Reviewed April 2021
Sarah Osborne Bender, Head of Library Technical Services
National Gallery of Art
The Innovator in Residence program at The Library of Congress was established in 2018 to explore and promote use of its vast collections in creative and innovative ways that would engage the American people. The program’s central tenet aligns with the first principle of the Library’s Digital Strategy: “We will throw open the treasure chest.” These residencies have combined the innovators’ technical specialization with a sense of wonder and curiosity as they explore the rich (and heavily digitized) collections of the Library of Congress. Each residency has resulted in applications, products, or content that provide unique paths into and revelatory interactions with the treasures of the Library.
Brian Foo was the 2020 Innovator in Residence, and his project, Citizen DJ, awakens vast collections of open access audio recordings with exploration interfaces and an application to remix the collections into new hip-hop tracks. Foo himself provides a video introduction on the site’s front page that connects his project to the history of dj record mixing, record crate digging, and sound collecting. The collections from which citizen djs can choose are presented in a card-style layout. Each card links to a visual representation of clips that play as the user moves the mouse around the visualization. Representations of the sounds are clustered by similarity and the effect of gliding the mouse around is like a fast-moving radio dial through the entire history of recorded sound--music, speech, natural sounds, mechanical sounds. While the visual scanning interface for the audio clips is fun, a user is not entirely limited to serendipitous sound exploration. A filter within each collection can restrict by LC subject headings (such as raindrops, marimba music, drinking songs) which can be useful for the novice explorer. There’s also filtering by musical note and pitch restrictions for the mixer with a specific type of sound in mind. The clips can be downloaded or explored in full via records in the Library’s catalog. Staying in the Citizen DJ site, selected sounds can be combined in a dj workbench that includes a variety of beats and a visual interface for sequencing, changing rhythms, and tempos. Almost instantly, a user can produce their own unique beats that can be downloaded and used or further manipulated in an external mixing application.
Extending the educational components of Citizen DJ beyond the hands-on, Foo and LC librarians created a valuable guide to copyright and ethics of digital sampling. Prominently linked in the banner, the guide empowers samplers to know how to evaluate sources for copyright and how to consider fair use. The section on ethical considerations is essential and clearly written.
Citizen DJ embraces accessibility at many levels. Within minutes, a user with nothing more than wifi and a web browser can create a hip-hop beat mixing the sound of a tarantella from a 1914 Edison Diamond Disc with an audio clip from an FSA film on dental hygiene and accompany it with 1970s funk pattern drums, extending the world of recorded sound in unknown new directions. Conceptually accessible as well, the centering of hip-hop (as a music genre and a social movement) reimagines these research collections as a creative laboratory rooted in American aural history. The platform and content are suitable for audiences from school children to mixmasters. Brian Foo, with Citizen DJ, and the previous and future Innovators in Residence, provides wayfinding and toolkits to inspire anyone to remix contents of the treasure chest.