THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

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

04 March 2015

Authors' Lives: an oral history

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Last Thursday night, here at the British Library, Tony Harrison was announced as the 2015 winner of the David Cohen Prize for Literature. The accolade is given biennially, and rewards a lifetime’s achievement in writing. It considers all branches of literature, from novels, poetry and drama to essays, history and biography. Former winners include V S Naipaul, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and Hilary Mantel. 

Listeners won’t be able to hear Hilary Mantel’s recording for the British Library’s Authors' Lives oral history project for a while yet (it’s closed until 2029 at the author’s request) but extracts from it can be found on our CD, published in 2011, The Writing Life: Authors’ Speak which is now available on British Library Sounds.  Search by ‘Interviewee’, and you can hear Mantel talking about how her imagination was shaped by the Catholic faith she grew up with, how reading helps you to write, how and when she began writing her first novel, where her ideas come from, the experience of living with Thomas Cromwell whilst writing Wolf Hall and many other facets of her creative life.

Hilary Mantel describes her experience of living with Thomas Cromwell whilst writing Wolf Hall

The David Cohen Prize rewards a lifetime’s work. Our Authors’ Lives recordings look at that life and work in all its fascinating detail. As readers we know what it is to live with – or should that be through? – a book, but we often lack an awareness of the creative process that brought that book into being. It’s this perspective that the Authors’ Lives recordings focus on, illuminating the way in which a writer’s experience, emotion and intellect are put into the service of their work. We have sixty recordings in the collection at present; more are being added all the time.

The Writing Life CD cover

If you want to hear more about Authors’ Lives, come along to an evening with interviewee Howard Jacobson in conversation with The Guardian’s Alex Clark at the British Library at 6.30pm on the 19th March.  Buy tickets here.   

Howard Jacobson reflects on wanting to be a writer

If you can’t make it, we hope you’ll enjoy listening to Mantel and others on The Writing Life: Authors’ Speak and search the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for more details of the Authors’ Lives interviews – a National Life Stories project. 

Sarah O'Reilly

02 March 2015

Chacking to hear some Cornish dialects?

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Warleggan, Penzance, Mawla, St Feock and Truro. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Cornwall. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Mawla, St Feock and Truro, also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

A distinctive feature of established accents in Cornwall is rhoticity - that is speakers pronounce the <r> sound after a vowel in words like better, hard and first. This was at one time a feature of speech throughout the UK and indeed, until relatively recently was still widely heard across much of southern England. Nowadays it is most commonly associated with speech in the West Country and South West, a small area of Lancashire and most of Scotland and Northern Ireland. All five recordings here include speakers who are rhotic to varying degrees, although it is immediately apparent that the speakers in Warleggan, Penzance, Mawla and St Feock are much more consistent in their use of 'postvocalic R' than their younger counterparts in Truro, whose speech is predominantly non-rhotic except for a few isolated examples.

You can also hear several examples of the distinctive Cornish dialect pronoun system:

Mawla - [0:31:00] adder'll bite you even if he's in a good mood, won't her, if you step on he he'll bite you

St Feock - [0:16:47] if they're lying prostrate, need a operation, don't them

Penzance - give en a clout; Warleggan - give en a good hiding [= 'to hit hard']

The form of the pronoun contrasts here with Standard English conventions for subject and object position - a phenomenon known as pronoun exchange - and some speakers also use an archaic form en, a reflex of the Old English masculine object pronoun hine. Individual speakers vary in terms of the frequency with which they use these dialectal grammatical features, and they are absent from the younger contributors from Truro.

It would be wrong, though, to conclude that the younger speakers in Truro sound in any way less Cornish. They use a number of local vowel sounds and occasional 'broader' dialectal pronunciations, such as idn [= isn't] and, like the speakers in the other recordings, offer several local dialect words like teasy [= 'moody'], and enting down [= 'raining heavily']. One young Truro hairdresser even supplies the historic Cornish term old Tuss (a local form of address) and admits she often says she's chacking for a piss [= 'dying to go to the toilet']. No lesser authority than the English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905) records the verb chack, including a citation from Cornwall in 1808: I'm chacking with hunger.

This evidence of older and present-day Cornish dialect continuity and change is one of a number of unique audio collections held at the British Library. Through the Library's Save Our Sounds programme, you can help us preserve the nation's sound heritage.

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.