THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

10 posts categorized "Digital archives"

08 April 2020

Born-digital Literary Archives — How We’re Capturing the Future

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary and Creative Archives. For more information about the challenges and opportunities posed by born-digital material elsewhere in the Library, see the Digital Scholarship Blog and the extensive work of the Library's Digital Preservation Department.

I. Capturing a Moving Target

If you’re adjusting to working from home, look around your working area: maybe you have a home office or you’ve repurposed the dining table, or you're out in the garden. Did anyone in your team — when making the move — scramble to transport the filing cabinets or stacks of unsorted paper that had accumulated on their desks to their new workspace? If not, this is sufficient evidence that the way a lot of us work has radically changed; a platitude that doesn’t get less true with repetition. Your computer (and, more often than not, the network) has at least partially relegated or replaced the paper in your professional life with ‘Digital Objects’ — a useful but deceptively complex archival term — defined by the Society of American Archivists as, “a unit of information that includes properties (attributes or characteristics of the object) and may also include methods (means of performing operations on the object)”. If the word ‘object’ seems ontologically insufficient to carry such a definition, with its emphasis on process, relationship, and contingency, then this is part of the problem we’re facing. (Archivists — and traditional archival methodologies — have a clear (and often justified) tendency to fetishise permanence and fixity). 

This shift towards the ‘digital’ is no less dramatic in the personal archives of the novelists, poets and playwrights collected by the Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts department at the Library, whose historical remit (c.1950-) traces the rapidly evolving landscape of personal computing in the latter half of the twentieth century and the explosion of the internet and social media, which is by no means complete, in the twenty-first. This shifting landscape means that, more often than not, we collect ‘hybrid’ archives comprised of traditional paper material and — depending on the donor’s enthusiasm for new forms of technology — a variety of digital formats, including floppy-disks, CD-ROMs, spinning hard-drives, USB sticks, and even laptop computers. Creative writers are, much more-so than institutions, academics and scientists, given to superstition and mysticism regarding the tools of their trade. Most are methodologically conservative and eager to link their ability to produce work to their idiosyncratic habits and tools. (On this blog, Chris Beckett’s discussion of Will Self’s use of post-it notes and typewriters in one of our most significant hybrid archives is an excellent case-study of how complex these interrelationships can become).

 

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A double-sided Amsoft branded Compact floppy disk from the Archive of poet Wendy Cope, dated 1989.

What becomes apparent when attempting to capture, preserve, arrange and fix these ‘Digital Objects’ is that an undeniable materiality — often partially erased by the term ‘digital’ — is fundamental to their structure. The history of computing is a history of design miracles, both technical and aesthetic. Recovering a long-forgotten Word Perfect file from an Amstrad Floppy Disk is an archeological task, demanding attention to the structure and format of the data, its physical housing, and the software-codex able to make sense of it. Like a dig, it requires sensitive excavation equipment capable of moving the object without altering or destroying it. Similarly, capturing a hard-drive demands knowledge of how it reads, writes and stores data mechanically in order that when we act upon it we capture everything (including, interestingly, apparently empty space) and disturb as little as possible. (In a strange turn, archivists have learned to use software and hardware first developed by law-enforcement for these and other tasks).

 

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A Kryoflux machine reads a 3.5” floppy disk using magnetic resonance technology to achieve a complete capture where possible, often helping us to recover partially-corrupted legacy data.

II. Representing exchange

Next to draft material, correspondence is another major component of the traditional literary archive. The movement from paper to digital has been just as pronounced in this area too, with e-mail becoming the dominant mode of communication for the vast majority of our donors. Unsurprisingly, the collection of e-mail archives presents its own challenges, both technical and curatorial. In much the same way that a letter might come to us within an envelope, an e-mail message is held within a machine-readable envelope — from which it is possible to glean similar kinds of data about sender, receiver, the path which the messaged travelled through on its journey from one to the other. All of this data must be preserved in order to retain the integrity of the archival collection, but much of it must also be withheld from public access for a significant period of time in order to comply with legal restrictions relating to the use of personal data.

