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British Library Says 6.5 Million Sounds Are in Jeopardy

Illustration from "Gately's World's Progress" (1886) (via British Library)
Illustration from “Gately’s World’s Progress” (1886) (via British Library)

Last week, the British Library launched a £40m ($60m) crowdfunding initiative to preserve its archive of over six million sound recordings. The Save our Sounds project is concentrated on remediating decay and technological obsolescence, which could result in the loss of many of the recordings in less than two decades.

Luke McKernan, lead curator of news and moving image, wrote in the January 12 announcement: “Archival 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.” The recordings date back to the 1880s, including everything from the voices of Florence Nightingale, James Joyce, and World War I soldiers, to the cacophony of retrotech steam engines. Curator Will Prentice added in an editorial for the Guardian:

The experience of listening to them is as close to time travel as we’ve ever come. From the rare or iconic to the ephemeral and everyday, recordings give a living picture of the world changing around us. All of this risks being lost for ever unless it is properly preserved, and at the British Library, the home of the UK Sound Archive, we face a big challenge as we endeavour to safeguard the nation’s collection of 6.5m sounds.

The ambitious fundraising goal will initially be directed to “at risk recordings” that make up a third of the holdings, such as field documentation of local dialects and now-extinct wildlife. With recordings on 40 formats, some as outdated as wax cylinders and reel-to-reels, others growing arcane like cassettes, the ability to play the sounds is as precarious as the materials themselves. Around 60,000 recordings are already on the British Library Sounds database, including accents and dialects, wildlife and environmental recordings, and sound maps, but this is only a fraction of the greater history present. In his article, curator Prentice shared invaluable recordings like the near extinct Bittern bird from 1966 calling with its sonorous song for mates who were likely not there, obscure “Zither Tests” that surprisingly revealed alternate versions of the iconic score for Carol Reed’s film noir The Third Man, and George Bernard Shaw in 1927 giving advice on the best playback speed for a record.

Many of the recordings in the British Library have not been played for decades, and are inaccessible to the wider public, making the chance of stumbling upon some unexpected part of historical memory less likely. As with the preservation of video, gaming, digital art, and any non-physical medium, considering a future non-loss means to play the sounds is an integral part of the project.

Another aspect of the Save our Sounds call to action is the UK Sound Directory, which is crowdsourcing a census of other sound archives in the country through March 31. Below you can listen to some selections already digitized from the British Library, from Beethoven played on the piano in 1905 to the (recreated) clamor of a Victorian factory.

Read more and support the British Library’s Save our Sounds program at their site.You can listen to selections already digitized at British Library Sounds

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