In this blog, Archivist Jane de Gruchy, explains how the British Library is helping to preserve the region’s sound archives.

Evocative but Fragile

How many of you still have a cassette player at home?  How about a minidisc player?  Does your computer have a CD drive?  And what would you do if you found an open-reel tape?

Sound recordings are one of the most evocative, but most fragile, items in our collections.  Unlike paper and parchment, they need specialised and increasingly rare equipment to make them accessible, and they do not age well.  Fortunately, the British Library is leading a national project, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, to digitise sound recordings before it’s too late.

Voices from Somerset and Devon

We have selected 600 of our most significant sound collections to be included in this project.  In Somerset, these include recordings about the Trade Unionist A. J. Cook (who spent his early years in Wookey) and our large and diverse Somerset Oral History collection.  In Devon, the collections are: Devon dialect recordings made in the 1970s by the Women’s Institute, the Winkleigh Oral History Archive, and recordings by and about Michael Chekhov from the Dartington Hall Trust Archive.  The original recordings are a mixture of open reel tapes, cassettes, CDs and minidiscs, each of which have their own challenges.  Some of them have not been heard for many years as we lack the right equipment to play them.

Magnetic Tapes and Casettes from Devon Archives

Magnetic tapes and casettes from Devon Archives

Made Available for Listening

These recordings are being professionally digitised and, where necessary, catalogued at Bristol Archives, which is the project ‘hub’ for South West England.  All of the digitised recordings will be preserved at the British Library and will be available to listen to in our searchrooms in Taunton, Barnstaple and Exeter.  Some of them will also be available online later this year, on a new website the British Library is building.  The digital files will be added to our digital preservation system to make sure that they will be safe for the future.

We hope to have the finished articles back before the autumn, and can’t wait to hear the newly-digitised recordings!

Find Out More

This huge national project is principally funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Library, with donations from other charities and individuals, including the Foyle and the Garfield Weston Foundations.  If you would like to know more, have a look at the British Library’s website or, if you use Twitter, follow the team at @BLSoundHeritage.  You can read about the work Bristol Archives is doing here.