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JUDGEMENT: Pope Leo XIII and the Belfer Cylinders Collection

You would be forgiven for thinking you were looking at some kind of holy relic if you glanced quickly at the box below from SCRC’s collections. Between the latched leather carrying case, complete with embossed lid, and the crest stamped on the top of the cylinder inside, there is an attributed value given to this object by the company that produced and sold it in 1903.

Leo Cylinder Front
The top of the box containing the Pope Leo XIII cylinder.

This cylinder, which is part of the Belfer Cylinders Collection, contains a recording of Pope Leo XIII singing “Ave Maria,” a snippet of which is included below.

Pope Leo XIII singing “Ave Maria”


The Belfer Cylinders Collection contains over 20,000 cylinder recordings, 12,000 of which are unique titles, and only about 1,600 of which have been currently digitized. Deciding which of these titles is best-suited for prioritized preservation consists of a challenging series of judgement calls, often based on the limits of time and funding available, meaning that many cylinders continue to deteriorate in the meantime.

Below, Jim O’Connor discusses making his own judgement call, in choosing to feature this particular cylinder for today’s blog post.


On the Topic of Belfer Cylinder Recordings

By Jim O’Connor, Sound Beat Producer

I don’t know why I have been so particularly drawn to this cylinder recording of Pope Leo XIII. With American Archives Month in mind, I considered choosing several sound recordings at Belfer Audio Archive and Laboratory, trying to identify one that, in my opinion, best exemplifies the need for archives in general. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one little recording, but I daresay the 1903 cylinder recording of Pope Leo XIII fits the bill. This isn’t, I don’t think, lapsed-Catholic guilt: Beyond the historical interest of the artifact, the pope was a force for change in the Roman Catholic Church in ways that provided direct benefit to researchers.

Pope Leo XIII's crest
The top of the cylinder featuring Pope Leo XIII’s crest. Belfer Cylinders Collection.

In a letter dated August 18, 1883, Pope Leo XIII wrote an open letter to the Prefect of (what used to be called) the Vatican Secret Archives, the Librarian of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Vice Chancellor announcing the opening of the Archives to researchers. This move provided researchers with access to an estimated 50 miles of shelving in the Archives.

It’s only one of the ways Pope Leo sought to modernize the Church, and I know this through Patty Giles, with whom I had the genuine pleasure of sharing virtual “coffee” with at one of the SU Libraries’ excellent Random Coffee events. Beyond her work as a Library Technician in the Department of Learning and Academic Engagement, Patty is a PhD Candidate in Religious Studies. Before that she earned an MDiv from Harvard Divinity School with a focus on religion and art. In Patty’s words:

In the first centuries of the modern era, the Church responded cautiously to the advances of liberalism, science, industry, and art. In 1877, while still the Archbishop of Perugia, the future Pope Leo XXIII wrote a Lenten Letter in which he drew a distinction between divine truths, which are essential and unchangeable, and the truths of the ever-changing world, which are revisable and subject to judgement in accord with the circumstances of the time. As Pope, Leo regarded the Church as a beacon by which, in the light of divine truth, the modern world could judge and act to its benefit in moral relations, political conditions, and physical comforts. Such judgement could lead to beneficial action such as protecting workers rights, opposing slavery, expanding access to education and modern healthcare. Thus, it is not surprising that Pope Leo embraced the benefits of new technologies of communication.

Patty Giles

Pope Leo XIII served as the head of the Catholic Church for a quarter-century, from 1878 until 1903, and, as such, he was the first pope to have his voice recorded. This recording was made on two cylinders at the Vatican on February 5, 1903, by inventor and entrepreneur Gianni Bettini, who also recorded Mark Twain and Benjamin Harrison, among other individuals of renown. Through his company, the Société des Microphonographers, Bettini of Paris, would lease the rights to Columbia for release in the U.S. SCRC holds the French Gold Moulded Bettini cylinder. The title, “Prière Prononcée par S.S. Leon XIII et Recueillie au Vatican le 5 Février 1903,” translates as “Prayer delivered by H.H. Leon XIII and recorded at the Vatican on February 5, 1903.” On the recording, Pope Leo recites the “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary) in Latin, as well as a Benediction. In the case of the Catholic Church, the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is a ceremony within the mass in which the priest blesses and dispenses the Eucharist.

Pope Leo Cylinder Box Top
The top of the box containing the Pope Leo XIII cylinder that reads, “Prière Prononcée par S.S. Leon XIII et Recueillie au Vatican le 5 Février 1903,” translated as “Prayer delivered by H.H. Leon XIII and recorded at the Vatican on February 5, 1903.” Belfer Cylinders Collection.

It is a good thing Bettini made the recording when he did:  Pope Leo would die in July of the same year at the age of ninety-three. It is because of this moment in history, not the Pope’s death itself, but the paradigm shift that it signals, that I ultimately chose this cylinder as a symbol for the importance of preservation. The home phonograph was a relatively new phenomenon at the turn of the twentieth century and, as such, the very concept of a recorded voice hadn’t had long to settle culturally.

Bettini’s recording of Pope Leo was released months after his death, prompting advertisements the like of, “Science Triumphs Over Death: The Living Words of Pope Leo the 13th.” I can only imagine the response from devout Catholics on hearing the Pope’s voice, crackling through the imperfect medium, resolute in purpose, from beyond the grave.


The audio clip featured in this post is from our Belfer Cylinders Collection (Belfer Cylinders CollectionSpecial Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.

The Archives Preservation Countdown coverage continues on Sound Beat this week. Make sure to check out their episode on the Pope Leo XIII recording today!


