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Just 15 years to ‘Save Our Sounds’, warns British Library

The BL seeks £40m to digitise its audio archive, which contains recordings dating from the birth of recorded sound

The British Library (BL), the national library of the United Kingdom, has launched a campaign to raise £40million (€52m) to digitise the UK’s sound archive of more than six million recordings.

The library says the UK Sound Archive, which contains recordings dating from the birth of recorded sound in the 19th century, is under threat from both obsolescence (as the equipment to play them becomes more difficult and expensive to repair and replace) and physical degradation. The archive is stored on over 40 formats, ranging from wax cylinders and reel-to-reel tape (pictured below right is a selection of ¼” tape dating from the ’80s) to audio cassettes and MiniDiscs.

Save Our Sounds’ goal is to “preserve as much as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings over the next 15 years” through digitisation, starting with the “rare or fragile sounds which are most at risk” – about two million, or a third of the collection. Archival consensus internationally is that by 2030 the majority of the UK Sound Archive’s collection will become unreadable.

Some of the archive’s irreplaceable sound recordings include Britain’s national collection of music, including samples of British jazz, skiffle, pop and classical music, radio studio sessions and pirate radio broadcasts; recordings of local accents and dialects used to monitor the evolution of the English language; life stories of first world war prisoners of war, scientists and second-wave feminist activists; and full recordings of theatre productions, including the opening night of Hamlet at The Old Vic, starring Peter O’Toole and directed by Laurence Olivier.

Also present are recordings of rare and extinct wildlife species, used by biologists and conservationists, and steam engines, factories, weather and other environmental soundscapes.

“We’re not just looking backwards: we want to preserve the future of the sound collections, too,” the BL explained in a statement. “Ninety-two per cent of the UK’s radio output, and 65 to 70 per cent of the its published music output, is not being fully archived. We will work with industry partners to streamline the way in which the library collects this material digitally, ensuring an effective and comprehensive sound archive for future generations.

“Once these sounds are digitised, they will be safe indefinitely. We have 15 years to save the nation’s sound collections.”

The library also plans to create a “national sound directory” by undertaking a UK-wide audit to map the condition of sound archives around the country and identify other threatened collections.