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

13 November 2018

Sound Seating: Colin St John Wilson’s Library Furniture

In 1995, the British Library began documenting oral histories of British architects through the National Life Stories series Architects’ Lives. The following year the project looked close to home and published an interview with the architect of the library’s St. Pancras location. In twenty-seven parts available on the BL’s Sounds website, the librarian and curator Jill Lever (1935-2017) speaks with Colin St John (Sandy) Wilson (1922-2007), covering a wide range of subjects including his career, past projects and approach to creating public spaces.

Initially this series had been recommended to me by Oral History curator Mary Stewart after I asked colleagues if anyone knew anything about some wooden benches I had seen at the library. Simple and sturdy, reminiscent of mid-century modern Scandinavian design, initially I had just wanted to know who made them – was there a small British furniture company still making them? Had a well-known designer made a little-known range of furniture for the library? While still largely a mystery despite the enthusiasm of colleagues, I found something more interesting through this research. The original furniture to the building, much of it still here twenty years after its official opening, was a crucial part of fulfilling Wilson’s overall vision for the building and his idea of how a library should work and make its readers feel.

Bench1

Largely designed by Wilson himself, the original furnishings, built-in nooks, and other seating were important parts of his approach to scale. In one section of the interview, he describes the point of preserving a balance between a grand, large, space coming in at two hundred thousand square metres and one scaled for individuals:

“Eventually you have to accept that a lot of other Readers and the architecture makes the sort of spaces in which you can read, you can spend the whole day, you don’t feel claustrophobic, you have the chance of looking up from the close range of a book to the long distance of a big space.”

Readingroom

Wilson designed tactile, personal elements throughout the building in order to balance the large scale demanded of a building with innumerable collection items, which now greet over 1.5 million people annually through the compact front entrance into the spacious multi-storey lobby. Portholes throughout the building provide small windows onto the grand area of the main lobby on its main and upper ground floors.

One of the ways Wilson attempted to create this balance, and thus serve what he saw as the larger purpose of a public building, was through his use of tactile, natural materials. Inspired by architects of the English Free School, among them Sir George Gilbert Scott who designed St Pancras Chambers next door, William Morris, and John Ruskin, he chose wood panelling, leather-covered wooden benches and booths on nearly every floor of public space outside the reading rooms, and leather-wrapped brass railings a la Aalto, and carved person-sized seating into marble wall detailing on multiple floors.1

Other designers were commissioned to help create this balance. The reading room chairs still in use today are original to the library, designed by Ronald Carter. This was one of his largest commissions, although he also designed furniture for other cultural institutions in London like the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Shelflife st p_003 Oct 1996 cropped

Wilson thought that if this balance was struck correctly, he could create the kind of public building in which an initial feeling of getting lost would soon be replaced with an ability to “help yourself and get on with it,” much as many do every day at the library, arriving at the front door with their clear plastic reading room bags, ready to use for second, third, and forth times in the workspaces readers often come to think of as their own.

1The British Library by Colin St John Wilson, YK.2009.a.21930

Mary Caple is a postgraduate student in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford, formerly Digitisation Workflow Administrator for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership. Special thanks to Dave Stevens for scanning the copies of Shelf Life, the British Library staff newsletter, from which images of St Pancras came from. 

 

12 November 2018

Acrostic Challenge

UOSH Volunteer and poet Amy Evans Bauer invites you to write your own creative response to the WordBank:

Calling all listers, logophiles, poets, crossworders and puzzleers!

The sheer variety of spoken English in the UK and beyond befits a celebration in kaleidoscopic form, so we’ve decided to host our first #acrostic challenge. Joining in won’t take long…

Picture

 

 

Simply brew, damp, draw, mash, scald, steep, stew or wet yourself a cuppa, browse the WordBank and compile a list, sentence or poem in acrostic form. Tweet us your entry to @VoicesofEnglish @amyevansbauer #acrosticchallenge or email us at Amy.Evans@bl.uk by 22nd November for the chance to feature in a selection chosen for a celebratory blog post this December. 

 

 

You may feel inspired independently or want to write in a pair or group.

We can’t wait to see your creations! Read on for guidelines and an example.  

Guidelines

  1. An acrostic form is one in which the first letters of each line spell out a word or phrase. For this challenge, you can choose to spell WORDBANK, VOICEBANK or UOSH. (See below).
  2. Your additional curatorial task is to include at the start of your line/s a word or phrase archived in the WordBank. (Minimum: please ensure at least one line opens with a word from the collection.)

