Huge funding boost for ‘Save Our Sounds’ campaign

The British Library has received earmarked funding for a £9.5m bid from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to help save the UK’s sound archive of over 6.5 million recordings and open it up online for the public to hear.

The cash injection, which includes a £215,900 development fund, will enable the British Library to digitise and make available half a million rare, unique and under-threat sound recordings from its own archive and other key collections around the country over five years, starting in 2017.

The support from the HLF comes after the British Library launched its ‘Save Our Sounds’ campaign earlier this year. Sound archivists estimate that there are just 15 years left to digitise historic sound recordings before the equipment required to play them becomes unusable, and formats such as wax cylinders and acetate discs start to naturally decay.

The £9.5 million will enable the British Library to:

• Digitise and publish online up to 500,000 rare and unique sounds from the Library’s own collections and those around the UK which are most at risk, including local dialects and accents, oral histories and previously unheard musical performances and plays, as well as vanishing wildlife sounds

• Work with partner institutions to develop a national preservation network via ten regional centres of archival excellence, which will digitise, preserve and share the unique audio heritage found in their local area

• Run a major outreach programme to schools and communities to celebrate the UK’s sound heritage, and raise awareness of the presence of these archives

According to a recent directory of the UK’s sound collections gathered by the Library, there are over one million sound carriers on various formats which risk being lost unless they are digitally preserved in the next 15 years.

These sounds range from underwater recordings of killer whales made in the waters surrounding Shetland to a collection of sounds held in the Canterbury Cathedral archives spanning 50 years of services, choral and opera performances, many of which are thought to be unique.

“We are extremely grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for answering the urgent need to help preserve these precious recordings. Our recent Living Knowledge vision is clear about the scale of the challenge ahead, but today’s news is a fantastic vote of confidence in the project," said Roly Keating, chief executive of the British Library. "We look forward to working with our partners across the UK to unlock this important part of our shared heritage, making it available to everyone online for research, enjoyment and inspiration.”

Stuart Hobley, head of Heritage Lottery Fund London, added: “Historic recordings have a unique quality of bringing into the present the events, sounds and voices from our past. From regional dialects to the call of long extinct birds, Heritage Lottery Fund support will ensure that the most up-to-date digital expertise will be used to rescue some of the UK’s most vulnerable and rare sound recordings that would otherwise be lost to silence.”

Notable historic sounds held by the British Library include:

• Famous writers reading their own works, including Lord Alfred Tennyson, Sylvia Plath and James Joyce

• Radio broadcasts going back to the 1930s, including Radio Luxembourg and long-defunct pre-war stations such as Radio Lyons and Radio Normandie

• A recording which helped to save the bittern from extinction in the UK, as well as many other sounds of British wildlife, coastlines and nature

• A huge corpus of slang, dialects and accents recordings of every social class and regional area of the UK, from the 1950s Survey of English Dialects collection, to the BBC Voices archive containing the diverse voices of contemporary 21st century Britain

• Previously unheard musical performances and plays, including Laurence Olivier playing Coriolanus in 1959 and full recordings of theatre productions going back 40 years

• Life story interviews with people from all walks of life, from Kindertransport refugees to second wave feminists and people with a range of disabilities.

Photo credit: Clare Kendall