Cornell Digitizes The Sounds Of Biodiversity
January 16, 2013

Cornell’s Biodiversity Audio Library Goes Digital And Democratic

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

It´s a jungle out there, and a new online archive from Cornell University allows you to bring the sounds of that jungle into your own home.

Archivists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have digitized all the analog recordings of biodiversity in their collection, going back to 1929, and posted them in the online Macaulay Library.

"In terms of speed and the breadth of material now accessible to anyone in the world, this is really revolutionary," said the library´s audio curator Greg Budney. "This is one of the greatest research and conservation resources at the Cornell Lab, and through its digitization we´ve swung the doors open on it in a way that wasn´t possible 10 or 20 years ago."

The archive contains both audio and video, and comprises recordings of about 9,000 species of animals. While most of the recordings are of birds, the collection also includes field recordings of marine animals, primates, frogs and elephants.

It took archivists a dozen years to completely digitize and install the entire catalog online. In total, the collection contains almost 150,000 digital audio recordings — about 10 terabytes of data with a run time of over 7,500 hours.

The earliest recording in the collection was made of a song sparrow by Cornell Lab founder and audio pioneer Arthur Allen on a spring day in 1929.

"Our audio collection is the largest and the oldest in the world," explained Macaulay Library director Mike Webster. "Now, it´s also the most accessible. We´re working to improve search functions and create tools people can use to collect recordings and upload them directly to the archive. Our goal is to make the Macaulay Library as useful as possible for the broadest audience possible."

According to the library´s website, the archivists expect the sounds to be used in a variety of settings. Academic uses for the sound archive include research purposes, using them in an educational setting and museum exhibits. Sound engineers are also able to license audio for use in movies, videogames and even smartphone apps for a nominal fee.

In addition to hosting the audio archive, the library website contains educational resources, including a full curriculum for elementary, middle school and high school students. These curricula include complete audio-video presentations that are designed “to spark student interest in understanding the physics underlying biological adaptations.”

The website also includes resources for conservation and outreach purposes. Many of the library´s collaborations with conservation groups are highlighted, including one with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center that investigates how birds' behaviors may shift in response to climate change.

According to the library staff, they expect the new online archive to be a jumping off point and hope to expand the collection in the coming years.

"Now that we´ve digitized the previously archived analog recordings, the archival team is focusing on new material from amateur and professional recordists from around the world to really, truly build the collection," Budney said. "Plus, it´s just plain fun to listen to these sounds. Have you heard the sound of a walrus underwater?  It´s an amazing sound!"