Additional options

  1. Beginner/tea-break option: see how you go with a shorter list that spells WORD, BANK or VOICE.
  2. Advanced option: try your hand at an acrostic sonnet by spelling WORDBANK UOSH.

Submission

Tweet your composition to @VoicesofEnglish @amyevansbauer #acrosticchallenge by 22/11/18.

If your creation is longer than a Tweetable 35 characters, or you would rather send your submission as a short email or Word document attachment, then please send to Amy.Evans@bl.uk with the subject heading #ACROSTIC.

Maximum 3 entries per person. Hyperlinks are not required. If you would like your acrostic to remain anonymous, please indicate this in your email.

Example

To set pens in motion, here is my own here is my own WORDBANK acrostic. Presumptuously, I create enough slippage for the speaker’s voice to be either that of a caulkhead [= ‘someone born on the Isle of Wight’] or someone who, like me, grew up on the island belonging to the opposite part of my favourite pair of nouns:

Wumpert

Overner

ROFL

Deffo too

Brassic for

Argy-bargy and

Nithered

Kerfuffle

You may want to collate some of your own word memories from the collection, or to build with alien terms as your acrostic bricks.

In my version, each line begins with an item in the WordBank, including one contribution available online (Overner), and I have selected the rest from the hundreds more recordings that are accessible in the Library’s London and Boston Spa Reading Rooms via the Sound and Moving Image catalogue. Why not register as a British Library Reader and plan a visit? Feel free to include a similar combination of archived and/or online parts of the collection

Challenge!

We do not demand any poetic or puzzled complexity. Rather, we are looking for an acrostic form that achieves one of the following: conveys the variety of the collection, plays with sound, celebrates place, explores a linguistic point of interest, or delves into accent, dialect and slang in any other way that may appeal. Rest assured, the form ensures that yours will!

Spoken English Cataloguer Holly Gilbert @Collecting Sound has courageously accepted the mission to Tweet first with an attempt at VOICEBANK and Lead Curator Jonnie Robinson will throw his hat in the ring with UOSH. How about you? We hope you will join in.

Please share with friends and colleagues. All ages and dialects welcome!

Amy’s poetry installation SOUND((ING))S is available to hear online or to read in chapbook form as the transcript PASS PORT.

UOSH

Recording of the week: a duet for Ugandan lyres

This week's selection comes from Tom Miles, Metadata Coordinator for Europeana Sounds.

This song, recorded in Kamuli, Uganda in 1954 by the pioneering ethnomusicologist Klaus Wachsmann, is of two ntongoli players, Kaija and Isake Ibande, from the Soga culture.

Abe Waife (BL reference C4/39)

The ntongoli is a type of lyre, a stringed instrument. The Hornbostel Sachs musical instrument classification system defines the lyre as a “yoke lute” – that is, the strings are borne by a beam connecting two prongs that emerge from the resonator. Thus, the shape of the lyre generally resembles the head of a horned animal. But a search for “lyre” on Europeana shows that lyres come in many different shapes and sizes, some very simply made, some with ornate and colourful decorations.

The lyre is most closely associated with the mythological character of Ancient Greece, Orpheus, who played so beautifully that he charmed the animals who heard him.

Lyre (ntongoli) UofEdin CC-BY-NC-SAA late 20th century ntongoli (University of Edinburgh via Europeana, CC-BY-NC-SA)

Although the image of this beautiful ntongoli, held at the University of Edinburgh, is taken from an upright position, the instrument is actually played tilted over so that the strings are more or less horizontal, rather like a guitar. You can hear from this recording that the singing and playing is very intense and powerful, with rhythmic patterns from one instrument following the other in rapid succession.

Visit British Library Sounds to hear more recordings from the Klaus Wachsmann Uganda collection.

Follow @EuropeanaMusic and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

07 November 2018

When the cows come home - a mooving translation

British Library Volunteer, Dr Amy Evans Bauer, writes:

Have you ever had trouble explaining the definition of a word, and even more so, conveying an idiom in literal language? An idiom is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as:

a form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc., used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety; spec. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.

