The extraordinary National Sound Archive

As well as housing the largest collection of books in the country, the second largest in the world, the British Library is home to the National Sound Archive, which consists of over six million recordings dating from the birth of recorded sound in the 19th Century and includes oral histories, pirate radio sessions, theatre productions and rare wildlife recordings alongside British jazz, pop and classical recordings.

Save our sounds

This extraordinary collection also includes a wide range of playback equipment, from wax cylinders and cassette players to reel to reel and digital minidiscs. Over 95% of the recordings are analogue, much of the equipment is no longer being produced and it’s become an increasingly urgent task to digitise the collection. The ongoing Save Our Sounds campaign is an attempt to do that.

National Sound Archive

It’s hard to overemphasise the importance of preserving these vulnerable recordings from obsolescence – in many cases these sounds can’t be heard anywhere anymore other than within the library. We spoke to wildlife and environmental sounds curator Cheryl Tipp about the importance of the campaign and her work with the collection.

Several of the wildlife sounds recorded and kept in the library are of extinct or near-extinct animals, so it’s crucial that they’re protected, as Cheryl explains:

“We don’t want to get to a point where we have to pick and choose which recordings we save, particularly as nothing is secure – the house sparrow, once so plentiful, is now a UK red-listed species. Changes in habitat also mean that so much wildlife is under threat. A few decades ago, yellowhammers were everywhere, now they’re becoming increasingly hard to find.”

National Sound Archive

And it’s not just about using the recording as a reference:

“When trying to locate a particularly rare species you need to play the sounds of that species in order to get individuals to respond, so wildlife recordings can act as powerful tool in surveying threatened species and helping identify areas that should be protected from pressures such as deforestation and urban sprawl.

Early Nature Recordings

In a world where you can Google the sound of an angry badger, it’s hard to remember that before the 1930s people would refer to books with sounds written down phonetically to understand the noises animals make.

Ludwig Koch

The advent of sound recording technology meant that recordists could try to capture the sounds of wild animals. Early recordists such as the hugely influential Ludwig Koch, created an invaluable archive of sounds that are still listened to today. He made the first ever recording of a bird in Frankfurt in 1889 – one that still survives – and published the first box-set of British bird sounds in 1936. These were commercial discs of birdsong designed both to enlighten and entertain the listener, many of whom wouldn’t have had the opportunity to hear wildlife otherwise.

Here, Koch, who was around 70 at the time, gives a wonderful description of some of the trials of recording seabirds:

“The day of my departure drew near and I had not achieved my main object, the recording of the flight of the Manx Shearwaters. Almost in despair I landed on Anent once again with my gear. At half past twelve the shearwaters began to rise. In great excitement I started to cut a disc. With even greater exasperation I found that the heavy dew was making recording impossible, for the turn-table did not move. On top of that, the Manx shearwaters kept on flying towards my recording gear, almost touching it, and around my feet and close to my face. I had to use my hands and handkerchief to chase them away, at the same time frantically working to dry the gear. At a quarter past one I heard through the headphones at last that my discs were recording clearly the fantastic natural symphony of the flight of the shearwaters, a sound which still echoes in my ears, which few have heard, and which no one else has ever succeeded in recording.
Taken from his autobiography ‘Memoirs of a Birdman’ (1955)

Environment

Koch’s legacy is continued by today’s sound recordists, including the pioneering Bernie Krause. Concerned with the ecological damage done by humans, Krause’s extensive recordings show that though landscapes may not appear to change due to man, sonically they can be revealed to have changed dramatically as wildlife moves out. The British Library works with many University departments which monitor the implications of such urban spread. The damage is often irreversible.

National Sound Archive

Kuau’i O’o A’a, Moho braccatus is just one example of a species whose voice has been removed from the global soundscape. Cheryl explains:

The library has in its collection a poignant recording of the last individual of this species calling for his mate who, unbeknown to him, had perished in a hurricane that ravaged the island. His song was heard for the last time in 1985 and [the species] was declared extinct in 2000. There are many more: hundreds, probably thousands of species have suffered a similar fate. Even though they can no longer be heard in the natural world, some of these, such as our songbird from Kuau’i, [can] live on through recorded media.”

Heartbreakingly, a few blurry photos and a few minutes of sound is all that remains of this once living, breathing animal.

Exhibitions

We understand the world through all our senses, but what we see tends to dominate. Museums and exhibition spaces are starting to understand this and use sound to animate their exhibits to create a more enveloping experience, as Cheryl explains:

“The power of sound is so evocative, and recordings enable us to retain some aspect of an extinct creature. Seeing a bird stuffed in a case in a museum with a small name tag is a very flat experience, just adding the bird song to the exhibit can make a world of difference and temporarily resurrect a species, even if it’s only for the duration of the recording.”

National Sound Archive

There are two embedded artist’s residencies available in the archive. World and Traditional Music Curator Andrea Zarza explains how these contribute to the library’s ongoing conservation work:

“It’s important that preservation should be as much about engaging people and sharing sounds with them as it is protecting the recordings. It’s a powerful message; if we can get people to listen, we can then take them on amazing journeys: a sound recorded in a forest in Uganda can come to London, be woven into music by a composer from Berlin and released in Holland – that evolution is fascinating and has endless possibilities. There is huge creative potential in archival sound that we’re starting to explore.”

Listening habits

We often rely so heavily on our sight that we forget to really listen. Working within the National Sound Archive has allowed Cheryl to immerse herself in sounds and hear what they reveal:

“One of the reasons I wanted to work here was to educate myself sonically. When I first started I wanted to hear everything that had ever been recorded! Spending the past 10 years or so in the sound archive has definitely changed the way I listen; I’m much more aware of the sounds around me now

National Sound Archive

I wasn’t really interested in sound growing up. I couldn’t identify birds or anything; I learnt everything I know from this job and I’ve found that I’m now rediscovering places. If I go back to somewhere I’m familiar with visually, I rediscover it sonically. I can identify species, and not just what they are, but what they are doing by their vocalisations.”

This extraordinary repository of sound recordings, and the few others like it, act as final protectors of lost or fast disappearing sounds, and are crucial to preserving memories of our biophonic past.

Find out more about the National Sound Archive
@cheryltipp
Photography: Paul Heartfield

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