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

20 May 2015

£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign

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We are delighted to announce that the British Library has been earmarked funding of over £9.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to help save the nation’s sound recordings and open them up online for everyone to hear.

For those of you familiar with our Save our Sounds project, this is very welcome news. According to the predictions of sound archivists the world over, we have fifteen years in which to digitise historic sound recordings before the equipment required to play some formats can no longer be used, and some formats such as wax cylinders and acetate discs start to naturally decay.

Examination of a damaged lacquer disc in our sound labs
Examination of a damaged lacquer disc in our sound labs

This problem doesn’t just apply to the national sound archive of over 6.5m recordings held at the British Library; it applies to collections around the country.

As part of our ongoing UK Sound Directory project, we have identified over 1m sound collections on dozens of different formats across the UK which also risk disappearing, which range from recordings of killer whales made off the coast of Shetland (held by the Centre for Wildlife Conservation, University of Cumbria), to a collection of sounds held in the Canterbury Cathedral archives spanning 50 years of services, choral and opera performances and other recordings, many of which are thought to be unique.

Thanks to the £9.5m funding from the HLF, we will be able to digitise and publish online up to 500,000 rare and unique sounds from the Library’s own collections and those around the UK which are most at risk, including local dialects and accents, oral histories, previously unheard musical performances and plays, and vanishing wildlife sounds.

Some of the many rare recordings in the British Library's sound archive
Some of the many rare recordings in the British Library's sound archive

From 2017-2022, we will work with partner institutions across the UK to develop a national preservation network via ten regional centres. Together we will digitise, preserve and share our unique audio heritage. We will also run a major outreach programme to schools and local communities to celebrate and raise awareness of UK sounds.

Our challenge, as outlined in our Living Knowledge vision published earlier this year, is 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.

We are extremely grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for answering that urgent need, and enabling us to take this first major step in our plans.

Find out more about our HLF funding on our Press site and join in the conversation on Twitter using #SaveOurSounds

18 May 2015

Finding ways to take Crafts Lives out of the archive

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Crafts Lives records in-depth life stories of Britain’s craftspeople for the British Library’s oral history collections, exploring both their personal and their working lives.

Last year Crafts Lives was fortunate enough to receive funding to digitise and put online many of the life story interviews that have been recorded since the project started in 1999. There are now over 80 in-depth interviews with British craftspeople, along with searchable summaries, available to users worldwide on British Library Sounds.

Our next step was to think of ways that we can make them more available to listeners now that they are online. We’ve been following the growing use of QR codes and other smart phone technology in oral history in site-specific audio trails such as the Montgomery Canal trail and in recording memories to form a social history of objects as in the research project Tales of Things.  

Crafts Lives has a wonderful collection of detailed descriptions by makers of making specific pieces and we have long wanted to experiment with marrying these with the objects themselves.  This would allow people to look at a craft object and listen to the maker describe in detail how it was made.

Our opportunity came at this year’s Collect, the International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects put on every year in London by the Crafts Council. Among the makers exhibiting were several of whom we had existing recordings, and they and their galleries kindly agreed to have signs with QR codes and NFC chips next to the maker’s work so that people could access audio clips via their smart phones. We chose short extracts from the interviews, figuring that people wouldn’t want to listen to anything too lengthy in the middle of a busy art fair.

We had an extract from ceramicist Walter Keeler about combining the sculptural and the functional in his work beside some of his fantastical teapots.

Walter Keeler QR code and teapots

Beside sail forms from Peter Layton’s Burano glass series, we had part of his description of the glass blowing and trailing process involved in making them

Peter Layton QR code card and Burano glass series

Kate Malone’s flamboyant pots were accompanied by an extract of Kate talking about the peace of the empty space inside a pot

Kate Malone QR code card and pots

While Rod Kelly's beautifully chased silver charger could be examined whilst listening to Rod explaining the many revisions and stages of preparing to decorate silver

Rod Kelly and QR code card and silver plate

Images courtesy of Elizabeth Wright

We haven’t had feedback yet as to how many people used the QR and NFC codes to access the recordings. When we tried them out ourselves, while looking round the exhibition, we took note of several things that we might improve. For instance, accessing the recording via QR and NFC codes means that the audio clip plays through the phone’s speaker and therefore may be obtrusive. However we hope this is the start of exploring how we can use the recordings outside the archive, in exhibitions and installations, to add an extra dimension to the experience of art and craft.

Frances Cornford and Elizabeth Wright, Project Interviewers for Crafts Lives.

15 May 2015

The Imitation Archive Part 1: recording the sounds of the world's first computers

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Between January and March 2015, Matt Parker was artist in residence at The National Museum of Computing, Bletchley Park. The residency, which was supported by the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts Scheme, was an audio archiving project that resulted in the production of 116 unique audio recordings of some of the world’s most historically significant computer technologies. Within the collection are sounds of the world’s oldest original functioning digital computer, the Harwell Dekatron (also known as WITCH), a faithful replica model of the world’s first digital computer, Colossus and a replica model of the electromechanical decryption device the ‘Bombe’, designed by Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman. In the first of two posts, Matt talks about developing The Imitation Archive and his experiences during the residency period.

