A fascinating place, steeped in history and home to rare and unusual audio, the British Library’s sound archive is a real treat for lovers of sound. Recently, Lorraine Ansell – along with a small group of fellow Sound Women members – jumped at the chance to check out the vaults…
On a bright afternoon I crossed the sculpted maze-like entrance to the main reception of the British Library. This huge building housing words, sights and sounds was the setting for a special talk and tour of the sound archives.
We were welcomed by the very knowledgeable Radio Curator Paul Wilson with a great presentation about the history and sounds of the archives. From humble beginnings in Kensington to a huge operation at the library, the sound archive now lives mostly in NW1. The Sound Women nerd herd were eagerly listening to old radio broadcasts, sounds from the decades, playing out to us like distant memories. A piece of film showed us an all-female radio station broadcast in the nineties. We looked at the old radio catalogues wondering about what tapes had survived and who might have what hidden away somewhere.
Finally the time came for us to descend, via a labyrinthian route, to the archives. Paul was our very own Arachne thread and took us up and over, and over and under, until we arrived at our destination: the sound archives. Over here, 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. Paul read us an extract of the news a month before the declaration of World War 2. A seemingly innocuous everyday news bulletin which was chilling yet compelling given its broadcast date.
As we wandered around the shelves and racks of tapes, we were overwhelmed by the size of the collection. We padded through the bright white corridors mostly in silence until we could contain our excitement no longer and effervescently babbled away. Where, what, who, when and how – we wanted to know. 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? Paul told us that more and more old audio recordings are coming from impassioned enthusiasts. Hidden away in lofts, under beds and at the back of wardrobes is a plethora of UK recording history. A few sound producers on the tour mentioned they had a copy of this or that at home and would know of many more. I know myself that somewhere, maybe the attic, are copies of a Radio 1 broadcast with a shout out to friends in Brighton, which my friend Katie had organised. We would sit on the concrete slabs at Churchill Square listening again and again to the recording that we had taped off the radio and playing out her portable cassette player! Have you got anything at home stashed away? A copy of a live broadcast, a recording of Fem Radio (1992), a radio drama featuring a now important actor?! They don’t want every collection, but you just might have a piece of the radio history jigsaw the British Library are looking for.
Down in the sound strong rooms are a lot of audio 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. Does anyone else remember scrambling to change over the tape while recording?! Thought so! A whole project Save Our Sounds 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. We walked past many pieces of now obsolete audio playback devices.
While tape seemed to have weathered many a storm, the acetates in the libraries sound archive are crumbling and cracking steadily. The lacquer is shrinking, pulling the tape away from itself, a confetti of brown in tins. I wasn’t the only one that winced when Paul showed us a few riddled with the peeling lacquer.
What has survived rather well is an original brass pressing plate of the earliest surviving BBC radio recording, made at the opening of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium in 1924. It features a speech from the future King Edward VIII. Heavy plates of solid stuff surviving through decades. A couple of those would need a trolley to wheel them out with. Paul holds it up, almost like an Olympian with a winning discus. An amazing sight.
As we dragged ourselves away from an excellent tour from Radio Curator Paul Wilson, we were sad yet honoured. To see such a collection, to know that there is a whole place keeping our audio history alive for us and future generations is just brilliant. We could have all stayed another hour, or day and quite frankly moved in just to see what else we could listen to. A fantastic tour, a brilliant archivist and a great bunch of people and all thanks to Sound Women for arranging.
Now, could someone help me check in the attic, I’m sure I’ve got a few things stashed up there!?