Historic Campus Music Performances Get New Life in Digital Recordings

Photos Buck Lewis

For more than a century, students, faculty and staff in Vassar’s Music Department, student choral groups, and the Vassar Libraries have been creating and collecting recordings of Vassar performances. The concerts have been preserved in various forms over the years: 78 rpm records, 33 rpm LPs, reel-to-reel tape, cassette tapes, and more recently, compact discs.

Three women, one holding a record, the other two holding old record album books
Vassar Music Librarian Sarah Canino (left), Nicole Scalessa (center), Head of Digital Scholarship and Technology Services, and Assistant Music Librarian Ann Churukian display some of the decades-old recordings of Vassar performances that have been permanently preserved.

Throughout the years, Vassar’s priceless collections have been physically deteriorating and incompletely cataloged, making them largely inaccessible to music scholars wishing to conduct research. But thanks to funding provided by the Mellon Foundation through the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), members of Vassar’s Music Library and others on campus have changed all that. Nearly 300 performances recorded between 1934 and 2016 have been digitally preserved and are available for listening at Vassar’s Digital Library by members of the Vassar community. The recordings include formal concerts, Vassar class “parties” (original musical plays), a cappella group performances, school songs, and collaborations between Vassar faculty, students and choral groups from other colleges and universities.

Woman wearing brown shirt and patterned scarf holding a reel-to-reel audio tape
Many of the performances were preserved on reel-to-reel tape or cassette tapes, but they have been deteriorating over the years.

Researchers outside of Vassar may freely peruse metadata for these recordings  online and, for education and research purposes, request access by emailing:

“These unique recordings help to document changes in higher education, student awareness of national news, and the effects of Vassar’s transition to a co-educational college,” said Music Librarian Sarah Canino, whose team spearheaded the project along with Nicole Scalessa, Head of Digital Scholarship and Technology Services at Vassar College Libraries. Canino and Assistant Music Librarian Ann Churukian collected and cataloged the recordings, collaborating with Scalessa and her team—who made the material available in the Digital Library while also ensuring its long-term preservation. The digitization was done by two firms, George Blood Audiovisual in Philadelphia and Northeast Documentation Conservation Center in Andover, MA.

In addition to musical performances, the digitized collection includes an interview with noted composer Steve Reich, and oral histories with Vassar faculty and students.

Album cover for Vassar College, Founders Day 1957 - The Faculty Presents: From Peer to Maternity
One of the performances was a 1957 musical presented by the Vassar faculty.

The grant of $39,986 was secured in 2020 through the CLIR’s “Recordings at Risk” program, a limited-term (2017–2025) national regranting program to support preservation of rare and unique audio, audiovisual, and other media through digital reformatting. Gary Hohenberger of Vassar’s Grants Office assisted Canino and her collaborators with the grant application.

“Due to the scarcity of recorded material on this subject, scholarship regarding music in female educational institutions in the previous century has had to rely on text archives to inform research,” noted Canino. “However, the recorded and visual information in this collection will broaden answers to scholarly questions regarding music practices in these institutions. They help document the impact on music-making brought about by changes both at Vassar and elsewhere in higher education, such as co-education, and are valuable to scholars in fields such as gender, cultural studies, musicology and local history.”

August 3, 2023
Campus Initiatives
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