Additional Sources:

The Holy See. Leone XIII: Epistola, Saepernumero Considerantes. http://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/it/letters/documents/hf_l-xiii_let_18830818_saepenumero-considerantes.html.

“Science Triumphs Over Death!: the living voice of the late Pope Leo XIII.” Columbia Records Cylinder Label, 1903.


RISK: Photographs, Lacquer Disks and the Margaret Bourke-White Papers

Margaret Bourke-White was known for taking risks. An American photojournalist and war correspondent, she shot the cover photograph for Life Magazine‘s first issue in 1936, beginning a professional relationship that continued for several decades of the magazine’s publication and her career. Bourke-White traveled across the United States during the Great Depression and she extensively chronicled the Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre during World War II. She photographed the social and industrial conditions of Soviet Russia in the early 1930s, the first foreign photographer to do so, and she documented guerilla warfare in Korea during the 1950s. Wherever she went, she seemed to train her photographer’s eye to major events of the 20th century. And, most of her accomplishments can not only be denoted as “the first female” photographer, but indeed, as simply, “the first.”

Margaret Bourke-White Suitcase
Black leather suitcase with “Margaret Bourke-White, New York” stenciled across the top and a LIFE Magazine luggage tag. Margaret Bourke-White Papers.

In 1937, her sometimes-collaborator and later-husband, Erskine Caldwell, carried flashbulbs in his pockets so that the pair could document the Depression-era American South for their first collaboration together, You Have Seen Their Faces. In 1946, on assignment for Life Magazine, she held three flashbulbs herself, when she took, possibly, her most famous photograph: Gandhi spinning at his wheel.

Margaret Bourke-White’s collection of photographs and recordings, held at SCRC, is one of several collections that has been identified as part of SCRC’s preservation plan with NEDCC. The visual and audio collections of the American photographers, Jackie Martin and Clara Sipprell, were also identified as part of this preservation endeavor. Below, Michael Dermody discusses the preservation project and Jim Meade touches on the challenges of preserving the deteriorating lacquer disks in the Margaret Bourke-White collection.

Gandhi spinning.
The famous photograph of Gandhi spinning at his wheel in the July 15, 1946 issue of Life Magazine. Rare books.

On the Topic of Lacquer Disks

By Jim Meade, Audio Preservation Engineer for Belfer

Margaret Bourke-White discussing photographing during World War II amidst the lights and noises of bombs dropping from the sky.

Lacquer discs, such as those in the MBW collection, are also known as acetates or transcription discs. These discs were used to make instantaneous recordings in radio production and recording studios from the 1930s to the late 1950’s. The arrival of tape recorders in the post WWII period made lacquer discs largely redundant. However, they are still used today in the production of vinyl records.

MBW disc
A damaged lacquer disk. Margaret Bourke-White Papers.

Lacquer discs consist of a thin aluminum plate covered with a cellulose nitrate lacquer coating and look much like regular vinyl records. This lacquer coating is soft enough to be cut on a recording lathe and hard enough to be played back instantly on a normal record player. The discs are sturdy enough to withstand several plays, but the sound quality deteriorates quickly with repeated playing.

Lacquer discs are among the most fragile and at-risk sound recording formats we have in our sound archives. Over time, unstable storage conditions can cause the aluminum substrate to flex due to temperature fluctuations. The aluminum expands and contracts at a different rate to the cellulose nitrate lacquer coating, causing the two to separate. The lacquer can crack and flake off the aluminum core, rendering the discs unplayable. This process is called delamination.

On the Topic of Photograph Preservation

By Michael Dermody, Digital Preservation and Projects Coordinator

The Margaret Bourke-White photo preservation project emerged from a much larger effort to develop a comprehensive preservation plan for the hundreds of thousands of photographic prints and negatives held in the collections of SCRC and the University Archives. Beginning in 2014, this comprehensive effort made a systematic assessment of existing facility environmental and storage conditions. It was clear from the initial analysis that significant efforts would be required to secure the long-term preservation of the priceless, unique, and highly at-risk collections in the Libraries’ care.

Life Magazine cover 1936.
The first issue of Life Magazine dated November 23, 1936, featuring Margaret Bourke White’s photograph of the Fort Peck Dam’s spillway. Rare books.

Subsequently, the Libraries initiated two major initiatives to advance that long-term preservation plan:

  1. A major photo collection digitization and archival treatment project done in collaboration with preservation experts at the NEDCC in Andover, Massachusetts.
  2. The design and construction of a purpose-built facility—MOD2—to provide environmentally-sound storage conditions for photographic prints, negatives, and other highly-sensitive collections. This facility would be an addition to the MOD1 offsite storage facility on South Campus.

With an overall commitment of over $700,000 dollars from SCRC budgets, the NEDCC project began in 2017. The Bourke-White component of the project is now complete, while work on digitization of the other collections involved is on schedule to finish by the end of 2021.

Beginning in 2015, work on design and planning for the MOD2 specialized storage facility made significant early progress with a substantial investment of planning funds from the University. In collaboration with Libraries’ staff, outside consultants and the University’s Campus Planning Design and Construction office, VIP Architectural Associates produced a complete and final set of Construction Plans issued in 2016. Funding for construction of the MOD2 facility remains in development at present. As physical materials return from the NEDCC packed for frozen storage, the Libraries is urgently working to develop a provisional storage plan while we continue to advocate for funding for MOD2 construction.


The audio clip featured in this post is from our Margaret Bourke-White Papers (Margaret Bourke-White Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections.

The Archives Preservation Countdown coverage continues on Sound Beat this week. Make sure to check out their episode on Margaret Bourke-White today!