Sound recordings help us to understand the world around us. They document the UK’s creative endeavours, preserve key moments in history, capture personal memories, and give a sense of local and regional identity.
The UK’s sound collections are, however, under threat. Many sound recording formats, from wax cylinders to Minidiscs, rely on equipment no longer manufactured or supported by today’s technology industries. Other formats, such as lacquer discs, are fast degrading to the point of irreparability. Professional consensus is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save many of our sound collections before they become unreadable and are effectively lost.
The Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project
‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ (UOSH) is a UK-wide project that will help save the nation’s sounds and open them up to everyone.
The project runs from 2017-2021 and is a partnership project led by the British Library, that involves ten regional hubs across the UK. The project aims to preserve and provide access to as much as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings. It has been funded by a £9.3 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, as well as funding from charities and individuals including the Foyle and Garfield Weston Foundations.
The East of England Hub for the project is based at the Norfolk Record Office and is responsible for Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex.
Over the course of the project the East of England hub will be digitising over 5000 physical items (Tapes, Cassettes, CDs etc.) from across the seven counties. There is a vast array of different types of collections within this shortlist of items including oral history recordings from across the counties, nature and animal soundscapes, Folk music, local news and even some penguin noises from the Antarctic.
The content is provided by the East of England’s archives, museums and libraries as well as from individuals from across the region, who will receive the original items back after digitisation and receive a high quality digital copy of their sounds.
These sound collections face a real and immediate threat from the degradation of physical media and declining support for older audio formats from today’s technology industries.
The first step of the project is to mitigate this threat, so we will migrate these recorded sounds from so-called ‘legacy’ media to stable digital files. Put simply, we will create a digital copy of each item, in the highest quality format possible so we have a secure format that will be around for future generations to enjoy. This is done in-house at the Norfolk Record Office by our full time Sound Engineer.
The next step is making these sounds more accessible. Often the content of an item is very poorly understood or sometimes a complete mystery. With the aid of our fantastic volunteers we listen to and catalogue the information contained on each recording such as:
• Speaker names
• When and where it was recorded
• Topics discussed.
Once this information has been stored and uploaded to the British Library it will allow the public to discover these fantastic recordings for themselves.
Audio recording: ‘Norfolk Beer’ by an unnamed male.
The British Library will archive the digital sound files and provide access to a proportion of them online; the rest will available to listen to locally. We’ll be creating a sustainable centre of excellence in digital audio preservation here at Norfolk Record Office, recruiting volunteers and involving new audiences in engaging with their audio heritage in innovative ways. We will also be sharing updates from the project team and volunteers, including voices from the archives, project updates and advice on caring for your own sound archives through the Norfolk Record Office blog.
Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.