It is clear from this submission to the Library’s WordBank, and many like it, that thinking about how to deconstruct idioms can take us further and further out to sea. One London-based contributor, born in 1972, who defined her accent as belonging to Wigan in the North West of England, and who had also lived in the Midlands, explains Bun Tuesday. Appropriately enough, while listening to her recording, we avoid ever arriving:  

Cow

and I’ve also used the phrase Bun Tuesday as in never gonna happen as in when the cows come home that’s never gonna happen that’s Bun Tuesday so I imagine it’s got something to do with Easter time but I don’t know again the phrases are from the north-west

C1442X7237 WHEN THE COWS COME HOME 

 

 

I encountered my favourite equivalent of when the cows come home when visiting my friends Dana and Mike in Albuquerque. For this bilingual (Spanish-English) Coloradan-Nebraskan household based in New Mexico, an event that is never gonna happen is foretold with the kind counsel don’t hang your hat on it. This metaphor draws on the same idea that connects arrival, millinery and belonging in the phrase (and famous song lyric) wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home. The advice to not hang my hat on it conveyed the same message as don’t count your chickens, because the promised event we were discussing would happen when the cows come home.

Of course, for those of us who grew up on the Isle of Wight, there are certainly times in the year both when the cows come home and when they can be found further afield. Cows may not hibernate, but they do ‘winter’. This is why every year, at the start of autumn, the cattle population of Culver Down increases. The western side of the Down hosts a visiting herd, which comes from a nearby farm to enjoy its gentler southern—albeit extremely blustery—climes. (Some of us even remember the seasons years ago during which the Island’s resident highland herd could be found on the clifftop.) When the cows come on holiday is a good time for islander bovine enthusiasts. Domestic cattle are skilled at recognising individual animal and human faces over long stretches of time, so they have a sense of those who feed and, like me, visit them both home and away.

Cows are also highly intelligent animals. Tours of the American poet Robert Frost’s farm in Derry, New Hampshire, recount how he trained his dairy herd to be milked at midnight rather than at dawn and dusk, so as to accommodate the writing schedule that he maintained alongside his other labours. Whatever time of day it is, and however familiar their human might be, cows rarely rush for anyone. Therein lies the origin of the phrase when the cows come home: the splendidly unhurried pace of a cow.  

If we agree, then, that like many idioms, when the cows come home enjoys the “poetic licence” of exaggeration, we can start to understand some of the issues involved in defining the phrase and its equivalents. Furthermore, that which is temporally ambiguous and indeed never going to transpire is in essence a challenge to pin down. There is poetry in this too, because poetic language from north to south makes similar demands: poet-translators have for centuries agreed that the full content of a poetic line is rarely, if ever, encapsulated entirely when grafted across to another language via definition, syntax and form only. The task of defining or explaining an idiom involves a similarly challenging ‘translation’ of sorts, from poetic language to literal terminology.

Although recordings preserved in the WordBank capture what linguists call the elicited speech (invited verbal information) of our contributors, rather than spontaneous speech (overheard conversations, as in the Listening Project and much of the Library’s Oral History collections), and the latter typically provides an unfettered example of accent and verbal patterns, the former is interesting in terms of what we might term spontaneous definition: our contributors became unscripted dialect translators. While thinking from the top of their heads, many naturally resist undoing the original dialectical structure to the very end.

The following definition-by-chain-of-similes stays true to its poetic form and takes us into more and more interestingly specialist territory:

Hemlock

 

right dry as whumlicks which means dry as oatcakes or dry as hemlock or dry as a member of the umbelliferæ it derives from the Scottish I believe 

C1442X1684 DRY AS WHUMLICKS

 

 

The contributor is a man, born in 1933 in Newcastle upon Tyne, who grew up in Ashington, Northumberland, and lived in Consett, County Durham at the time he made the recording. As he chews the cud [= ‘ponders’] over how to define his phrase, he moves from non-standard dialect to botanical Latin. Either side of oatcakes and poison are two less familiar words: the English Dialect Dictionary records whumlick as another name for hemlock, a highly poisonous plant of the parsley family. Umbelliferae, from the Latin umbella [= ‘parasol’] plus -fer [= ‘bearing’], are plants that bear umbels [= ‘flower clusters’], in which stalks of a similar length spring from a common centre – such as cow parsley. In some ways, his recording could itself be described as umbelliferous!

