Sound and vision blog

11 posts categorized "Books"

13 November 2017

Recording of the week: Ancient Evenings

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This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

It is now 10 years since the death of Norman Mailer, one of the best-known and most widely read US authors of the post-war period. This week's recording features Mailer in discussion with Melvyn Bragg at the ICA. London, in 1983. Mailer's epic novel of ancient Egypt, Ancient Evenings, had been published just a few days previously. Mailer discourses on the 'class system' of Ancient Egypt, among related subjects. It didn't pay to be poor in those days either, apparently.

Norman Mailer and Melvyn Bragg in conversation (C95/55)


This recording comes from a substantial collection of talks and discussions held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London between 1982-1993. 

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

20 June 2017

A conversation: celebrating the donation of the Hay Festival archive

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To celebrate their anniversary the Hay Festival, led by Director Peter Florence, has generously donated the archive of some 5000 audio recordings, 2000 video recordings, and many folders of correspondence. Here, Head of Contemporary British Collections Richard Price reflects on the Festival and its archive.


Thirty years ago, the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts began life as a conversation round a kitchen table. Actors Norman Florence and Rhoda Lewis were talking with their 23-year old son, Peter Florence, about the possibilities of live literature, of the extra life books can have when their authors are discussing them with a live audience. Was there room in the literary calendar for a new literature festival? They thought probably yes, and they thought right: thirty years later, from its modest beginnings in improvised spaces in the Welsh borders town of Hay-on-Wye, the Hay Festival is now one of the largest literary festivals in the UK.

You can go too far with the word ‘conversation’ – it has become a cliché of cultural criticism that a book is ‘in conversation’ with another earlier book, this painting ‘in dialogue’ with another. And is a reader really ‘in conversation’ with the book they are reading? -- this to my mind just slightly misrenders that mysterious relationship between a reader and literature.  Even interactive apps can’t really have a dialogue with their users, and a traditional book can’t really, either.  But that is one of the glories of a reader’s relationship with a book: the conversation is all in the reader’s head. One of the joys of reading is the peaceful stimulation of internal ‘voices’ which reading entails.

A festival is more clearly a two-way conversation -- or a series of ones . It is a gathering to share word and thought and enthusiasm, and to pass all that literate energy on, to learn through interchange (yes, authors do learn from their audiences – it’s not a one-way transaction); to inspire.  A festival is one of the few places where author and audience can actually meet and talk about the ideas a writer has dwelt with for many years, labouring to create their book. Members of the public will relish that opportunity (and the opportunity to meet other readers) but for many writers it is also a time when they can step out of their normal solitude and see at first hand the effect their writing has had on other people.

Over the years, the Festival has played host to almost every UK writer or public intellectual with a significant public profile. Writers featured in the archive are far too numerous to name but include Maya Angelou, Orhan Pamuk, Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Karl Ove Knausgård, Dave Eggers, Ben Okri, George Szirtes, Germaine Greer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Carlos Fuentes, Laurent Binet, Ruth Rendell, Arnold Wesker, Margaret Atwood, Susan Sontag, Paul Muldoon, Doris Lessing, Edna O'Brien, Jackie Collins … and the list goes on.  Artists and musicians include Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, Billy Bragg, Grayson Perry, and Gilbert & George.

The Library holds many discrete collections of audio recordings of public and literary talks. These include talks recorded at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), the writers' organization PEN International, and the Royal Society of Literature. The Hay Festival collection, however, greatly exceeds in scale all of these collections put together.

Clearly, Hay is a major player in the literary part of the creative economy. Although the archive is bound to be used for the light it sheds on individual authors – and hundreds of authors have appeared at Hay - it is also likely to be a source for understanding how festivals can generate success and sales.

Researchers at the British Library will find the Hay archive a rich source in that regard, and they will also be able to use our other resources alongside the archive to get a fuller understanding of literary production. Fiction or poetry captured in a book has already been through all kinds of dialogue before it reaches the printed page. The writer’s real-life conversations with friends, family, other writers, his or her editor, mentors, school days teachers, new teachers, colleagues and even strangers past and present, all will have affected the production of a short story or a novel or a poem.