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A side by side metadata comparison of a letter and an e-mail. The envelope sent by Samuel Beckett to B.S. Johnson contains critical metadata about dates and receiver, as well as about the French post-offices through which the letter travelled before reaching Johnson. The e-mail metadata contains much of the same information (highlighted) in a machine-readable format.

As well as these technical challenges, the preservation and access provision for e-mail archives must take into account its threaded nature  — its a conversation and so is not particularly amenable to the archival logic of ‘deliverable units' which guides our approach to paper manuscripts. Additionally, any robust archival process must consider e-mail's increased tendency to include rich media; including attachments such as word-processing files, images and sometimes even audiovisual material. The scale of the challenge for collecting institutions is huge. The largest e-mail archive held at the Library, (of the poet Wendy Cope, comprised of around 25,000 individual messages) contains everything from family correspondence, professional booking requests, draft revisions and shopping lists. Making sure that this material complies with data protection regulation in the UK before it is released is obviously a considerable task. Fortunately, software tools like ePadd, an e-mail archiving tool developed at Stanford University, exist to alleviate some of the issues; allowing us to filter and process messages more efficiently through the implementation of a tool-assisted approach.

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ePadd’s user friendly interface allows curators to filter messages by correspondent, attachment and assign user-generated labels.


III. Managing Scale

Scale is a double-edged for born-digital literary archives. The growing size of these collections undoubtedly renders some established archival cataloguing techniques inadequate. Equally, as the the kinds of media stored on consumer-level storage devices become more complex, traditional techniques for information organisation and control become either too labour intensive or impossible to adapt to this new context. Nevertheless, the scale of structured metadata available for these new kinds of collection items allows us to explore new techniques for data visualisation and ‘enhanced curation’ in ways that would be impossible for more traditional archival collections.

 

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Examples of how structured metadata can allow us to visualise and compile data in interesting ways using computing languages such as Python. The bar graph shows a time distribution for files in the Virago archive, with the 24 hour clock on the x axis and number of files on the y axis. The text describes some statistics and metrics for the same archive.

 

What next?

The processing, preservation and access provision for born digital literary archives is very much still an open field. The future is uncertain, but consequently still very exciting. Although there are many challenges ahead, if we are willing and able to leverage the technology, there are innumerable new discoveries to be made about the collections we hold, some of which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. In this way, our driving motivation for born-digital is no different than it is for paper -- to preserve, interpret and provide access to our collections for the inspiration and enjoyment of everyone. 


01 April 2020

Digital Literary Collections — Variety, Complexity and Curiosity under Lockdown

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by Callum McKean, Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives and Manuscripts.

The April - June  2020 season of blogs on English and Drama will focus on the Library’s digital literary collections, ranging through Online Exhibitions, Learning Resources, the UK Web Archive, Personal Digital Archives and Emerging Formats.

Curators and cataloguers will post selections from our remotely available collections alongside their reflections every Friday, and an investigation of a different aspect of these digital collections every Wednesday.

The current situation is strange in countless ways. One way — relatively abstract and apparently unimportant at first glance — is how it has distorted our collective sense of physical space. By staying at home we simultaneously ground ourselves in a limited physical range whilst being drawn to new, expansionist forms of electronic communication. How many times have we heard, over the past few weeks — listening to friends and family over distorted, overburdened broadband connections — how relieved we all are that this particular crisis (if it had to happen) happened now; when we have unprecedented access to technologies which can, for those of us lucky enough to be able to access them, ameliorate the isolation or at least stave off the boredom. Perhaps it is inevitable that the ‘digital’, as a somewhat amorphous and poorly defined category, comes to the forefront of these conversations. Puritanical notions of screen-time as something to be avoided, or at least restricted, take a back-seat as the physical world grinds to a halt around us, and the fibre-optic synapses continue to fire, faster than ever.

 

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The UK Web Archive (UKWA) attempts to collect this online activity, capturing millions of websites each year, preserving them for future generations. 

