The Library of Congress Wants You to Remix America’s Cultural Legacy

Library of Congress innovator-in-residence Brian Foo has created a free-to-use audio program for the Library of Congress that invites the public to remix their vast collection of audio recordings and moving images collections.

Did you ever think the Library of Congress would invite you to make something new out of its vast collection of America’s cultural history?

“There’s the positive impact of making things more accessible and visible to people that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to have access to.” — Brian Foo, Library of Congress

In the library’s new online tool Citizen DJ, that’s exactly what you can do — scour through thousands of hours of audio and moving images collections that many of us never knew existed to begin with and remix them into something new.

Still in its beta stages, the program is the brainchild of Brian Foo, the current Library of Congress innovator-in-residence. Foo is also a data visualization artist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Listen: Innovator-in-residence Brian Foo explains responsible sampling and how hip-hop influenced the Library of Congress.

Shawn Miller / Library of Congress
Shawn Miller / Library of Congress

Foo is a former breakdancer who was inspired by his love of hip-hop while creating Citizen DJ, which allows users to access the library’s collection without concern for copyright violation as long as it’s properly credited.

“We want to strive for good diversity of different types of sounds,” says Foo. “There’s a good mix of music, radio broadcast, government film, theater, old comedic sketches and sounds from the early 20th century.”

Foo worked with the Library of Congress to identify sound collections that are culturally or historically relevant to the times we’re living in today.

“I’m developing these tools that allows you to explore these sounds in new waves as well as make new music using these sound collections,” says Foo. “There’s another tool that allows you to take those sounds and initially remix them and add a beat to them, rearrange them or just  add something new and share it. When you share it, we encourage people to give attribution to where those sounds came from, so when somebody does find that new song, they can learn more about the original content.” 

The Power of Preserving Sound

Through a historic lens, Citizen DJ can also be seen as paying homage to audio moments that may have been lost in the archives.

“I really want to see new work that otherwise would have been impossible to make.”

Foo shares that the library’s collection includes rich sound portraits and candid conversations with cultural gems ranging from B.B. King and Bo Diddley to Bob Dylan and Herbie Hancock. There’s even a recording from one of the first sounds that’s ever been recorded by Thomas Edison and a sound collage of a bustling New York City from the early 1970s by experimental radio broadcaster Tony Schwartz, who was known as the “wizard of sound.”

Foo says preserving sound comes with the responsibility of how the material was originally used and how it will be reused. It’s an ongoing topic of debate in the art of remixing and sampling. It’s also a conversation that fascinates Foo when thinking about responsible ways to use archival material. 

“On one hand, there’s the positive impact of making things more accessible and visible to people that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to have access to,” says Foo. “When it comes to reuse, there’s some cases where one should be responsible with how they reuse it based upon the content.”

The aesthetic essence of Citizen DJ, Foo says, is to “create this nice cycle of creativity. I really want to see new work that otherwise would have been impossible to make.”

Ready to start your remix of America’s cultural legacy with Citizen DJ? Get started here.

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