The Library’s Author’s Lives oral history programme (in partnership with National Life Stories) tries to capture the hidden life of the writer and their work. We interview acclaimed writers at length – the interviews take place over several days – taking them back through their lives in a way that can sharply elucidate the work they would later produce. In our contemporary manuscripts collections we acquire authors’ notebooks, diaries and letters to, again, build a richer picture of the writer and their world.

And then finally there it is: the finished published work, going out multiply to readers of all kinds. Our Legal Deposit collection of UK and Irish books, in which a copy of almost everything published in these territories is held at the British Library, helps preserve the immense creativity of these islands as represented in those literary traditions.

The Hay Festival archive will complement these collections by focussing on the continuing life of the book after its physical entity – Hay is about readings of the work itself and discussions of the feelings and ideas literature and other works conjure. The Hay archive bears witness to authors who have shaped the literary landscape of recent times – Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, James Kelman, and Beryl Bainbridge, to name just a few. Politics and science are also part of the Hay worldview, and so Jimmy Carter, Mary Warnock, Germaine Greer and Mo Mowlam are there – all figures who in their various ways are fundamental to an understanding of modern times, and, no doubt, to the continuing conversations of future generations.

06 May 2016

The Audio and Audio-Visual Academic Book of the Future - A Symposium

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In 2015 the British Library Sound Archive began working in collaboration with Academic Book of the Future to ascertain the current landscape of research utilising audio and audio-visual content. Forty-two researchers responded to our audio-visual academic book survey (you can see that initial call out here.) Logo

From the respondents it’s been interesting to note that most researchers only utilise audio in a transcribed or written format. Thirty-eight of the researchers that completed our survey (90% of respondents) transcribed the audio that they were using. This is a colossal amount of work in some cases, and perhaps highlights some of the issues raised in Raphael Samuel’s seminal essay ‘Perils of the Transcript’* from 1972. In ‘Perils of the Transcript’, Samuel explored issues that arise when oral history interviews are transcribed and how meaning and emotion become subverted by the need to make the oral testimony readable - namely the use of punctuation. In what way can digital technologies help the researcher (from all disciplines of audio visual research) escape this peril which Samuels articulated 44 years ago? How does publishing need to evolve to best serve the audio visual researcher both now and in the future? Are we ready to give up the beloved CD, DVD or cassette?


As the technological landscape of the world changes, the ability to access and play analogue sound carriers becomes increasingly limited. It is important to also consider the rate of decay for websites and digital links which is astoundingly high and not up to short-term (let alone long-term) archival preservation. From the initial survey work that has been done for the Save Our Sounds project, the main preservation concern for our audio collections is not that the recordings themselves are at immediate risk of disappearing, but the obsolescence of the playback equipment and digital operating platforms.

A symposium has been arranged on 23rd May 2016 to discuss the findings of the survey and hear presentations by publishing houses, app developers, and researchers. The symposium will be a forum to discuss the potential of the audio and audio-visual academic book of the future and ways of working together to fully explore that potential. 

Book to attend the Symposium here.

Find out more about Save our Sounds here, follow @SoundHeritage for live updates from our digitisation studio, @SoundArchive for tweets from the sound team, and use #SaveOurSounds to join the conversation on Twitter.

The symposium is generously supported by the British Library Labs project –

* Samuel, Raphael. Perils of the Transcript. Oral History. Vol. 1, No. 2 (1972), pp. 19-22

Steven Dryden - Sound & Vision Reference Specialist

11 December 2015

Audio-Visual Resources and The Academic Book of the Future

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In early 2015 I was fortunate enough to catch Bex Lyons giving a presentation on The Academic Book of the Future. This is a research project sponsored by the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and delivered by a research team led by Dr Samantha Rayner at UCL. The project seeks to explore the future of academic books in the context of open access publishing and digital change.


Aside from the fascinating debates about what constitutes ‘academic’, what constitutes a ‘book’, and what an ‘academic book’ might be in the current research landscape – I was struck by the potential applications of the project to the collection I am vested in at The British Library: sound.

The British Library sound archive is an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the early 19th century. If you were to listen to our entire collection back to back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or breaks, it would take you over 140 years – plus the collection is growing daily! It is a unique research resource, comparable only to the Library of Congress sound collections in the USA. Find out more about our collection here 

Sound recordings are the closest thing to time travel that we have as a research tool. Take for instance this audio clip of JRR Tolkien visiting a tobacco shop. We are instantly transported to 1929 when the recording was made, and it is easy to feel that you are being addressed directly. The time that has passed between then and now seems to vanish. (image:

The Save Our Sounds project

Professional reel-to-reel player being maintainedMany of the British Library’s recordings are under threat of disappearing as technologies change and some formats begin to naturally decay, and in response to this challenge the Library has launched a major campaign to digitise our historic sound collections.