 

For curators, cataloguers and researchers who work at, use and visit cultural heritage institutions like the British Library, the physical collections remain out of reach. They’re in isolation too. In storage areas which are less like the ancient, labyrinthine temples of happenstance so often depicted in media representations — and much more like sterile hospital wards — countless boxes of archival material and shelves of printed material sit unprocessed and unread, gathering (minimal, tightly controlled, mostly metaphorical) dust. And we’ll miss them. But we’re relieved too. Because if this particular crisis had to happen, then at least it happened now, when our capacity to share our collections with our audiences remotely is growing more quickly than ever before.

 

Disco Lit Screenshot

 

Discovering Literature is an example of growing capacity to share and re-contextualise our literary collections online.  Enjoy digitised treasures from our collection, newly commissioned articles, short documentary films and teachers’ notes.

Every Wednesday a blog will go live from one of the Library’s curators or cataloguers, which will approach a different aspect of the ‘digital’ and how it relates to literature, drama and the Library.

Every Friday, a curator or cataloguer will highlight a digitised literary collection item or piece of writing from one of the Library’s many online portals, which in some way reflects upon our unprecedented situation.

None of this is to say that digital collections are easy; a fall-back option during a crisis. Archivists and other cultural heritage workers have long resisted the optimism (and hubris) of the tech-world and its zealots who claim that everything will be — or already has been — digitised. We know that the internet hasn’t superseded the Library or the Archive. We know that a future where all of our collections are available remotely, for free, online is a long, long way off. Most of us have spent too many years buried under piles of paper to confidently predict its obsolescence. We have spent too long agonising over the logistics, pragmatics and ethics of categorisation to take such systems for granted. We know that information delivery is never value-free or structure-free, and we take our roles as custodians of information seriously enough to question anything that argues otherwise. And, as the posts lined up for these coming months will prove, a significant number of Library colleagues have enough experience with these complex and various ‘digital objects’ to be all too aware that they are not post-archival in any meaningful sense, but rather present their own set of unique — and, at this point, often insurmountable — challenges for conservation, visibility and access.

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The Library's Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts Department now routinely collects born-digital archive material, including the hard-drives and e-mail of prominent writers. This material presents heretofore unprecedented opportunities and challenges for the Library in terms of preservation, visibility and access.

 

We hope that these reflections and selections will engage your curiosity and encourage both reflection and discussion in the coming months, as more of us settle into this new way of life.

25 September 2014

Tim Etchells on the Forced Entertainment collection

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Guided by Artistic Director Tim Etchells, Sheffield-based theatre company Forced Entertainment celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. Since its formation in 1984 the company has continually striven to find new performance and theatre forms with which to describe contemporary urban life, devising work through long months of improvisation and discussion.

The Forced Entertainment collection at the British Library contains more than 300 videos of performances and rehearsals. These were originally on analogue formats such as VHS but have since been digitized by the Library.

In anticipation of the company's anniversary year, the Library employed performance art graduate Coral Davies on a four-month paid internship to enhance existing catalogue entries, create new ones, digitize and re-digitize material, and generally give the collection a good tidy.

More recently, Tim Etchells was kind enough to consent to a new video interview in which he gives his thoughts on the Forced Entertainment collection and on archives more generally.

  

Forced Entertainment has a number of shows coming up, both in this country and abroad. Please see the company's official website for further details.  

08 September 2014

The International Workshop Festival Collection (1988 - 2001)

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A guest post by Dr Dick McCaw, Senior Lecturer in Drama and Theatre.
Department of Drama and Theatre, Royal Holloway, University of London.

Let me introduce you to the materials in the archive of an organization with which I had the pleasure of working between 1989 and 2001. It was called the International Workshop Festival and the name describes pretty much what it was – a festival consisting of talks, workshops and demonstrations given by internationally recognised figures in the performing arts. These workshops were designed to offer professionals opportunities to find out about new developments in the performing arts, to reconnect with their training method, or to explore new approaches to training or composition. Some of the workshop leaders were professional teachers; others were eminent directors, actors, dancers and puppeteers, who would share their insights or questions about their respective art forms.

The archive has recently been donated to the British Library. The collection should give you an idea of what used to happen in each year (in the first few years it took place in April but after 1990 it was concentrated on the month of September).

So what does it consist of?