Finite definitions that emerge when the cows (or the cow parsley) come home are some of my favourite contributions to the WordBank collection. It is through listening to these that we can revel in the irreducible inventiveness of spoken communication. What about ewe? Are there idioms of the never-never that you find moove further and further away as you follow? Either way, we hope that you have enjoyed this deliberately labyrinthine set of recordings!

 

05 November 2018

Recording of the week: the song of the Montezuma Oropendola

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds. 

The sound archive is home to over 250,000 wildlife recordings from all over the world. Over 100,000 of these are recordings of birds. As a curator it’s impossible to have a favourite when surrounded by so many choice examples, however I do find myself returning to certain recordings time and time again.

One of my ultimate favourites is the song of the Montezuma Oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma). This central American songbird inhabits lowland forests and plantations from Mexico to Panama. Individuals congregate in basket-like nests which hang down from the canopy like baubles on a Christmas tree. The male song is an increasingly excitable stream of gurgling notes, produced as part of an acrobatic mating display. Male birds deliver their song from a favoured perch while flipping upside down and waving their tail feathers in the air. Some have been known to get so carried away that they've actually fallen off of their perch. Embarrassing. 

The following song was recorded in Heredia Province, Costa Rica on the 2nd March 1985 by Richard Ranft.

Montezuma Oropendola song (BL reference 15868) 


7544612696_44e16d8979_b

Photo credit: J. Amorin on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, this recording has been digitised and preserved for the nation as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. And if you'd like to hear more weird and wonderful wildlife sounds, pay a visit to the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

31 October 2018

Ghosts in the collections

It’s Halloween, so what better time to delve into our oral history collections in search of accounts of the eldritch, mysterious and paranormal? In a branch of history often focused on the details and routines of everyday life it’s interesting to note the number of supernatural experiences that crop up in an average life story interview – especially when we consider that interviewees are rarely, if ever, asked directly for this sort of story. Accounts of spooky legends or personal encounters with the supernatural find their way into everything from descriptions of family dynamics in the Artists' Lives collection to accounts of rural postal routes in An Oral History of the Post Office. I selected four of my favourite ghostly clips I encountered during my time as an Unlocking our Sound Heritage volunteer at the British Library.

Nationalarchivesghost576Ghostly sighting? National Archives

John Carey, the literary critic and Oxford professor, interviewed as part of the Authors' Lives collection, describes an average day as a student at St Johns College. Stating that he would often study in the college library ‘a lovely library… [although] half of it [was] haunted’ he recalls the university legend of the ghost and a fully-fledged (albeit tongue-in-cheek) encounter with it.

John Carey and the St Johns College ghost (C1276/49/07)

If Carey seems sceptical as to whether or not his tale is true. Susanna Richmond (Artists' Lives) has no such doubts. She remembers in detail the haunted house her father grew up in which attracted the attention of Society for Psychical Research (‘[Arthur] Conan Doyle would come and sit in the garden hoping to see the fun!’) and which none of her family doubted they shared with The Grey Lady.

Susanna Richmond and The Grey Lady (C466/295/01)

In a more whimsical brush with the other side Clifford Mewett was a telegram boy in the Post Office in the mid-60s when he met a helpful ghost on a Kentish country lane who gave him directions to the house he was trying to find.

Clifford Mewett and the postal ghost (C1007/24/05)

And organic farmer William Best describes family legends of ghosts passed to him from his mother who lived in the ‘seriously haunted’ village of Wing and points out that it wasn’t so long ago that the mystical and spooky was part and parcel of English life.

William Best and rural legends (C821/197/01)

Best’s account of his mother experiences highlights an interesting point about ghost stories and their larger context within oral history. In the UK we don’t, generally, tell and retell stories, family events or local legends to anywhere near the extent that people in other countries do, but we make an exception for unexplainable experiences. The stories of headless horsemen and disembodied footsteps that Best’s mother passes down are revealing, not because they are convincing, but because she thought it was important to pass them down. What’s more they provide an insight into her rural community and its collective mind-set that might otherwise have been lost. Ghost stories then may be of particular interest to the student of oral history as a rare example of a strong, sustained oral tradition coming out of a culture where, generally speaking, these traditions are weak.

