Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

19 February 2015

Creating a Directory of UK Sound Collections: An Update

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Digital 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

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.

Save our Sounds

On 12th January, the British Library launched a new initiative titled Save our Sounds: 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.

Surveying the UK’s Sound Collections

To help us understand the risks faced by the UK’s recorded heritage, the British Library is running a project to create a Directory of UK Sound Collections.  Through a nationwide survey which continues until 31st March 2015, 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 numbers of items identified, per format
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
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

The British Library’s Directory of UK Sound Collections is one of the first steps in our Save our Sounds programme; one of the key strands of Living Knowledge, the British Library’s new vision and purpose for its future.

13 February 2015

Architecture: Design and Drawing

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As business information modelling (the digital representation of the building and its processes) becomes part of architectural practice, I am reminded of the impact of technology on the construction process, and on the built form, over the last fifty years.  Before the introduction of computer aided design programmes from the 1980s, all sketch designs and production drawings were done by hand.  While the impact of these technologies has enabled greater speed and efficiency, some of the architects in Architects’ Lives champion designing by hand.  Michael Wilford, who started work with James Gowan and James Stirling on one of the key buildings of the postwar period, Leicester Engineering Building, and later went on to work on the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, and The Lowry in Salford Keys, advocates the flexibility and fluidity of designing old school, with a pen and paper.  He stresses the importance of the link between the hand, eye and brain in design.  

Michael Wilford, 1938-, discusses the process of design

Image 1

Photograph of San Miniato al Monte, © N Dillon

In another extract, from RIBA Gold Medal winner, Ted Cullinan, describes sketching the interior of the church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence, and  in doing so he was able to further appreciate the effect of light and shadow in drawing.

Ted Cullinan, 1931-, discusses English architectual drawing

Image 2

Photograph of San Miniato al Monte, © N Dillon

To listen to the full life story interviews with Michael Wilford and Ted Cullinan, as well as a further 83 interviews with Architects, please visit the Architecture collection on  British Library Sounds

Niamh Dillon

29 January 2015

Inaugural National Life Stories Goodison Fellowship Award focuses on the history of food.

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Within living memory the food we eat, the way it’s produced and how it’s sold has changed out of all recognition. Up until 1957 only 20% of homes had fridges, food was purchased daily from local high-street shops and tastes were conservative – for most, eating-out meant fish and chips, eating-in was meat and veg, and garlic or olive oil were unheard of. Today we shop at supermarkets stocked with tens of thousands of products, we eat food from around the globe and we are as likely to eat in a restaurant, pick up a takeaway or reheat a ready meal as we are to cook from scratch. These transformations are detailed in a unique collection of oral history recordings collected between 1997 and 2012 by the National Life Stories project, Food: from Source to Salespoint, which is currently being digitised and prepared for online access.

  Ray Moore Incubator house

 Egg hatchery c.1950. Photograph courtesy of Ray Moore

I first came across the National Life Stories (NLS) as the subject of a newspaper article six years ago and I was immediately captivated by the idea of hearing directly from people in the past talk about their work and lives. After that, every time I came to London, I’d visit the British Library, find a seat in a reading room and dip in and out of the NLS recordings. I’ve been hooked ever since. So, when I heard about the NLS Goodison Fellowship, I leapt at the chance to apply. The award, run for the first time this year, aims to increase awareness of the NLS collections. I submitted a joint proposal with Polly Russell for a project called Food Matters that focuses on the archive’s rich body of food recordings.

Food has long played a central role in my life – after working in the wine industry for five years I then returned to University and completed a Master’s in the Anthropology of Food. Polly’s involvement with food started when she worked at Joyce Molyneux’s restaurant The Carved Angel and then later when she worked as an M&S Food Product Developer. In 2000 Polly left M&S to start a PhD with the British Library. Her research considered connections between identity and food production in the UK and as part of this she conducted life story interviews with food producers which were added to the NLS collections. Polly now works part-time as a curator at the British Library, overseeing, amongst other things, the library’s food holdings and research. Polly and I met when I worked as a British Library intern and we quickly established a shared enthusiasm for NLS and the food recordings in particular.

  Albert Pic 1 - credit A Roux

Photograph of Albert Roux. Courtesy of Albert Roux

The collection comprises more than 250 recordings with producers from across the food industry including factory workers, food writers, chefs, manufacturers and senior retail managers. These recordings document how changes in farming, manufacturing, distribution and retailing have transformed the nation’s diet within a lifetime.  There are interviews with butchers who describe slaughtering animals on their premises, accounts from farmers of how mechanisation transformed the countryside, stories from manufacturers of how the first ready-meals were produced as well as descriptions from Chinese migrants in the 1960s on setting up Britain’s first Chinese restaurants. And it’s not just the NLS food recordings that are a rich source of food history. Food creeps into other collections too, whether it’s descriptions of banker’s business lunches, book-trade deals done in Soho’s restaurants or scientists’ work on microwaves for weapons, that ended up being harnessed to reheat food.

David Gregory (b.1953) descirbes his first experience of walking into a supermarket

Frances Soar (b.1950) describes trying spaghetti and curry for the first time

Having frequently used the NLS recordings in our own research and writing about food we  know what a terrific resource it is.  Over the course of the next six months we will be contributing material to BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme and are planning to pitch for a Radio 4 Archive Hour slot. We are also going to draft an outline for a book that will use the NLS recordings to explore the history of food over the last 70 years. Being awarded the NLS Goodison Fellowship is a great opportunity – it will allow us to delve deep into the archive to discover new stories and characters so we can introduce different audiences to the value and interest of the NLS collection.

Barley Blyton, National Life Stories Goodison Fellow 2015 

Tesco store 1960s - Tescopix

Tesco store c.1960. Courtesy of