  • Videos of workshops
  • Videos of talks
  • Audio recordings of talks
  • Photographs from 1995 to 2001
  • Programmes and publicity for each festival
  • Articles, reports and other materials (including two T-shirts)

I joined the festival in 1989, one year into its existence, though I was already very aware of it since I knew the founder and Artistic Director, Nigel Jamieson, and a close friend had taken part in one of the workshops in April 1988.

Nigel Jamieson and Dick McCaw (1994) edited

Dick McCaw and Nigel Jamieson, 1994. Photograph © Simon Richardson

Nigel left to live in Australia in 1992 and since I had been managing the festival for three years, I was invited to become its second Artistic Director. One of my first decisions was to document some of the workshops, and in 1993 I met Peter Hulton of the Arts Documentation Unit with whom I was to work from then until the time of writing (September 2014).

The festival would begin with two weeks in London, after which we would undertake projects in a number of cities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We worked in Belfast, Bristol, Coventry, Derry/Londonderry, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds and Nottingham. The London leg would typically consist of 10 week-long workshops and the same number of weekend workshops. We therefore needed a venue with plenty of studios and up until 1999 this was provided by the London Studio Centre. The 2000 festival was in the Jerwood Space and 2001 was at the Battersea Arts Centre. With five simultaneous workshops there is no way that all of them could be documented. Occasionally we would have a second person behind the camera but we probably only recorded about 15% of the workshops in any one festival. Peter did not record all the talks, and we would only sometimes remember to bring in a tape-recorder. So this archive offers a selective snapshot of some of our past activities.

In 1997 we received funding from the Arts Council of England to buy digital cameras and authoring equipment for what were then called CD-ROMs. The multimedia format of the CD-ROM offered Peter and me the opportunity to create a different kind of documentation. In addition to the video footage we could include photos and written commentaries. Our first DVD-ROM appeared in 2001 and the seventh and last was produced in 2006. All of our CD/DVD-ROM documentations are in the British Library archive.

Dominique Dupuy 3 (Greenwich Dance Agency 1996)_edited

Dominique Dupuy, Greenwich Dance Agency, 1996. Photograph © Simon Richardson

IWF was not unique as an organiser of training opportunities: in Wales there was the Centre for Performance Research in Aberystwyth (formerly Cardiff Arts Lab), and based in Manchester there was the Physical State International. But we were the only festival and I found it important to foster its existence as a unique gathering for professionals at all stages in their careers. IWF was more than just an in-service training provider; it was also a social event. But now there is no organization dedicated to continuing professional development or training. Already IWF and these other organisations are a historical phenomenon.

The festival day was packed: before the workshops there were warm-ups, first with the singer Helen Chadwick, and after them there were wind-downs, most often taking the form of a Feldenkrais lesson with Scott Clark. After a pause for a beer we would then have an evening programme of talks. It was a 12-hour day, from 9.30 in the morning to 9.30 in the evening.

‘Archive’ is a grand-sounding word but often it consists of all the materials that have survived, quite often to be found under the bed or stuffed in a cupboard. This archive is no different. After I left IWF I lost contact with the festival management, and six years later it was no more. I have no idea of the whereabouts of the photographs taken by Simon Annand between 1988 and 1994, nor of any written documentations. Luckily, Peter Hulton had kept copies of video recordings between 1994 and 2001. I had some recordings of the talks, but this represents probably about 10% of the total programme. None of the projects after 2001 was recorded.

The photographs in this archive all date from 1995 when we were joined by the photographer Simon Richardson who would travel with us to every project. They are ‘seconds’ that he had kept in his studio. The prints might not be to the quality that Simon would display in an exhibition but they are the only surviving record that exists'.

Gojo Masanosuke (London Studio Centre, 1998) 1 edited

Gojo Nasanosuke, London Studio Centre, 1998. Photograph © Simon Richardson

Just before I took all the printed material to the British Library, I laid it out on my bedroom floor so that I could easily make an inventory of it all. While away on a weekend break there was a water escapement from the flat above and my bedroom was flooded. The paper documents were badly damaged but thanks to the Library’s conservators all were salvaged, though the colour is washed out and they probably still smell a bit. As I say, an archive is what, by chance, has survived.

