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Unlocking London's sound heritage

Unlocking London’s Sound Heritage – a new project at LMA

Read about London Metropolitan Archives’ involvement in the British Library’s ‘Unlocking our Sound Heritage’ project. Our aims are to learn more about the sounds, music and voices recorded over the last 100 years of London’s history and inspire a new generation to engage with sound, while also understanding the importance of collecting and preserving sound archives. David Baldwin (Project Manager, London Hub) tells more.

The Sound(s) of London

On our daily commute we experience hundreds of different sounds - a fox shuffling among bins for food, a platform announcement, the arrival of a train, passengers chatting, milk being steamed by a barista, or the cautionary ring of a bicycle bell. Together they form a soundscape, and if we listen carefully these soundscapes can tell us useful information about ourselves and where we live. Furthermore, if we record this soundscape and preserve it for future audiences, we can then start to document its history and identify change around language or dialect, technology, environment, wildlife, and so much more.

But before we go out and record our soundscape, what do we know already about the history of London from historic sound recordings?

What we know about sound in the UK

In 2015, the Directory of UK Sound Collections was compiled by the British Library gathering information on 3,015 collections from 488 collection holders, containing nearly 2 million items. The survey identified a wealth of recorded cultural memory from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It also identified a considerable number of sound collections in London that document oral history, world music, urban noise and public debate during the twentieth century.

However, with many of the sound recordings held on analogue formats such as wax cylinder, vinyl, reel to reel, cassette and DAT tapes, the directory also highlighted the need to kickstart a programme of digitisation that would target collections at risk or under threat both from physical degradation and the disappearance of equipment on which to play them back.

Unlocking our Sound Heritage

Using a £9.5 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the British Library began a 5-year project in July 2017 titled Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH). Its aim? To digitally preserve half a million rare and at-risk sound recordings, to engage a wider audience with the value of sound heritage, and to establish a UK network of audio preservation centres.

To support its successful delivery ten regional hubs have now been set up across the UK that include London Metropolitan Archives, the National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives+ in Manchester, Norfolk Record Office, the National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, the National Library of Wales and Bristol Culture.

Here at LMA the UOSH project will run for three years (2018-2021), during which our team of four (Project Manager, Catalogue Editor, Audio Digitisation Officer and Rights Officer) will digitise and catalogue 5,000 sound recordings, clear the rights for a minimum of 500, and work with content supplied both from its local collections and the collections of different heritage organisations across the London region. To encourage learning and engagement with sound heritage, the project will also run a programme of events and workshops aimed at London-based schools, charities and local community groups. In addition, a team of volunteers will help enrich the existing catalogue, develop research around collections, support digitisation work and get involved in delivering our learning and engagement programme.

What have we achieved so far?

At the beginning of March 2019, the project had digitised and completed initial cataloguing work on over 500 tapes that include 600 different sound recordings of oral history, world music and different public events from 16 collections archived at LMA.

Following a successful recruitment day in February 2019, the project has attracted over 50 new volunteers who will each get involved in three main areas - cataloguing and research, audio digitisation, and learning and engagement. The team is a mix of oral historians, field recordists and former sound engineers as well as those who have had no experience working with sound or sound archives, and are here to learn, engage and be inspired.

On 23 February 2019 the project worked closely with FHALMA and Culture& to support the fourteenth annual Huntley Conference, ‘More than Words: 50 years of Bogle-L’Ouverture Publishing’. Sound recordings from the Huntley Archives were shared with delegates and volunteers collected memories of pioneering Guyanese-born publisher and activist, Jessica Huntley (1927- 2013).

How can you get involved?

To keep updated on how the project is developing, you can follow us on Twitter or Facebook via the main LMA channels or visit our blog London’s Sound Heritage.

Alternatively, please visit our webpage and discover more about our Learning and Engagement programme and Volunteer opportunities.

11 April 2019
Last Modified:
14 June 2019