British Library Launches Project To Save Half A Million Rare Recordings

19th April 2017

Unlocking our Sound Heritage will save music, pirate radio, spoken word and field recordings from physical decay

The British Library is launching a national preservation network to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings threatened by physical degradation or those stored on now defunct formats.

The Unlocking our Sound Heritage project will focus on preserving a huge range of the UK’s diverse musical and recorded output, from traditional, pop and world music, radio broadcasts to drama and literature readings, oral histories and wildlife sounds from around the country.

The breadth of intended coverage captures oral histories from World War One and Two alongside Cornish brass bands, pirate radio recordings, iconic performances at the National Theatre and local dialects from across the UK. It will showcase the stories of migrant and marginalised societies alongside notable figures.

Legacy equipment in storage

Legacy equipment in storage

Creating a nationwide network of 10 preservation centres, The British Library will archive a selection of the recordings on a searchable Unlocking our Sound Heritage website, due for completion in 2019 and available to the public.

The British Library has secured a significant National Lottery grant to reach the £18.8 million funding required to launch the project.

To understand the risks facing the UK’s sound collections and to map the scale of the problem, in January of this year the British Library began work conducting a National Audit of UK Sound Collections.

The purpose of the project was to gather information from sound collection holders across the UK about the condition, formats, extent, uniqueness and subject matter of their collections.

Acetate disc being repaired prior to digitisation

Acetate disc being repaired prior to digitisation

The Directory of UK Sound Collections

Over a period of 20 weeks (from January to May 2015), this survey collected information on 3,015 collections, from 488 collection holders, containing 1.9 million items.

The resulting Directory of UK Sound Collections is now available to download.

The Directory contains details of all collections whose holders agreed to share information on their holdings.

Sound Curator Will Prentice in the British Library's archive

Sound Curator Will Prentice in the British Library’s archive

If you would like to obtain the data as a CSV file for research purposes please send a request to the Reference Service.

Report on the National Audit of UK Sound Collections

A Report on the National Audit of UK Sound Collections describing the approach and methodology used and analysing the results of the information gathered, is now available to download.

This audit gathered information on over 1.8 million recordings held in over 3,000 collections in less than five months. While not comprehensive, the results offer the most informed picture of the state of the nation’s sound collections ever collated and offer a resoundingly clear message – a message that the UK possess an invaluable wealth of recorded cultural memory that is under imminent threat from loss and decay.

International archival consensus holds that the British Library has 15 years in which to digitise historic sound recordings. By 2030, the scarcity of older equipment, the condition of recorded media and the loss of skills will make their preservation costly, difficult and, in many cases, impossible.

Sos¨ reel-to-reel tapes recorded in the 1980s

Reel-to-reel tapes recorded in the 1980s (I’ve repeated this image from the top for those people who want to click and enlarge it…and want to read the labels on the spines up there)

This problem doesn’t just apply to the National Sound Archive of over 6.5m recordings held at the British Library; it applies to the collections around the country that it has established information on by creating the Directory.

As well as helping foster professional skills in audio preservation, regional centres will help the British Library raise awareness throughout the nation of the serious and time sensitive task ahead by collaboratively implementing a major outreach program to schools and local communities to celebrate the UK’s sound heritage and draw attention to the wealth of living history held in archives throughout the country.

For the many more collections that cannot be part of the project the British Library will publish advice online on caring for collections and helping spread relevant information to collection holders.

As part of the Library’s ongoing Living Knowledge vision it will aim to preserve as many as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings and also to protect the future of our audio heritage, by improving the way in which we collect sounds digitally.

Above: Watch Chief Executive Roly Keating’s speech on the enduring role of libraries in a digital age and their importance to the “knowledge economy”.

Above: The soundtrack was created by DJ Yoda in a custom-made track sampling the Library’s own vast sound collections, performed live from the British Library’s Entrance Hall on 21 November 2014 as part of the BBC 6 Music Celebrates Libraries season.

Above: Watch 10 hypnotic minutes of book requests from The British Libray’s book request system, showing the sheer range and diversity of content that is being used by BL Readers every day.

Find out more from The British Library’s Save Our Sounds project including a mini-BBC documentary with behind-the-scenes footage, presented by Mark Ellen…including an intriguing insight into a tape rarity from a certain Pete Townshend.

Photos and videos courtesy of The British Library