Apart from the printed documents there are Word documents which contain reports by Nigel or myself on each festival. There is a certain amount of correspondence, and funding applications. Nigel’s festival reports offered a fine-grained description and analysis of the year’s activities, and I followed him in producing these each year. I have never re-read these reports (some of which were really long) but remember writing them with some pleasure. They were an account of everything I had learned in that year. Someone keen on studying the management of a festival like IWF might want to dip into these files.

If you are interested in professional training and development, if you want a snapshot of what was happening at the more experimental end of the performing arts spectrum in the 1990s, you might want to spend a few hours browsing through these materials. I hope you have an interesting journey!

NB. The collection is listed on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue under the collection number C1526.

27 June 2014

Performance Archives: SIBMAS TLA 2014 - New York City

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SIBMAS BLOG

I have recently returned from the biennial SIBMAS TLA conference, which took place in New York City, 10-13 June. SIBMAS stands for Société Internationale des Bibliothèques et des Musées des Arts du Spectacle (International Association of Libraries, Museums, Archives and Documentation Centres of the Performing Arts). TLA is the Theatre Library Association, USA.

SIBMAS connects professionals from thirty five countries around the world working on institutional and independent performing arts collections of all genres. The theme for this conference was Body, Mind, Artifact: Reimagining Collections, with a special focus on dance archives.

Most dance and performance archives hold a substantial amount of video and audio recordings. The collections are ongoing and are frequently accessed by performers, companies, researchers and enthusiasts. For this reason they are often credited as living archives or artist-driven archives. Capturing and documenting the creative process, working with artists and re-purposing legacy materials are core tasks for these archives.

At the SIBMAS conference, keynote speaker Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library and Special Collections, made the following bold statement: ‘Stop making the digitization of paper a priority. Most of the paper from the last forty years will be OK in ten years. Video, audio, and digital files will not’.

Preserving video is a challenge for all archives. The main components of this challenge and how these compare with those for other media formats is what I am going to briefly highlight here.

Access to video and audio recordings requires machines to play a wide variety of formats. Playback machines quickly become obsolete and disappear from the market. Once this happens, finding spare parts for existing machines becomes the only option to keep them working. To palliate the shortage of machinery and spare parts eyes and hopes are now on 3D printing technologies, but this has not yet been implemented in an archival habitat and it wouldn’t solve the problem of obsolete electronics.

Hence, access and preservation needs make it mandatory that recordings are transferred into digital formats. Digitization resources are generally not extensive enough for the ideal purposes of most archives.

Archival standards regarding the transfer of analogue video and the archiving of born-digital video are in dispute and therefore inconclusive. For example, the short history of digital video has already generated a plethora of diverse file formats, and although there are principles, there is no formal agreement on which codec ought to be used.

So far archivists have narrowed codec choices to four compressed for long-term archiving and one for uncompressed. That is out of the three hundred plus available out there. Also, every manufacturer produces its own codec and format.

Intrinsic to all born-digital video archiving procedure is the question of storage. HD formats contain five times more data than standard definition videos and those proportions multiply by four when considering files on 4K (cinema and Ultra High Definition TV standard) resolution.

I thought Marvin Taylor’s statement pointing out what we are up against with video collections deserved attention. In his words once more: ‘If we do not act now, we will lose the ‘incunable’ period of born-digital and electronic media’.

The conference also coincided with the 60th anniversary of SIBMAS and to mark such a special occasion TLA New York hosts opened the doors to some of the most renowned performance collections of the city. It was very hard to choose which institutions to visit from a list composed of Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mark Morris Dance Group, MoMa Archives, Museum of the City of New York, New York Philharmonic Archives, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York University Fales Library, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Roundabout Theatre Archive, and the Shubert Archive.

I visited the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the MoMa Archives. Both were very impressive, but I am sure that would have been the case for all the archives mentioned above.

Curators and archivists from the NYPL Performing Arts division had prepared a special display for delegates, which included drawings, prints, a scale model of the set of the Broadway show Cabaret, photographs, 3D paper objects, an actual Tony and an Oscar awards.