As well as enabling us to future-proof our collections, the Save Our Sounds campaign is a unique opportunity for us to take stock of our role as audio heritage archivists, cataloguers, librarians, and collectors. Part of this includes considering access and the ways in which our collections are used by researchers. It is here, at the crossroads of research and engagement, that linking up with The Academic Book of the Future project becomes very exciting.

At the moment, if an ‘academic text’ includes audio or visual resources these tend to be included as DVDs, CDs, and perhaps even CD-ROMs (yes, they are still floating around out there!). As the technological landscape of the world changes, the ability to access and play CDs, DVDs and most definitely CD-ROMs will become increasingly limited. From the initial survey work that has been done for the Save Our Sounds project, the main preservation concern is not that the recordings themselves are at risk of disappearing, but the obsolescence of the playback equipment.

So, how will audio-visual resources be included in academic books of the future?

In current and emerging contexts in which content is increasingly digitised and media-rich, how will the ability to incorporate audio-visual research directly into research outputs change the way in which these outputs are created, accessed, and referenced?

We hope that working with The Academic Book of the Future project to address some of these questions will offer important insights into how researchers are using sound and moving image resources, and highlight common issues and concerns across disciplines.

If you are or have used sound and/or audio-visual materials for research do please complete our short survey. The closing date is Friday 1st April.

A symposium has been arranged to discuss the findings of the survey & hear presentations by publishing houses, app developers, and researchers. The symposium will address and encourage discussing ways of working together to fully explore the potential of audio-visual components in the academic book of the future. Save the date – 23rd May 2016 at The British Library, London.

Find out more about Save our Sounds at, follow @SoundHeritage for live updates from our digitisation studio, @SoundArchive for tweets from the sound team, and use #SaveOurSounds to join the conversation on Twitter.

Steven Dryden - Sound & Vision Reference Specialist 

10 November 2015

Celebrating 80 years of talking books

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80-years-of-talking books

The gathering of famous literary characters pictured above - I think that's Hercule Poirot at the back there - took place at the British Library on 5 November. It was organized by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to highlight the 80th anniversary of the Talking Books service for people who are blind or partially sighted.  

The RNIB's Talking Books service provides 4,000 audio books every single day to people with sight loss.

In celebration of its 80th anniversary, the service will be provided entirely free for all blind and partially sighted people, starting today.  

The first talking books were issued on 24-rpm discs with Braille labels, under the series title 'Talking Books for the Blind'. 

The British Library holds a collection of around 200 or so of these. They were donated by the RNIB in 2009, long after the format had been discontinued.

The content ranges from Bible stories to classics like The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot and thrillers such as The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.

However many of the sets are incomplete and many titles are not represented at all, including the very first: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Library is keen to expand the collection should the opportunity arise. If you have any of these discs please do get in touch.

And if you would like to know more about the history of talking books I can recommend this 2013 blog post by Matt Rubery: The First Audiobook.

11 June 2014

Inspired by Flickr: Jez riley French

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Geology is at the heart of our latest Inspired by Flickr contribution. Out of more than 1 million images, field recordist and artist Jez riley French was drawn to a simple line drawing of a piece of chalk, found amongst the pages of the 1883 publication 'The History of a Lump of Chalk, etc' by Alexander Watt F.R.S.A.

I’ve long been fascinated by the musicality of non conventionally ‘musical’ forms: photographic images, the sound of places, objects and species, architecture and, of course, language. I often read, for example, certain poetry for the internal music the words create, often slipping adrift from their literal meaning. So, how could I ignore ‘The History of a Lump of Chalk’ by Alexander Watt - coming across its illustrations whilst browsing the British Library’s Flickr pages, especially as i’ve recently been gathering material, new and from my archives, for a series of pieces entitled ‘dissolves’ and including several recordings of chalk and various minerals in flux.