Project foundation

In August 2014 I produced an audiovisual installation titled The Cloud is more than Air and Water. The installation was concerned with the claustrophobic sound of the IT Data Centre. Through original footage and field recordings, the piece was composed to demonstrate some of the key issues related to the dislocation between user and machine in the ‘Cloud’ age of computing. Having focused my work on the modern environments of computing for almost a year, I began to think increasingly about the historical narrative behind computing; how the environments and relationships between users and computers have shifted over what is a relatively short period of time. This led me to the discovery that there isn’t a comprehensive archive of sounds of computers in existence (at least not in the UK).

It has been argued that perhaps computer sounds are not really that distinct from any other electromechanical machine. There is whirring, clicking, buzzing. Much of the noise is really made by the cooling units rather than the processors themselves. I had begun to wonder myself whether the sounds I was looking for might not really be all that distinct, however when I arrived at Bletchley, the sounds of computing turned out to be wide ranging and unique in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Harwell Dekatron Computer (WITCH)

Harwell Dekatron Computer aka WITCH, manufactured in 1951 (photo courtesy of Matt Parker)

Harwell Dekatron Computer (WITCH) performing a regular addition sequence

Planning the recordings

After having some initial discussions with Stephen Fleming, the PR Manager for the National Museum of Computing and a couple of the museums volunteers, I prepared a list and rough plan for a full week’s worth of recording at the museum, creating slots for each of the major devices and grouped slots for some of the smaller featured devices.

One of the best things about the museum is that there isn’t anything in the public collection that’s there just to be looked at from behind a Perspex screen. It’s one of the really important aspects of the museum’s value as all items are either fully restored or in the process of restoration. Functionality is critically important to the museum; after all why would you just look at a computer (some of the early machines do look phenomenal though)? The very purpose of a computer is that it performs a task, which they all do with accuracy and reliability that makes the reliability of my middle of the road smartphone look pretty embarrassing.

The volunteer pool is large and made up of hardware and software computing engineers, many of which are retired. They are all enthusiasts. They speak in a language that understands computing; they refer to Boolean logic as if it’s common vernacular and discuss the virtues of machine code over software defined interfaces. It’s a fascinating environment where each volunteer contributes their expertise towards the restoration of unique machines. Some are fascinated by the wartime codebreaking machines, the pioneering devices that are said to have reduced the length of the Second World War by six years. Others are absorbed by the mechanics of early era networked systems, giant tape reels and hard drive disks the size of a tractor’s back tyre. Others meanwhile find themselves fascinated by the early PC era, when the initial boom of Silicon Valley hit, when the UK was a powerhouse of the computing industry, battled out between Sinclair, Amstrad, Acorn and their US competitors at Apple and IBM.

Colossus-The Imitation Archive

Working replica model of Colossus, the world's first electronic computer (photo courtesy of The National Museum of Computing) 

Colossus performing series of calculation sequences

The residency recording period

From the first day of arrival, it was clear that my initial schedule was not going to run fully to plan. A challenge with programming this kind of activity is disseminating this information to a broad volunteer group and to gain their understanding about what I would be trying to achieve.

On my first day of recording, I setup extensively within the Tunny Gallery, home to a replica Tunny Machine, a series of analogue radio receivers, teletype machines and the restoration project for a Heath Robinson machine (a precursor to the Colossus). The volunteers were very happy to assist with my recordings, patiently waiting for me to setup various microphone configurations and placements. I’m very happy with what I captured. When a microphone is in a room it picks up sound from all corners. As is often the case with recording in spaces with people in them, it doesn’t occur to mind that perhaps any sound you make, any movement, heavy breath, *whispering*! will be picked up by the microphone! Achieving silence in the space for more than two minutes would be an almost impossible task!

Creed 7B Teleprinter typing out the poem 'The Owl and the Pussycat'

I started to schedule sessions at night, after the museum had closed, which was the only way to have guaranteed quiet! One of the unique intricacies of the museum is the synchronised clock system throughout the building. There are two original Bletchley Park mechanical clocks in the entrance hallway which sound incredible. Their recording makes it into the archive as it is a critical feature of the building. Every 30 seconds, throughout the entire block, a clicking thud occurs, synchronising the clocks around the museum together. Every 30 seconds… a recording is interrupted by synchronising clocks! It became a highly significant aspect to the experience of recording, inescapable and sometimes, when you forget that it happens, late at night in a dark corridor, it was shocking!

I decided to work with recording key features of as many objects as possible. This turned out largely to be demonstrating the boot sequences or the turning on of a device, carrying out a basic task with the device and switching the device off. As was the case with the clocks in the museum, other devices that were not digital computers were also making interesting sounds and so, as it was there, I recorded these as well. This saw a lot of time working with mechanical comptometers and other analogue programmed mechanical calculators.

Grimme, Natalis and Company mechanical calculator

Matt’s next post will discuss cataloguing the Imitation Archive and residency outputs including musical works composed using the raw recordings of Bletchley Park’s historic machines.

The Imitation Archive was supported by Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts scheme and is available at the British Library (collection C1679)