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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > May 2017

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Vol. 37 No. 4 — May 2017

Music of World War I: Turning a Static Collection Into a Vibrant Resource
by Theresa A.R. Embrey and Andrew H. Bullen

Most of the sheet music that has been digitized has not been heard in a century. This project brings these tunes back to life as online playable resources.
Every cultural institution has unique collections that its librarians, archivists, and curators would like to highlight and make more accessible. This article describes how staffers at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library (PMML) and the Illinois State Library collaborated to bring one such collection, PMML’s Music of the First World War, to life. Both institutions saw this effort as a vital part of their respective World War I (WWI) centennial activities.  

While there are several online repositories of digitized music from WWI, none allow users to actually listen to music online. Most of the sheet music that has been digitized has not been heard in a century. This project brings these tunes back to life as online playable resources.

Importance of Music in World War I

At the turn of the 20th century, many homes had a piano, and at least one family member could play it. Before the invention of television and the availability of commercial radio, home performances were a common form of entertainment. Popular music in the form of sheet music, arranged for home parlor pianos, was a part of everyday life and was a common medium to experience collective events. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, both European and American popular music of the time began having war-related themes.

WWI has been called “the most musical war in America’s history” ( It inspired passion, influenced opinions and attitudes, and unified a young country with a large and diverse immigrant population toward common goals.

Background of the Pritzker Military Museum & Library

PMML is located in Chicago, and it attempts to increase the public understanding of military history and affairs and the sacrifices made by those who have served in the armed forces. PMML is the founding sponsor of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission ( It also actively supports the Illinois World War I Centennial Committee and is the hub for WWI centennial activities for the upper Midwest region. The idea to make PMML’s growing collection of WWI sheet music scores accessible came about at a spring 2016 centennial planning meeting.

The Collection

PMML has a growing collection of more than 400 sheet music scores, rapidly expanded thanks to generous donations of original materials. Many of these scores were published before 1923. The collection features both popular music and military marches. Song titles include “Au Revoir, But Not Good-Bye,” “If I Had a Son for Each Star in Old Glory (Uncle Sam, I’d Give Them All to You!),”   “Joan of Arc, They Are Calling You,” “The Liberty Bell (March),” and “When You Are Mine.”

The scores were written or arranged for the piano, and most of them were written for home use. Most are short (two or three pages) and have lyrics. The scores had all been previously cataloged in OCLC. New acquisitions continue to be added to this collection.

The Process

PMML’s staff members had previously scanned many of the scores. The scores that were not digitized were identified and sent to the in-house digital lab for scanning by the special collections team.

Andrew Bullen, IT coordinator for the Illinois State Library and a member of the Illinois World War I Centennial Committee, was supplied with copies of the scanned scores to be converted into audio files using optical music recognition (OMR) software.

His first step in processing the music scores was to prepare them for OMR using Photoshop. A production copy of each TIFF image of the score was made. The production images were checked for optimal brightness and contrast, and any stains, foxing, etc., were removed as needed to ensure as accurate conversion as possible.

Next, a JPEG copy of the sheet music cover was made and saved with no compression. All of the original TIFF images were gathered together in Adobe Acrobat to make a PDF file of the whole score.

The score was then processed through the OMR software,  Visiv’s SharpEye2. Once scanned and processed, the resulting score was checked, measure by measure, against the original score to ensure that the OMR process converted the image properly. After the score was checked and corrected, it was converted into a MIDI file. The MIDI file (and all derivatives of it) was made to emulate the sound and rhythms of an upright parlor piano.

The MIDI file was then converted into an AIFF file using QuickTime Pro. Finally, the AIFF file was converted into an MP3 file using the Audacity program. The end result of this process was five instances of the title: a high-quality JPEG of the front cover, a PDF file of the whole score, an AIFF archival copy, a MIDI copy, and a playable MP3 copy.

Cataloging data for the title supplied by PMML was then run through a Perl program, which built a compound object file for processing the five instances of the score into a CONTENTdm collection. The final steps in the process were to use CONTENTdm’s Project Client to upload the music to PMML’s collection at the Illinois Digital Archives ( and to send a copy of the MP3 file to PMML to load into Wikipedia, making it available through the website.

Once a scanned score was converted into an audio file, the MP3 version was cataloged in OCLC by Theresa Embrey, chief librarian at PMML, with the record including 856 links to the sheet music. The MP3 local bibliographic catalog record includes a 597 MARC field note that provides a link to where the MP3 resides in PMML’s Amazon Cloud service. Through the use of Amazon Cloud bucket, PMML can track the “listens” of these audio files. Due to a tight integration between the WorldCat API and PMML’s website, the 597 link in the local bibliographic record automatically launches an MP3 player when visitors open the bibliographic record.

The PMML has been an active GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) participant with Wikipedia since 2013. (For more on becoming a GLAM institution, see As many of the songs were notable, and Wikipedia did not already have entries for them, PMML had a library science graduate student intern assist in the creation of Wikipedia articles for those songs during summer 2016.

Because the notability standards for songs on Wikipedia give precedence to songs created after 1945, important bibliographies on WWI music were cited for each stub article created. These citations helped to prevent deletion of the articles in progress by other editors on Wikipedia, who might not be familiar with the songs. The two bibliographies most frequently used were Frederick G. Vogel’s World War I Songs  (1995) and Bernard G. Parker’s World War I Sheet Music (2007).

Interns gave each song article an info box, which includes the song’s name, composer, lyricist, duration/length, publication date, and notable performers, as well as an image of the sheet music. Aside from creating the song articles, the interns tagged them with the WikiProject GLAM/PMML tag, the WikiProject Songs tag, and the WikiProject Military History tag on the article’s corresponding talk page. This allowed for PMML staffers to track statistics for the article and notify other WikiProject volunteers of the article for their review and additions.

To date, more than 100 articles on WWI songs have been added to Wikipedia as part of the project, such as “Bring Back My Daddy to Me” ( Additionally, songs that already had stub articles in Wikipedia were improved with reliable references. Due to the many steps in the process, there is an Excel spreadsheet organized by song title to keep track of work that’s in progress.

Future Curatorial Tasks

Since this collection is highly visible due to the upcoming WWI centennial for the U.S., additional steps are being taken to keep the various linked data points up-to-date. Also, composers and lyricists of songs in PMML’s collection for which there are no corresponding Wikipedia articles have been identified. In 2017 and 2018, PMML interns will create articles for these individuals and link them to the song articles. The interns are encouraged to add authority control links to the Wikipedia articles for the composers and lyricists, especially Virtual International Authority File (VIAF) numbers and WorldCat Identities links.

Sharing the Collection

To highlight the collection, a named collection page is being created on PMML’s website. Additionally, the Illinois World War I Centennial Committee has linked to the collection on its website (


New York/Broadway-based music publishers made a huge contribution to World War I music. A popular wartime song, performed by many artists One of many salacious songs, ribald and suggestive — representative of a whole subgenre
This pre-1917 score illustrates isolationist sentiment. This is a famous anti-war song, which had a revival during Vietnam. YouTube has an original recording of this group performing this tune. The most famous World War I tune of them all


Theresa A.R. Embrey ( is the chief librarian at the Pritzker Military Museum & Library. As a librarian and historian, her research interests include the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II’s Pacific Theatre.

Andrew H. Bullen
(  is the IT coordinator for the Illinois State Library, part of the Office of the Illinois Secretary of State. He has extensive experience in the creation and management  of digital image and music archives.