Digital scholarship blog

Enabling innovative research with British Library digital collections

16 December 2020

Faint Signals

Winter may be here, but a walk in the woods is a lovely experience at all times of the year. Here in Digital Scholarship we are also interested in how technology can be used to create explorable virtual natural environments, which we can enjoy from home, and a few months ago we took part in an event about virtual walks. Furthermore, lead by our culture team in Yorkshire, the Library recently commissioned the fantastic Invisible Flock to create a wonderful online interactive woodland called Faint Signals for Light Night Leeds, an annual free multi-arts and light festival.

It is very pleasing to see this work recognised in the 2020 BL Labs Awards, where it is runner up in the artistic category. These awards were announced at the BL Labs Symposium yesterday, but if you missed the livestream you can watch a recording here. Congratulations Invisible Flock and all the other winners and runners up.

Group photograph of six people and a dog
The Invisible Flock team, who created Faint Signals

Please do explore Faint Signals, it is an interactive website, where you can wander through the woodland as it changes through all four seasons, and evolves from day to night. Each tile you move across unlocks narrative and data on the landscape, all of which are based on real life environments, with wildlife, weather and other nature sounds reflecting the diversity and complexity of ecosystems in the Yorkshire region. A rich variety of sounds can be unlocked by discovering particles of light lingering in the forest. It works best in browsers such as Firefox and Chrome, but is not currently optimised for mobile devices, please also note that it contains flashing images. 

Over 300 wildlife and environmental recordings from the Library’s sound archive were used to create the audio element of the experience. All were handpicked and selected with both geography and habitat in mind - though Faint Signals invites the user to explore an imaginary Yorkshire woodland, we wanted to ensure that all species featured in the piece could actually be encountered either in or around the edges of a real live Yorkshire wood. A more relaxed approach was taken when choosing environmental components such as weather and water, however even here the sounds of background species were taken into account. Creating an engaging yet authentic digital experience was incredibly important and this was achieved in part thanks to the sheer breadth of audio content available.

To give you a bit of a taster, here are just a few of the recordings that are included in Faint Signals:

Blackcap song recorded in Shropshire England on 20 May 1977 by Richard Margoschis (WS5551 C1)

Song Thrush song recorded in Dyfed Wales on 29 October 1992 by Richard Margoschis (WS6075 C5)

Small stream on rocks recorded in Dyfed Wales on 7 May 1994 by Phil Riddett (W1CDR0000258 BD3)

Virtually all of the recordings had been digitised as part of the Library’s Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. Now in its fourth year, this UK-wide project aims to digitally preserve and provide public access to some of the nation’s most unique and at risk sound recordings. Thousands of wildlife recordings from all over the world have been digitised so far and you can keep up-to-date with the project’s progress by following @BLSoundHeritage.

This post is by Digital Curator Stella Wisdom (@miss_wisdom) and Wildlife and Environmental Sounds Curator, Cheryl Tipp (@CherylTipp).