British Library Sound Archive

The Soundtrack of Mankind


This is where the future of audio is being shaped right now - places that are full of music and great sound. It’s where people who love to innovate and experiment are drawn. Where they treat themselves and others to phenomenal audio experiences. “Places” invites you to take a look behind the scenes at these “places to be” in audio, from remarkable music clubs, to legendary recording studios and even art and audio conventions.

In the British Library Sound Archive you can listen to Gandhi speak via gramophone, foghorns blow from forgotten shores, and birds long since extinct sing tunes of love. For now. This unique acoustics collection is itself battling forces of extinction.

  • Author: Carlo Roschinsky
  • Photos: Clare Kendall
„We gather oral history“

This oral heritage of mankind — recordings of voices, noises, music, wildlife chatter — collected within more than 6.5 million documents and 40 types devices — discs, tapes, shellack, cylinders — archives more than 150 years of sounds from around the world. It is housed in a temperature controlled basement of the British Library you only enter with identification. We speak with Will Prentice, conservation specialist and archive technical head, about the unusual compilation and the library’s recently launched SOS for trying to save as much of it as possible.

Mr Prentice, the phone ring when I called earlier, is that a sound worth preserving for coming generations? Yes, and no. To us, this sound is utterly irrelevant. We are so used to it, for decades now, we do not think of it as something special at all. But 100 years from now, the ring tone will represent an era, and, too, a technology that will not be in use anymore.

So what qualifies a recording for the inclusion into your archive? It has to be relevant for a particular time period or a sector of life. It doesn’t have to be rare, necessarily, yet we do own some very unusual recordings. We collect old music records, basically each number one hit there ever was. But we also gather oral history — significant speeches, dialogues, sometimes just fragments. We have Winston Churchill’s voice, Gandhi’s, Stalin’s, Trotzky’s. We have examples of people’s languages that do not exist anymore; also sounds of imperiled or distinct animals.

Save Our Sounds: A campaign against time

  • Florence Nightingale
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Brahms
  • Mozart
  • Straßenverkehr 1920er
  • Löwen
  • Elisabeth II. an ihrem 21. Geburtstag
  • House of the Rising Sun
„Save our sounds: a campaign against the silence of history“

Will Prentice, a clean shaven, bespectacled man, is on a mission. He speaks in fast, focused sentences and clearly lives for his work — not to mention suffers for it when dedication alone proves insufficient. Painfully so, Prentice and his team of conservationists will not be able to save the entire collection of historic recordings. That most powerful enemy, time, gains ground daily.

Time destroys recording cylinders, some as old as from the 1880’s. It wrecks tapes, eats through the rubber shellack used to make records. Prentice and his crew feverishly attempt to quell the physical degradation, but they’re losing ground. Recently, British Library joined the fight by launching the „Save Our Sounds“ campaign.

What are the goals of SOS? We want to preserve as much of our nation’s rare recording material as possible, and that means not only our collection, but also partner collections across the United Kingdom. Another goal is to establish a national radio archive to collect and also share big parts of our national radio output. And finally, we have to invest more in digital technology. Only computers can help us protect sensitive historic material. Unfortunately, all this won’t be easy.

What are the problems? We cannot make it – we don’t have enough time. Our archive contains one million hours of recordings – it would take a person more than 100 years to listen to that. And then, it is not good enough to just save the sound: You also have to preserve the device to replay it, a gramophone for instance; not to mention the knowledge to use those ancient apparatusses. What’s the point of having a perfectly maintained machine when nobody knows anymore what to do with that funny needle.

„I wish I knew how Noah picked the right ones!“

So the pressure is on: How do you decide which recording to save and which one to let go? We digitalize extremely damaged materials first. And we are aware that, at the same time, other recordings will dilapidate. But you have to prioritize. Our archive will become a digital arc. I wish I knew how Noah picked the right ones! We need help. Of course, donations are always welcome. And we are happy to help everybody who has recordings or collections of sounds or music that seem worth saving to him or her.

People nowadays are more focussed on visuals: We watch pictures and videos around the clock, upload snap shots to our clouds and networks. Why take care of audio bits and pieces? Because sounds are part of our collective memory. Think of a historic speech. Of course you can just check out pictures of that event, but then you will never find out how this speech was received by the audience. You have no idea what the atmosphere was like, what kind of voice and rhetoric was used. Only because of the soundtrack you learn whether the speaker was able to fascinate his listeners or if he was just a bore.

Who uses the Sound Archive? It varies. It used to be mostly tinkers, nerds, scientists. Nowadays, we also get actors who have to prepare for the part of a historic person and need to hear the original voice, or accents and dialects. Occasionally, people show up telling us that their grandfather had recorded a disc in the 50’s, and they would just love to hear his voice again. Most of the time, we can help.

The archivists use five recording studios around the clock to save their material. Yet in 15 years exactly, the damage is done. At their recent pace, they would need 48 to reach their goal. The unbalanced equation makes Prentice sigh. He loves the world of sound, so; always has.

Where does this fascination stem from? I grew up in an area where people love to play the bagpipes. Quite noisy! That was my first encounter with music. I grew up on a farm, and our parents taught us kids to be able to identify agricultural machines by their noises. When you knew what the truck normally sounded like, you knew right away when something was wrong! Then, as a teenager, I played guitar in a band and studied classical music.

You started working at the archive as an intern; 15 years later you are technical head of the department. You have heard it all, so to speak. Is there something you dearly miss in your collection? Absolutely: George Orwell! We don’t have any acoustic memories of our famous „1984“ author — and he even used to work as a radio journalist in the early 1940’s. This is my dream: Somebody calls and tells me they have discovered Orwell on a BBC tape.

Are there any sounds in the Archive you are particularly proud of? Yes, there are favorites. A recording of Florence Nightingale, for instance. As a nurse in several wars who had witnessed horrible things, she used phonograph cylinders — which Thomas Alva Edison had just invented in the 1870s — to speak out for homeless people and war veterans. That is very moving. And so is the call of the Kauai O-o, a Hawaiian bird whose habitat and population shrank dramatically in the last century. In 1981, there was only one couple left. Then the female died, supposedly in a hurricane or an earthquake. Ornithologists were able to get recordings of the male that following year, calling for his companion. The bird sings and sings, but there is no answer. That is pretty touching. There are things you only get when you hear them.