The CH Data Lab has been quiet – but behind the scenes we’ve been busy! In September, the Carnegie Hall Performance History Search finally hit the data milestone of 50,000 events. Thanks are in order to our Archives Manager Rob, who has been tirelessly adding Carnegie Hall Recital Hall events and related information to OPAS, our performance history database. Most of these new and updated event records correspond with performances that took place in the 1940s and 1950s and were virtually unrepresented in the Carnegie Hall Archives. To research these events, Rob relied on several sources, such as newspapers, finding aids, and our very own Booking Ledgers Collection. Below we offer a specific sample of this data cleanup process, an overview of our Booking Ledgers Collection, and how both offer opportunities to beef up authority records and reveal stories about forgotten or lesser known artists and presenters.
As we’ve probably mentioned before, the Carnegie Hall Archives wasn’t established until 1986, at the brink of the approaching centennial in 1991. Because of this, we retroactively created and updated most of the performance history data dating back to 1891, relying heavily on collection materials such as programs, flyers, photographs, and ledgers. Our performance history database and public-facing performance history search have come a long way, but we realize that many data gaps exist. Events are still missing from OPAS because we either don’t have a corresponding program or don’t have obvious collection materials.
But do not fret! We’ve made huge progress in our data cleanup, especially in the past few months. To start on the Carnegie Recital Hall events endeavor, Rob reviewed digitized ledger pages from the Booking Ledgers collection and compared them to the OPAS records for specific dates. If the event was present on the ledger page but missing in OPAS, he researched the events in local newspapers, such as The New York Times and New York Amsterdam News, to find weekly music event listings and performance reviews from which to create a new event record. Plug for the NYPL and Library of Congress Chronicling America resources! We feel especially grateful for digitization and public access to some of the previously unfindable local newspapers, access to some of which was promoted due to Covid. Some of this newspaper research led Rob to obituaries, biographical articles, archival finding aids for related holdings, and other sources outside of the CH Archives collection to piece together all the puzzles. He even started uncovering events not listed in the Booking Ledgers, such as smaller Carnegie Hall Studio performances led by local artists and teachers. What started as a data cleanup task turned into a discovery project.
After completing the preliminary research, Rob added as much data as possible to the OPAS event records. A lot of this work included creating new entity records for performers, presenters, licensees, and others, and piecing together program repertoire from newspaper reviews and event listings. For every new or edited entity and work, Rob made sure to cite the appropriate external authority URIs (such as LCNAF, Wikidata, DBpedia, MusicBrainz, and GeoNames), add any new Carnegie Hall Agent IDs and Work IDs to previously existing Wikidata items, and add references to Wikidata statements. Not only did Rob update these records in our internal performance history database, but he made everything available publicly via the Performance History Search and data.carnegiehall.org. The data cleanup process provided a wonderful opportunity to align the Carnegie Hall Archives data with outside datasets, bridging some of the gaps between the Booking Ledgers, individual newspapers and scholarly resources, and linked open data sources.
Above: Sample record of Carnegie Recital Hall event “One Woman Show featuring Lillyn Brown, Vocalist” (June 6, 1959) in the Performance History Search, Booking Ledgers Collection, and data.carnegiehall.org. Booking Ledger clipping (CH1300553) courtesy of Carnegie Hall Susan W. Rose Archives.
The cleanup process would look a lot different without the help of the digitized Booking Ledger Collection. Carnegie Hall’s booking ledgers were created by the Hall’s two booking managers, originally Iona (Didi) Satescu and Gilda Weissberger. Sadly, earlier ledgers are lost, but due to Gilda’s vigilant safeguarding (she treated the ledgers with great pride), we have the 52 surviving ledgers, comprising 6,900 pages, dating from 1955. Gilda insisted on maintaining her handwritten ledgers long after the implementation of a computerized booking system in the 1990s, up until her retirement in 2007. The ledgers chronicle every event that took place in Carnegie Hall’s three auditoriums, including such gems as The Beatles’ 1964 debut (famously misspelled “The Beetles” on the ledger page) Handwritten contact, deposit, recording, and resale information (an artist wishing to cancel a booking could “resell” the date to recoup their deposit) are captured in the pages of these ledgers, making the collection a very important source of information that is currently missing from the Hall’s official performance history.
Above: Gilda Weissberger, Carnegie Hall Booking Manager, 1978 with ledger. Image courtesy of Carnegie Hall Susan W. Rose Archives.
In 2015, the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO), through the New York State Regional Bibliographic Databases Program, funded digitization of the ledgers and initiated access by supporting efforts to make the ledgers discoverable via the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). Three years later, Carnegie Hall launched its online Digital Collections, inviting the public to search, explore, and download historic items from its Archives for the first time - including the Booking Ledgers. The benefits of access apply to Archives as much as they do to the outside world – something that was very clear from the digitization of the booking ledgers. The largest of the original items measure 18” x 20”, with hundreds of pages per ledger. The large sizes make them unwieldy reference objects, and excessive handling can damage these already-fragile documents. Digitization and virtual access provide many ease-of-use benefits of digital reference objects, including reduction of physical harm, up to 200% zoom on handwritten figures and notes, and manipulating contrast or cropping for the task at hand. With the Archives working from home due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, online access to the ledgers allows us to continue filling in gaps in our history and to answer research requests around events not yet described. Despite having had the physical ledgers on hand for many years, Rob found he referred to the ledgers more frequently in their digital form, both when in the office and even more so from home.
Making the ledgers available in digital form allows us to unlock the data on the ledger pages identify and correct gaps in our historic records, and present that knowledge to staff and the general public through the Performance History Search and data.carnegiehall.org. Rob has already added several hundred events since the ledgers were digitized five years ago. We expect to discover possibly thousands of previously un-described events in the ledger pages.
From Rob’s data cleanup and research, we discovered (and continue to discover) a variety of events and stories tied to Carnegie Hall’s history, many of which highlight prominent musicians and presenters of the day that are now forgotten or underrepresented in musical culture. For example, Robert McFerrin (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” artist Bobby McFerrin’s father), the first African American man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, gave a concert of South American music in Carnegie Recital Hall in 1959. Singer, teacher, and vaudeville entertainer Lillyn Brown also performed twice in the Recital Hall twice in 1959, at the age of 74, as a “one woman show.” According to the New York Times, Lillyn was credited in 1908 as “the first professional vocalist to sing the blues in front of the public” and made a career as a male impersonator in vaudeville and an actor in numerous Broadway plays. Norman Seaman, a concert impresario almost forgotten in today’s world, was associated with over 550 events at Carnegie Hall from 1951 to 1990, a majority of these in Carnegie Recital Hall (including the above-mentioned McFerrin recital). This effort with the ledgers helps bring into focus the full extent of his impact on musical culture. His pioneering “interval concerts” took advantage of unutilized dates in the off season and shoulder seasons and helped him further his efforts to give young and up-and-coming artists their start in New York. We plan to dig into his story a bit more and share our findings.
Who knew that a (tedious) performance history data cleanup process would present such a great opportunity to connect resources to piece together history? Not only are our records more complete, our Performance History Seach numbers higher (50k!), and our IDs better linked to external authorities, but more importantly our data reveals previously unknown or little-known stories. We plan to use this example to further align our data with outside sources, create more Wikidata items to better share our dataset, add references to existing Wikidata items where applicable, and continue to release digital versions of our collection materials. Above all, we wish to inspire others to put their digital collections and collection data out there.