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Inside the British Library Sound Archive

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Ever wonder where you can find an old Beatles interview? How about the music score for a black and white film from the 1940s? What about a radio jingle from when you grew up? These iconic sounds very well could be sitting in a basement waiting for their recognition once again. Recordings from wax cylinders, reel-to-reel, cassette tapes, and other records are quickly disintegrating and decaying without any form of preservation. Enter: the British Library Sound Archive.

What is the British Library Sound Archive?

According to the BBC, there are over 7 million sounds waiting to be recorded and preserved. Unfortunately, the process is incredibly slow and without the proper funding will take 48 years to finish. Archivists require proper training to understand how to handle and play the recordings, as well as how to transfer and digitize the sounds to the library’s archive. Some of these sounds are 150 years old, so their rarity forces extreme care. Under the experienced umbrella of the British Library, the Sound Archive was formed.

History of the archive

In January 2015, the British Library underwent a National Audit of UK Sound Collections to get a better idea of the condition of sound collections around the UK. They were interested in the state and format of sounds as well as content and specialty. This was all spearheaded by the Save our Sounds program, a program that wishes to not only preserve Britain’s sound recordings but also create some sort of radio archive and a partnership with recording studios and music labels to ensure future safety and integrity of new music. Their creation, the Sound Archive, allows audiophiles to dig through and locate sounds from the past in addition to adding their own creations – eventually entirely online by 2019. The program also hopes to raise enough money to “future-proof” their digitization and storage of massive audio files. It’s always an ongoing process since new sounds are created daily!

What you can find inside

Because of the age of some of the recordings, archivists have found interesting and influential materials. They’ve been able to track the evolution of the English language and how it adapts over time and by dialect through archived conversations, monologues, and films. The British Library’s website has a basic list of their available recordings (mostly collected through the National Audit of UK Sound Collections) with their title, subject, description, format, and availability of digital copies. You can do a search, lets say for “church music,” and find all the available types of archived church music, where they are located, and in what format. If you are able to go in person, you can visit the British Library and have archivists and librarians pull the individual recordings you wish to hear. These are pieces of living history that can be nostalgic, informative, and fun. If this sounds fascinating to you, follow the British Library Sound Archive’s Twitter or blog to remain up to date on the latest archival projects and interesting audio finds.

By: Diana Michel

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