The Library of Congress is closed on its 220th birthday, but the institution is celebrating on Friday anyway by opening some of its expansive audio collection to the public. “Citizen DJ,” a web app where users mix music with access to 25,000 audio clips, rolls out Friday, and all the sounds on it are free and in the public domain for both personal and commercial use—a musical democracy.
Innovator in Residence Brian Foo created the project in collaboration with LC Labs, part of the library’s digital wing. Foo was a B-boy in Harlem from the mid-’90s to the early 2000s. Similar to how breakdancing samples and references different types of dance, Citizen DJ is inspired by the notion of a DJ as “a collector of sound.”
“In the early days of hip-hop, the DJ would be building their reputations on how big and diverse their collections are so they’d be digging through crates in the back of record stores and shops,” Foo says. “I kind of wanted to think of this idea of what is what is in our collective crate—so to speak—as a citizen of the United States.”
The platform itself is a cross between a music discovery tool and mix-making software. Users can sample shorts bursts of audio and then layer different sounds over beats. Many of the interviews, speeches, and music have never been digitized before—Foo hopes playing with the audio will spawn deeper curiosity.
“It’s kind of this cyclical thing. Discovery and you make something new, but then you can go back to the discovery part and just learn more about that sound and its context,” says Foo.
For easier sifting, Foo and LOC staff organized the clips into six collections. One grouping features early-20th century audio artifacts like wax-cylinder recordings of vaudeville sketches. Another catalogs different American accents with audio from the Center of Applied Linguistics.
Recently, Foo dove into a collection of interviews conducted by music executive Joe Smith, featuring a candid conversation with rock’n’roll pioneer Bo Diddley. The musician expressed concern that his contributions to music would be forgotten. Now his words may literally live on in the music of others.
“One of the criteria for choosing a collection is underutilized collections or collections that the library staff thinks the public should know more about,” says Foo. “Definitely trying to make visible material that would otherwise go unheard.”
The current web app is open until May 15, and the final version will launch this summer after the library receives public feedback. For those ready to start virtually record scratching, Foo will host a virtual Citizen DJ masterclass Friday at 3 PM.