We also learnt that the NYPL Performing Arts has over 24,000 dance films and tapes which are currently being digitized. Due to copyright, the majority of the collection is accessible on the premises only. Please see here for more information.

The icing on the cake for me was the Library’s jaw-dropping video tool, which allows researchers to compare several videos at the same time and create a link to share the results with others. NYPL’s Digital Curator Doug Reside explained how they have developed this and other tools in the NYPL Labs. More about the Labs here.

At the MoMa archives we talked to Milan Hughston, Chief of Library and Museum Archives, and Michelle Elligott, Museum Archivist and regular contributor to Esopus Magazine. Their Department of Media and Performance Art  houses, among others, the Fluxus collection, which came to the Museum from a private collector. The Museum Archive provides researchers access by appointment; they have an onsite database of the collections and over 30.000 electronic images from MoMa exhibitions. Most of their collection materials are yet to be digitized.

The papers from the conference will eventually be published. For more information about the conference programme, publications and useful performance arts links please visit SIBMAS website. That’s all from now, to be continued at the next SIBMAS conference: ‘Freeze! Challenge the Hierarchy: Researcher, Artist, User!’, which will take place in Copenhagen 2016.

With thanks to SIBMAS TLA  and to my colleague Andrew Pearson, our video expert here at the British Library.

22 May 2014

Something to smile about: Charles Dickens on Discovering Literature

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Photographs of Charles Dickens

Portrait photographs of Charles Dickens, 1861

You may already know that the majority of the British Library’s most treasured holdings are stored below ground in our deep basements, only to be looked at when they are beckoned above by curious readers. The Library’s new online learning resource Discovering Literature liberates some of our most precious holdings from the depths; allowing them to be seen in high definition, at anytime, anywhere, [and most importantly] whilst drinking a cup of tea!

Discovering Literature and Charles Dickens were made for each other. Dickens was a huge character and a prolific writer. It can be a dizzying experience to try and wade through all that has been written by or about him. Discovering Literature allows us to learn more about Dickens the individual while at the same time intricately weaving him into the 19th century world he inhabited.

The site features the manuscripts of some of his works, articles about him by leading Dickens scholars and also topical pieces about some of the issues that interested him, such as crime, poverty and the supernatural. All these scholarly additions are supported by high quality images of collection items, allowing access to primary source materials that bring Dickens to life. The site also features plenty of ephemeral items that help to contextualise and make real the issues that permeated his works, such as the newspaper advertisements for Warren’s Blacking Factory. 

Warren's Blacking advertisement

Advertisement for Warren's Blacking Warehouse

They are interesting to look at of themselves, but once you realise that they are advertising the boot polish manufacturers where Dickens worked as a 12 year old boy they become so much more pertinent – you begin to realise where the author’s concern for child labour and the plight of the poor comes from.  The same goes for the Diet Table from a workhouse report, laying out the daily rations to be administered to the inmates:

Workhouse report

Reports of the Sub-Committee appointed by the Committee of Management, of the Parish of St. Paul, Covent Garden, for the revision of their workhouse, etc. (1831)

Closer inspection reveals that the daily diet consisted of meagre rations with gruel for breakfast and very little in the way of nutrition. This report, and others like it from the time, emphasise that there were to be no second helpings in any circumstances.  The punishing regime of the workhouse in Oliver Twist is revealed as the norm and not a literary exaggeration. 

The beauty of being able to view these otherwise rather plain and innocuous seeming objects alongside literary works, manuscripts and personal correspondence enables us to unlock the secrets they contain and reveals them to be so much more than they first appear.

Manuscript preface to cheap edition of Oliver Twist

 

Preface to the Present Edition of Oliver Twist (1850)

As the preface to the cheap edition of Oliver Twist exposes it is so easy to make the mistake that the places and issues that Dickens writes about are largely made-up (Dickens is responding to a magistrate who has claimed that Jacobs Island is a fictional location – they were real slums in Rotherhithe). Items such as these are a stark reminder that these kind of things really happened to people.

These documents serve to show just how much Dickens was influenced by the world around him. They also confirm that many of our perceptions of 19th century Britain have been greatly influenced by what he wrote, making it even more important to separate truth from fiction.

