March 5, 2013

Macaulay Library Goes Public

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The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the largest and oldest scientific archive of audio and video recordings of wildlife in the world. Now, its collection of more than 150,000 recordings of everything from ivory-billed woodpeckers to humpback whales is available to the public online.

According to Greg Budney, audio curator at the library, this is the conclusion of a 12-year project to digitize every record at the library. The collection began in 1929 with three recordings of songbirds taken using a film camera in Stewart Park, Ithaca and since then has expanded to include species from all over the world, submitted in a variety of audio formats.

“The very first recordings of wild birds made in North America were made in Ithaca,” Budney said.

The collection was originally launched as a comprehensive way to study animal behavior in a variety of species using a centralized database of audio and video recordings. Today it serves the same purpose, as well as being an educational tool, a resource for musicians and mix artists, and much more, Budney said.

The complete digitization and online availability of the library means anyone from a biology student trying to learn bird calls to a Hollywood movie maker looking for sound effects can access and use the library. In fact, audio files from the library have been distorted and used as sound effects in movies such as Harry Potter and Jurassic Park.

The videos and sounds are also used by schoolteachers to show their students the variety of colors, sounds and movements in nature without having to travel to South America or the Arctic, Budney said.

“We’re at the Lab of Ornithology, but we have recordings of birds, frogs, fish, insects, whales, you name it,” said Mike Webster, director of the Macaulay Library.

The library is not like Uris Library or Olin Library, however. At the Lab of Ornithology, the servers that allow anyone to access recordings are only one small room in a large space made up of offices, climate-controlled storage spaces and audio and video mastering studios. There recordings that come in from researchers all over the world are converted to a standard digital format in order to be “as accurate a copy for science as possible,”  Budney said.

But even with all the latest technology, the library has not forgotten its roots. Lining a shelf in the main area are over a dozen audio and video recorders dating back to the early era of movies with sound and analog recording equipment. The oldest camera on the shelf is crank-operated and doesn’t have a single electronic component, according to Budney.

The library also has the paper records that were included with submissions of recordings, many of which are from prominent contributors to the field of ornithology. There are several dozen books filled with audio descriptions from such prominent ornithologists as Ted Parker, who could identify over four thousand species of birds by ear, and Linda Macaulay, the library’s benefactor and namesake.

Through the evolution of analog recorders and paper records to digital file formats and internet accessibility, the curator of the Macaulay Library said it has stayed on the cutting edge and maintained its status as the preeminent source of natural recordings in the world and a true asset to Cornell research and outreach.

Original Author: Kathleen Bitter