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Saving our Sounds

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Have you ever wondered what happens to old audio formats? As technology moves forward and changes how we experience our lives spare a thought to technology of yesteryear. I have been lucky to visit the Sound Archives at the British Library and had the pleasure of listening to old radio broadcasts. It was as if I were there living in the memories of another time and place. There are old radio catalogues and equipment dotted around the place as well as the odd royal speech. Set up in 1955 the archive today boasts about 60 thousand hours of audio.

Delving into the audio past is such a privilege especially as the sound archives are working hard to keep all audio alive for future generations. In a labyrinthine palace, racks filled with white jackets, inside them the hidden treasures from Radio 1. Over there, turning to another shelf, every news script from the BBC. We pulled out an archive and were read an extract of the news a month before the declaration of World War 2. Chilling yet compelling reading of the transcripts of seemingly innocuous everyday news bulletins.

As we wondered around the shelves, racks and racks of tapes, we were overwhelmed by the size of the collection. Most are on ¼ inch tape as well as BETA Max. The BBC transcripts were originally on hard copy and then began to be put onto microfilm. We padded through the bright white corridors mostly in silence until we couldn’t contain our excitement and effervescently babbled away. Where, what, who, when and how – we wanted to know, everything. We trailed underneath an automated book system that looked like it had come from Heathrow’s terminal 5. Instead of suitcases, books and journals, clattered around our heads rising from the depths to the reading rooms. We delved further into the archives beneath. What would we find and how have they ended up here?

The early BBC Radio content is contained on acetates and also pressed shellac discs. Down in the sound strong rooms are a lot of audio down there is stored on VHS. By a lot I mean corridors, rooms, floor to ceiling shelves, crates, boxes and enough box sets to keep you busy until….well a rather long time! The VHS tapes all standing to attention patiently waiting to be taken out and played. Anyone else have to scramble to change over the tape while recording?! Thought so! A whole project is underway to get this all digitised, a daunting task but one much needed. Especially since old technology is rapidly giving way to the new. However we walked past many an old technology tape deck. The corridors are littered with machines, patiently awaiting their turn, like a long lost friend, to be turned on again, to hum away happily.

As we walked down on aisle we found all the entries and audio as well as the entry forms for the Sony Awards from season 2 onwards. And close by The famed AWE Perkins collection. A Vicar whose hobby was to record on a fenograph any and all random audio that he took a fancy to from about 1950/51.

While tape seemed to have weathered many a storm, many rather well, the acetates are crumbling and cracking steadily. The lacquer is shrinking, pulling the tape away from itself, a confetti of brown in tins. What broadcast beauties would be lost? We may never know!

What has survived rather well and also stored away neatly are the original metal discs. Heavy plates of solid stuff surviving through decades. A couple of those would need a trolley to wheel them out with! One is held up, almost like an Olympian with a winning discus. It is, the first every original broadcast copy. An amazing sight, the Kings Speech, solid and sturdy. A blast from the past.

The team that work on maintaining this audio history are working on Save Our Sounds. The aim is to catalogue and digitise culturally interesting audio material. A gargantuan task and if you have any old audio please get in touch with the Sound Archive team at the British Library. They would welcome your audio.