The cultural importance of ghost stories as oral tradition and our familiarity with them as spoken narratives may also explain why, in spite of a healthy modern scepticism, and never being asked directly for a tale of terror, interviewees giving accounts of their lives stray again and again to the supernatural. The clips here are only a small sample, and many more first-hand accounts of phantom artist models, premonitory visions and boarding house poltergeists lie buried in the BL collections for those brave enough to unearth them…

Anna Savory volunteered with the British Library as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. The interview with Clifford Mewett was digitised as part of the project and, along with the interviews with John Carey and William Best, can be listened to at the British Library. The interview with Susanna Richmond can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

30 October 2018

The words we live by

British Library Volunteer, Dr Amy Evans Bauer, writes:

The Library’s Evolving English WordBank holds many imperatives, sage warnings and pick-me-ups. These reveal a strong relationship between idiomatic language and our behaviour, even our emotional responses, which is passed down through generations via spoken codes of conduct. While reflecting on this, I created a prose poem that envisages life with an altogether different set of instructions and reassurances. If you like riddles or puzzles, you may quickly spot the provenance of each rebellious little unit! I wish you all a stubbornly contrary day.

Idiom Undone

Shoot the messenger. Count your chickens. But me buts. It’s over ’til the fat lady sings. Look a gift horse in the mouth. Bet on it.

Look at me like that. Forget. Mention it. Stress. Dilly-dally on the way. This is the length of a piece of string.

People in glass houses throw stones. Look. Home, Jane and spare the horses. TOUCH. Be late. Delay. Despair.

Ever do that again. Show me up. Shit where you eat. Stay up late. Leave your vegetables. Leave the table. Come back. You worry. You dare.

At all. In my house. In my name. If I can help it. That I heard. That I know. That you’d know. NOW. For you. Again. In a month of Sundays.

Say never. Give up. I know whether I’m coming or going. I knew that. I could tell. Well I. Before seen. Used. Worn. Ending story. Land.

BALL GAMES. Way. Brainer. More. Worry, be happy. Offence. Taken. Tread on the grass. Enough. More. EXIT. 

Amy’s most recent chapbook of sound poems is PASS PORT (Shearsman, 2018).

Follow us @VoicesofEnglish

29 October 2018

Recording of the week: a high fidelity direct recording

This week's selection comes from audio engineer Robert Cowlin.

Instantaneous lacquer discs frequently contain unique or rare recordings and, due to the instability of their sound carrying layer, are a preservation priority at the British Library Sound Archive. Also known as acetate discs, they generally consist of a metal substrate coated in a lacquer of cellulose nitrate which is modulated by a cutting stylus. The process is still in use today, comprising the first step in the manufacture of vinyl records. Many of the lacquers in the British Library’s collection were cut ‘on demand’ – direct to disc from radio broadcasts for patrons by independent cutters, such as W. H. Troutbeck of Twickenham. Today’s disc contains excerpts from “Visions of Saint Godric”, by Peter Crossley-Holland, cut on 17 October 1959.

Troutbeck

Cellulose nitrate degrades continuously over time, as it reacts with water vapour and oxygen, resulting in the eventual shrinkage of the lacquer layer. As the metal substrate cannot shrink, the lacquer cracks and flakes off resulting in the inevitable and irreversible loss of the sound carrying layer, hence their preservation priority status.

Lacquers from the 1950s onwards can be played like any other microgroove disc, with a lightweight elliptical or line contact pickup tracking at around 1.5 grams. Coarse groove lacquers also exist, so playback parameters may need to be modified to accommodate a wider groove. Test with a microgroove stylus first though.

This disc was cleaned in an ultrasonic bath using a solution of 1 parts photographic wetting agent to 70 parts deionised water. Like shellac discs, lacquers should not be cleaned with alcohol. Some instantaneous discs were coated with gelatine rather than cellulose nitrate. Gelatine reacts badly when exposed to water. I always perform a patch test on a non-modulated area before cleaning. Apart from digitising, one should avoid playing lacquer discs due to their fragility.

The disc in question is in very good condition considering its age, with no signs of delamination and only minor scuffing, it retains its deep shine when held to the light. Apart from some pops and intermittent surface noise, the sound quality is excellent. I’ve chosen a short passage that highlights the format’s ability to convey low-level detail – listen out for the audience!

Excerpt from Visions of Saint Godric by Peter Crossley-Holland (BL shelfmark 1LS0001183)

I’m giving a presentation on signal extraction from lacquer discs at this year’s British & Irish Sound Archives conference at the National Library of Wales on 17 November. More information about the conference can be found at http://www.bisa-web.org/next-event

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.