Sound recording history

February 16, 2017
Photo of Lisa Fletcher

A degrading cellulose nitrate lacquer disc in the collections of the British LibraryDigital technologies have transformed the ways in which we create and store recorded sound. Until recently, sound recording and reproduction has relied on media like tapes, discs and cassettes, and the technologies to access those media in appropriate ways. Today, these media have been replaced with digital storage systems, allowing us to create recordings in greater numbers, to store them more efficiently, and to provide access to them more effectively.

But this transition from physical to digital highlights one of the key issues facing custodians of recorded sound collections: as older media disappear and industry support for replaying them evaporates, how can we ensure that sounds remain accessible to future generations?

A degrading cellulose nitrate lacquer disc in the collections of the British Library

Professional consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost. These risks face all recorded sound collections, across the country; from home recordings to professional archives.

Just this month, internet pioneer Vint Cerf was widely reported as warning that digital information can too easily be lost because accessing it may require specialised software unavailable in the future. This is something which presents a challenge to the digital preservation of many media. Fortunately, for audio, this problem is - to a degree - solved: digitising a sound recording to an internationally recognised, standard file format (in this case, WAV) aids longevity, because the file structure is well documented and simple to understand.

On 12th January, the British Library launched a new initiative titled : a vital programme recognising the risks facing the nation’s sound collections, and the urgent need to preserve our recorded heritage.

One of the major aims of this programme is to digitally preserve as much as possible of the UK’s rare and unique sound recordings; not just those in our collections but also key items from partner collections.

But digitisation takes time, and preservation planning on such a scale requires a clear understanding of the extent of collections; their subjects, uniqueness, and – importantly - what formats they are held on.

To help us understand the risks faced by the UK’s recorded heritage, the British Library is running a project to create a . Through a nationwide survey which continues until, we have set out to reach and encourage as many collection owners as possible – from individuals with personal collections to large institutions – to send us information about the recordings they hold.

Graph showing collection subjects, by type

Graph showing number of items identified, per format

The responses received since the launch of our project have provided a fascinating insight into the types of collection holders in the UK, the breadth of the subjects that their collections cover, and the formats they are held on. With this information, we can build a clearer picture of the state of the nation’s recorded sound collections, the risks they face and the scale of the task ahead, if they are to be saved.

To date, we have received information on more than 320, 000 items, from wax cylinders and lacquer discs to CD-Rs and MiniDiscs.

The recordings on these items cover a range of subjects, indicative of the diversity of the UK’s collections, including:

  • Vast collections of oral histories, including interviews with nurses, veterans, evacuees, women potters, Jewish refugees, London dock workers, taxi drivers and policemen, travellers, immigrant communities, Yorkshire dalesfolk, and theatre workers.
  • Home recordings made on wires and wax cylinders in the early part of the 20th century
  • More than 15, 000 UK shellac discs of British dance bands and early jazz recordings
  • Recordings of English and Scottish folk musicians, from the mid-20th century
  • Sound art and experimental music from the 1960s to the present day
  • Representative collections of classical music performances on shellac disc
  • Speech and dialect recordings, calendar customs and traditions from across the UK
  • BBC and Radio Luxembourg transmissions, including light music programmes from the 1950s and 60s, and personal collections from radio broadcasters and producers working in the UK
  • Street noises and environmental sounds
  • British bird song recorded in the field
  • Interviews with and performances by composers, musicians, authors and politicians, including Winston Churchill, J.B. Priestley and J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Recordings of speeches, conferences, ceremonies, lectures and events from throughout the 20th century

Graph showing collection subjects, by type

Of course, there are many more collections out there, and we’d love to hear about them. We'll be publishing a summary report later in the year, and advice on caring for your collections.

So, if you have a sound collection – or even a single item – that you would like to add to our directory, please get in touch. And promotion really is vital to the success of our project, so if you know someone who might be interested, do pass the message on.

You can follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and tag with #SaveOurSounds

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