresco.  

The Philharmonic began to digitise the first archives in 2008. They were developed on the Alfresco platform and used Technology Services Group (TSG) software to control the flow of metadata and images into and out of the Alfresco repository.

This lets the orchestra import data in large quantities, upload photographs to the system and add digital functionalities to the files.

"Too many times when people start big digitisation projects, they feel they have to start over," says Haws. "We had spent nearly 20 years creating these datasets. We wanted to use those and our knowledge of the collection as an underlying metadata control system to handle the actual digitised images.

"Alfresco just provides us with a very flexible underlying system that we could use to adapt to different situations and different document types as we moved along."

The finished platform

They had originally looked at scanning the documents but decided it would be too slow and not allow for batch processing. History students prepared the documents which were then captured by photographers, before each image was checked for defects and to see if any had been missed. They used different open-source plug-ins to help process, crop and standardise the variety of documents on the platform.

Three years later the site launched.  The archive has since received more than 1.2 million visits across 5.5 million pages. Alfresco ensures the heavy usage and scalable content is stably managed and easily accessed.

Music lovers and academics can look at how a conductor, handled, managed and interpreted an individual score, and how the New York Philharmonic musicians dealt with a certain part over time. Its uses have extended from musical research to socio-economical.

 “We've also started to put up on GitHub our performance history databases, which then can be downloaded and used and manipulated for other kinds of research projects that we could hardly imagine," says Haws.

“A group of Columbia University sociologists took our subscriber information, who bought tickets, who sat in what seats in what concert hall, over time and compared that with where people lived in the city to see if there was any relationship between where people sat in the concert hall and where they lived. That data set can be used for anything else looking at the socio-economic makeup of the audience."

"Recommended For You"

UiPath launches three immersion labs to show off its AI capabilities Electronic patient records systems not 'good enough', says NHS CIO