Finally, I wanted to highlight the photographs taken of Dickens in 1861 [shown above]. A couple of them show the author with a slight smirk on his face (a rare thing for a Victorian photograph in general). They remind us that Dickens was a real person too, and not just some mythical author from the 19th century…

 


 

11 February 2014

Trevor Eaton: The Chaucer Man

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Trevor-Eaton-in-the-BritishTrevor Eaton in the British Library recording studio.

On Monday 16 December last year the British Library was pleased to welcome a distinguished visitor to its recording studio.

Trevor Eaton aka 'The Chaucer Man'  is widely known for his recordings of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon and The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

Over the course of a long career Trevor has introduced many thousands of school students to Chaucer, through more than 1000 live solo performances. A former university lecturer in Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, Trevor is also the author of several books on language and literature, and founder of both the Journal of Literary Semantics and the International Association of Literary Semantics.

Trevor visited the British Library studio to record, at his own suggestion, the few remaining passages of The Canterbury Tales he had not already recorded for Pearl Records. The Pearl Records sequence was originally issued as 17 tape cassettes (circa late-1980s) but omitted three of the linking passages and Chaucer’s Retraction.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to sit in with studio engineer Nigel Bewley in the control room, as beyond the glass Trevor brought the texts vividly to life.

Trevor is now thought to be the only person to have recorded The Canterbury Tales in its entirety.

In the first audio recording below, you can listen to Trevor explain the project and also hear his thoughts on correct Middle English pronunciation.

Listen to Trevor Eaton 1

In this second recording, you can hear Chaucer's Retraction, performed by Trevor in the original Middle English.

Listen to Trevor Eaton 2

Recordings are copyright  © The British Library Board, 2013.

The complete new recordings, plus all of the commercially issued cassettes, are available for listening at the British Library, although you may need to make an appointment.

24 January 2014

Hanif Kureishi on why he deposited his archive at the British Library

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       On Wednesday we announced the acquisition of Hanif Kureishi’s Archive at the British Library’s Cultural Highlights preview for 2014.

  Hanif Kureishi diary2
   Hanif Kureishi Archive. © Hanif Kureishi

        Hanif kindly agreed to join us for the press launch. An early start meant an improvised breakfast in the staff canteen, but over eggs and hash browns he shared his thoughts with me on how he thinks his archive will be used in the future and why he was so keen for it to find a permanent home at the Library. Click on the link below to hear the interview:

Hanif Kureishi interview at the British Library 

        The archive includes drafts and working material relating to all of his major novels, as well as over 50 notebooks and diaries spanning four decades. The collection also includes electronic drafts of his work in the form of Word files, including some relating to his new novel, The Last Word, which will be published by Faber next month. The Last Word tells the story of the relationship between an eminent writer and his biographer. It raises some interesting questions about identity, posterity and the inter-dependence of the writer and those who attempt to write about him, both of them being re-made in the process.

        The first diary in the collection dates from 1970 when Kureishi was just 15 years old. As well as recording everyday events and reflecting on his writing projects, the diaries are deeply philosophical in places and highly introspective. They give some fascinating insights into the workings of a restless, questing mind which is always driven to know more; as he records of his friend and hero David Bowie, at one point, his is a mind that’s “interested in everything”.  

Hanif Kureishi archive 2
Entry from a diary of Hanif Kureishi’s describing a meeting with Shabbir Akhtar, 13 May 1992. After the controversy following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, Akhtar acted as spokesperson for the Bradford Council of Mosques. © Hanif Kureishi

        Along with the drafts of Kureishi’s best known writing, such as My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, are those of some lesser known ones and some surprises. The archive holds, for example, a draft of his adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage (written for the 1984 production at the Barbican with Judi Dench in the leading role) along with an adaptation written with his long-time collaborator, Roger Michell, of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was never realised.

        We’ll be starting work to catalogue the collection in the next few weeks and expect to be able to make it available in the Library’s Reading Room by the end of the year. Hanif Kureishi will be headlining the Library's Spring Festival at the end of March which this year focusses on the art of screenwriting. You can find more details on the Library's Events web pages at www.bl.uk/spring