For me focusing on what is at first an overlooked detail of a locale can always offer up a rich and vast supply of information, inspiration and experience (visual and sonorous). The illustration i’ve selected from the book also appears simple - an academic, technical rendering of a mineral, yet the clear use of line and space offers other possibilities. For me there is a strong analogy here with ‘field recording’ - it is possible to approach it from only a technical outlook / technique, and yet to do so is a kind of poverty - a lack of connection and an intuitive, emotive response. Put simply, listening is more that that, as also a lump of chalk is more than its human chemical categorisation, and a drawing of it can be the line, the ink, the texture and age of the paper - or in the case of a digital archive, the viewing of it is in the context of the time spent exploring and all that it brings.

The small lump of (coombe) chalk used on the accompanying recording was dissolved in east yorkshire. The entire recording is several hours in duration, with the sound eventually becoming thinner and thinner. The section here is from the first 10 minutes of the process.

After you’ve read this and listened to the recording I strongly advise you to download the pdf of Watt’s book - the layout of the cover is worth it alone: though be advised that reading through the pages (or just the glossary for that matter) one can be easily diverted

asparagus stone  |  babbingtonite  |  iceland spar  |  fluor spar  |  calc-tuff  |  puzzolene  |  chaonite  |  corn brash  |  oolite  |  greensand  |  marl  |  foraminifera

Words that seem as clear and at the same time as elusive as the materials they refer to. 


(coombe) chalk dissolve

A strong advocate of the importance of listening, French encourages an active participation with the recording. To do so reveals a wealth of subtle acoustic effects, otherwise hidden within the seemingly homogeneous sound of the chemical reaction.

As many readers will know, chalk dissolves when placed in certain solutions - for some of us this was first observed during science lessons at school. If only we’d been able to listen to the results as well as see them! At first what appears to be uniform - a chemical reaction, certain and measurable, is in fact an incredible chorus of variables. A slight shift in ones openness to the act of listening and one is transfixed, listening more closely, becoming more and more aware of the different sonic events - some returning and some barely audible just once.


Using intuitive composition, field recording, improvisation and photography, Jez riley French has been exploring his enjoyment of detail, simplicity and his emotive response to places and situations for the past 3 decades. Alongside solo performances and exhibitions he collaborates with other artists, runs the ‘in place’ project on field recording – a subject on which he also lectures, organizes the ‘seeds & bridges’ event series and runs the ‘engraved glass’ label.
In recent years Jez has been working extensively on recordings of surfaces and architectural spaces, some results of which make up the ‘ silence’ project and has also been developing the concept of photographic scores.
His work has been performed, exhibited & published widely, including in France, Austria, Japan, Korea, the Czech Republic, UK and Belgium.

20 May 2014

Sonic migrations: natural sounds on the international exhibition scene

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The British Library is home to one of the largest and most important collections of wildlife and environmental sounds in the world. Coming in at over 160,000 recordings that cover all animal groups and biogeographical regions, the archive has served the needs of researchers for more than 40 years, both at home and further afield.

The collection is more than just a source of data for academics though. For curators and exhibition teams it has been, and continues to be, an Aladdin's cave of audio treasures that have the ability to
breathe life into inanimate objects and enhance the visitor experience.

A variety of chirps, clicks, hums and whistles can currently be heard around the upper ground floor of the British Library, as visitors to the Beautiful Science exhibition explore the voices of 100 species, from birds to amphibians,that have been specially added to the OneZoom Tree of
Life installation.


Bottlenose Dolphin recorded by Dr Oliver Boisseau

Song Thrush recorded by Richard Savage

On the other side of London, at South Kensington's Victoria and Albert Museum, birdsong from the collection weaves its way around the artefacts on display in the museum's current exhibition William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain. The quintessential sounds of the British countryside merge with music from the time to create a multilayered atmosphere that is part natural, part human. Moving along to Richmond, an Amazonian rainforest soundscape, recorded and created by Richard Ranft, will soon take up residency in the Palm House of Kew Gardens, a few months after it featured as the soundtrack to their annual Orchid Festival.

