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Vassar College Archival Recordings Project: Music as Document and Indicator of Social Change


Vassar College's Dickinson Music Library has been collecting recordings of music-making at the college since the late 1930s. These recordings document Vassar songs, class parties (musicals), a cappella groups, intercollegiate choral and musical collaborations between faculty, students and members of the local community. Many of these one-of-a kind recordings are fragile and irreplaceable; they could not be used without causing damage. In 2019 staff from the Dickinson Music Library, Digital Scholarship and Technology Services, and Vassar's Grants Development Office collaborated to write a proposal for a CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) Recordings at Risk grant to fund the digitization of these recordings.   

Project description

The Vassar College Archival Recordings collection captures nearly 80 years of collegiate music traditions, oral histories, and iimage1.jpegntercollegiate and local collaborations between faculty, students, and the surrounding community. These unique recordings help to document changes in higher education, including Vassar’s transition from single sex to a co-educational college, and are valuable to scholars in fields ranging from gender and cultural studies, to musicology and local histories. Much of Vassar’s collection is deteriorating, inadequately cataloged and inaccessible to researchers. Digitization will foster scholarship in this under-researched area by preserving this rich primary source material. In this project, Vassar Libraries will partner with the Northeast Document Conservation Center and George Blood Audio Visual to digitize recordings at greatest risk, provide online access, enhance metadata, ingest master files and metadata into Vassar’s digital repository, and promote this collection.


Interest in collegiate music-making has been piqued through movies such as "Pitch Perfect" (2012), but lack of documentation has stalled further research into the broader historical and social context of music in American colleges. As the appended letters of support emphasize, digitizing this collection will preserve this historic body of information, allowing new knowledge to be created. Items in this collection document the academic musical world inhabited by students from the 1930s to the 2000s. The class parties (musicals), class songs, intercollegiate choral music, and numerous a cappella groups represented here document shifting trends and influences in music tastes. Institution-venerating songs such as "Fling the banner wide" and "Vassar in beauty dwelling", preserved in the 1940s, give way to "The product of a liberal education" and "The feminine mistake" in recordings of the 1960s, and are completely replaced with the social consciousness of folksongs like "Great Mandella" and popular songs like "California Dreamin’" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane" in the 1970s and 1980s. Recordings of art music made by both faculty and students, many collaboratively, also demonstrate repertoire shifts, exposure to different types of music and the social experiences fostered through music during this time. 

Following the move to co-education in 1969, intercollegiate choral productions completely disappeared. Class parties no longer existed. Students were exposed to the music of new composers such as Netty Simons and Louise Talma, as private recordings of their new compositions were sought after to broaden student knowledge. Recent oral histories with music faculty emeriti help place this musical environment in historical context. The digitization of the collection will finally enable a complete picture of this world to be examined. 

The changing social aspect of musical traditions, changes in musical styles, and the impact of co education on the music of the women’s college that became co-educational in 1969 make this a rich collection for scholarly exploration. This project will expand the resources available to researchers exploring the role of music on college campuses.