Rehousing the Breandán Breathnach Reel‑to‑Reel Collection

During the summer of 2022, UCD Irish Folklore and Ethnology MA interns Juliana Zepf and Samantha Brandal, played a central role in a pilot project to develop protocols for the long-term preservation of physical reel-to-reel tapes in ITMA.

Breathnach Blog 2022 Intern covers craft
Samples from the Breathnach reel-to-reel Collection at ITMA

At ITMA staff consistently strive to ensure collections are managed according to archival best practice. In many cases, pilot projects are undertaken to develop, test and document new processes before they are considered ready to be rolled out on a wider scale.

This was the case in the summer of 2022 when, with the assistance of two MA interns in Irish Folklore and Ethnology from UCD, Juliana Zepf and Samantha Brandal, a ‘reel-to-reel rehousing’ project was undertaken, under the supervision of ITMA Digital Archivist Adam Girard. The pilot project involved one of the most important reel-to-reel collections in ITMA, that of researcher, collector and uilleann piper, Breandán Breathnach (1912–1985).

The Breandán Breathnach Collection (Cnuasach an Bhreathnaigh) was the foundation collection of the Irish Traditional Music Archive. In its entirety it is an extensive multi-media collection consisting of sound recordings, printed items, music manuscripts, scrapbooks, thematic melodic card indexes, photographs, ephemera and personal papers. The collection was deposited in trust to the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) by the Breathnach Family in 1987.

Before embarking on working with the physical reel-to-reel collection, Juliana and Samantha were encouraged to read more about Breandán Breathnach to give them a better understanding of the collection.

Carolan, Nicholas, ‘Because it's our own’: Breandán Breathnach 1912-85’ Journal of Music (2005). Online

Gebruers, Maeve, ‘Breathnach, Breandán, 1912-1985’ ITMA AtoM Authority Record (2016). Online

Breandán Breathnach Tune Index Card; Breandán Breathnach

Project Steps

The rehousing project was broken into several steps including:

  • scanning the original physical reel-to-reel tapes and their original boxes;
  • moving the recordings to new archival-grade acid-free boxes;
  • labelling each item with a unique identifier;
  • transcribing information recorded on labels, cartons, and boxes;
  • updating audio file information;
  • developing quality control procedures;
  • developing systems to ensure inventory control;
  • documenting each step in these processes.

Under Adam Girard's supervision, Juliana and Samantha then systematically set about opening each box of reel-to-reels, and applying a series of archival best practice steps to ensure their long term preservation, and to provide better access to the information on, and in, the reel-to-reel sound recordings.

Juliana describes the processes in more detail below.


One of the goals of the project was to make the experience of engaging with the digital content as close as possible to being able to hold the reel-to-reel carton while you listen to the digitized reel-to-reel tape. These original cartons are now between 40 to 70 years old. They were not designed for archival storage, and have started to deteriorate. Stickers and labels that were attached to the reel-to-reels have started to come off, and everything is becoming more faded, more brittle, and harder to read.

Thus, a full image scan of the carton preserves all of the information in the state it is in right now. This means that if text fades and or labels become detached in the future, or the acid in the paper continues to break down the carton, we have a good quality surrogate back-up that ensures we do not lose data. Scanning the reels ensures that the cases—and more importantly, the information on the cases—is preserved.

These high-quality scans are initially created and stored as TIFF files, a very high-resolution image format. They are saved as separate PDF/A files which are designed to support long-term file preservation.


After all our scans were done, we moved onto transcription. Transcription is important for three reasons: accessibility, readability and searchability. While computers can be used to automatically read text from images and documents, it is not always reliable when dealing with handwritten text in images. So in order for image text to be searchable it must be manually transcribed and entered into the catalogue separately. In addition, transcriptions aid researchers by speeding up both the ease and speed of document reading. Some of the handwriting is hard to read, or faded, or has some–creative–spelling. When transcribed, it becomes easier to read, easier to search, and can be used with a text-to-speech reader if required.

In order to transcribe all the Breathnach reel-to-reels, we have gone through the boxes one by one to ensure all of the information was transcribed and readable. We cross-referenced the information on the cartons with older documentation that helped to clarify faded or smudged writing.


So, after making sure we have safeguarded all of the data on the old cartons, it is time for the reel-to-reels to get new, acid-free archival boxes! These boxes are much sturdier than the old cartons, and provide long-term protection for the physical reel-to-reels, which are the “master tracks,” or original recordings, for all of the audio in the Breathnach Collection. To minimize jostling, we need to make sure these reel-to-reels fit securely in their boxes. There are six different sizes of reel-to-reel in the collection, from little tiny 3” reel-to-reels to large, professional-grade 12” reel-to-reels. Thus, we ordered custom archival boxes for each reel-to-reel size.

Lastly, the cases go into long-term storage boxes—grouped by size in order to ensure that they fit properly—and ordered by their CID, the unique ID created for every item in the ITMA catalogue. In all almost 400 reel-to-reels were rehoused during the project.

Left to right: Reel-to-reel in original boxes; Reel-to-reels in new bar coded acid free containers; Reel-to-reels packed in new boxes

Updating the Audio Files

The last step to ensure that the Breathnach reel-to-reel recordings are a fully accessible digital collection, is to check that the digital audio files are all of good quality, present, and matched correctly with their original reel-to-reel tape. After all, the most important thing for an audio collection it to be able to listen to the audio!

Since the Breathnach reel-to-reels were part of the archive's founding collection in 1987, there have been many changes over the years in how digitised sound is stored and processed in ITMA. Thus, while we have digital copies of most of the reels, some older digital formats can be challenging to access.

So, we spent the last few weeks of the project identifying, finding, and collocating the best digital copy we have for each of the recordings. Now, when you access the audio files, you can listen to all the reel-to-reels Breathnach recorded on modern, archival standard lossless .wav formats.

So what impact did the project have on the Interns? Samantha shares her thoughts:

The time spent at ITMA was a great experience. Beyond developing our own skills and learning more about archival practices, myself and Juliana were able to contribute something genuine and important to the world of traditional Irish music. When materials such as the Breathnach collection are digitized, it’s not just about preserving the materials, but also increasing access and availability for the public. Physical items such as documents and reels can be accessed within an archive or library, for example. Where copyright allows, digital material can be made available on a global scale, dramatically increasing the number of people who are able to utilize the archive’s resources.
Having listened to a good amount of this material, I can say with certainty that it’s interesting stuff. Archives and libraries aren’t just for researchers, they’re for everybody, and I sincerely hope that more people will take the opportunity to engage with this material

Juliana & Samantha each played an important and practical role in ITMA during the Summer of 2022. Their work will provide long-term benefits for all users of the Breandán Breathnach Collection in ITMA. ITMA hopes to use the documentation they developed as a guide to make more collections digitally accessible in the future.

This blog was written by Juliana Zepf and Samantha Brandal.

Edited by: Grace Toland & Adam Girard.

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