Extract from Rainforest Requiem

The use of recordings from the collection is not restricted to the UK alone either. Across the pond, in a new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, a range of wildlife and environmental sounds from our collection are being used to complement the books, drawings and prints on display. 'Of Green Leaf, Bird & Flower: artists' books and the natural world' examines the intersections of artistic and scientific interest in the natural world from the sixteenth century to the present day and provided Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, with the perfect opportunity to source audio content from the British Library:

"The bird sounds and environmental recordings of the British countryside have enhanced our visitor’s experience of the exhibition beyond all expectations.  They are being asked to curate their own experience, choosing the tracks on the ipod based on their interest in particular birds or sounds.  We illustrated each track with a picture of the work in the exhibition so visitors can then go find the drawing or print as a bit of a treasure hunt.  Visitors seem thrilled by the opportunity." 

European robin_ba-orb-11411486-0015-pub
James Bolton, European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) with Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.), from the natural history cabinet of Anna Blackburne, ca. 1768, watercolor and gouache over graphite on parchment. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, in honor of Jane and Richard C. Levin, President of Yale University (1993–2013)

Robin recorded by Alan Burbidge

In 2012, a number of bird songs were featured in the exhibition 'Between Heaven & Earth: birds in ancient Egypt' at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago while a few years earlier, a selection of avian recordings were set alongside exhibits at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Our sounds have helped visitors at the Science Museum of Minnesota examine the biological roots of music and have formed part of a travelling exhibition against animal cruelty in Syria.

In addition to natural sounds, the collection also contains a range of mechanical field recordings, from steam trains to watermills. Last year a few of our railway recordings helped bring to life the long silent engines on display at the National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone.

"This is really going to bring history alive for a lot of people who have never seen - let alone
heard - a train move before" Tim Dunn, Marketing Communications Officer, National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone

Steam age railway station

The evocative nature of sound lends itself extremely well to exhibitions dominated by paper-based artefacts. More than just an embellishment, sound offers a new level of stimulation and exploration for visitors, inviting them to interact with the exhibition environment on more than just a visual level.

Providing recordings for inclusion in external exhibitions helps us fulfil our commitment to move beyond these four walls and share our wonderful collections with listeners all over the world. Public
engagement is at the heart of what we do and the knowledge that our sounds may help educate, inspire or simply bring enjoyment to visitors is something we feel very proud of.

10 June 2013

Sound, Listening and the Art of Field Recording

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There has been a flurry of new books in recent months that deal with the interlocking subjects of sound, listening and field recording. The first to emerge was In the Field: the art of field recording (Uniform Books), edited by CRiSAP Directors Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle and launched during the In the Field symposium held at the British Library in February.


This anthology brings together an impressive collection of interviews with practising field recordists with diverse interests, methodologies and experiences. From Annea Lockwood's fascination with rivers to Ian Rawes' work in documenting the sounds of London, these conversations give insight into the working lives of some of the most respected figures in the field recording community. Other interviewees include Gruenrekorder co-founder Lasse-Marc Riek, Japanese sound artist Hiroki Sasajima,Vancouver Soundscape Project member Hildegard Westerkamp, British field recordist Jez riley French, anthroplogist and ethnomusicologist Steven Feld and Berlin-based recordist Peter Cusack.

Next came David Hendy's Noise: a Human History of Sound & Listening (Profile Books), written to accompany the 30 part BBC Radio 4 series of the same name. From prehistoric times to the present day, Noise explores the role of sound and listening in the history of Human culture over the past 100,000 years.

Noise a human history

Noise begins with the acoustic characteristics of caves used by our prehistoric ancestors and concludes with modern day methods used to retreat from the noise and bustle of contemporary life.  Music, speech, echoes, chanting, drumbeats, bells, gunfire, laughter, birdsong, machinery, water and much more are covered in the book and were the foundations of the series that was developed in collaboration with the British Library's Sound Archive.

Finally, Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age (Polity Books) by Dr Kate Lacey from the University of Sussex was published in May and explores the practices, politics and ethics of public listening. Michele Hilmes from the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote of Listening Publics:

'At once subtle and stunning, Kate Lacey's exploration of the history and concept of listening as a distinct cultural practice adds immeasurably to both the field of sound studies and our understanding of the role played by mediated communication in modern history. This careful delineation of aural practices shows how central the act of listening has been in the formation of social structures and ways of understanding the world around us.'
















Upcoming releases to look out for include The Memory of Sound: preserving our sonic past by Professor Seán Street and the anthology On Listening which explores the many ways in which skilled listening can mediate new relationships with our physical environment and those that we share it with.