Francis Lynch, owner of Sheet Music Back in Print, Inc. displays a piece of vintage sheet music now available in digital format.

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Evanston resident Francis Lynch has been collecting vintage sheet music for years. Mr. Lynch, a self-proclaimed Gilbert and Sullivan fanatic, has combined his skills as a software engineer and pianist with his passion for music from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to create an unusual online business, www.sheetmusicbackinprint.com.

Sheet Music Back in Print, Inc. is a one-man crusade to find and resurrect rare and formerly out-of-print piano and vocal works while making affordable new editions of the music available to download anywhere in the world in just minutes.

Using music recognition software, Mr. Lynch has so far transferred about 140 titles from his impressive collection of nearly 4,000 original pieces onto the company’s website.

Mr. Lynch compares his concept to the e-book.

“Just as people can download a book and read it instantly, I wanted people to be able to go to our website, listen to a piece, purchase it, print it out, then walk right over to their piano and play it,” says Mr. Lynch.

The catalog includes popular and sacred songs, show tunes, piano solos, art songs and duets, all dating from the late 1800s to the early 1920s. The time frame is connected to the copyright law that says anything published prior to 1923 is in the public domain.

“The piano was the home entertainment center from about 1890 to the 1930s,” says Mr. Lynch. “It was the heyday of sheet music.”

Conservative estimates suggest there were at least 100,000 pieces of sheet music published in this era, says Mr. Lynch.

Mr. Lynch, who began playing piano at the age of 8, says he became enamored with Gilbert and Sullivan tunes and other popular music from that era while in high school. He has been a fan ever since.

In 2001 Mr. Lynch became involved with Evanston’s Savoyaires, a community theater group that has been bringing the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to Chicago’s north shore since 1964.

Mr. Lynch began collecting vintage sheet music one day when he noticed big piles of old sheet music for sale while shopping at an antique mall with his wife.

“I took a bunch home and realized some of these pieces are really, really good,” he says.

One day he came home with a piece called “When Francis Dances with Me,” a title that immediately caught his attention because his name is Francis. He discovered the bottom left hand corner had been torn away. Fortunately, the introduction of the piece gave a complete playout of how the song should end.

“I thought, ‘I’ll create a new edition using software that recognizes music text, and play from that,’” says Mr. Lynch. “All of a sudden I had a 100-year-old tattered sheet of music in a brand new, crisp form. That’s when it occurred to me that I could do this with all the little treasures that I’ve found and make them available in digital format.”

Mr. Lynch says the best part of this project is finding works and composers who could otherwise disappear forever.

Last November Mr. Lynch received a call from a woman who said she found on his website a piece by her grandfather that she did not know he had written.

“I find these amazing works just moldering away in antique malls,” says Mr. Lynch. “But I can publish them and they will have a new existence.”