Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

05 June 2023

Recording of the week: Seabirds in a plastic world

Northern Gannet with plastic

A northern gannet, a seabird with a white body, beige head and blue eyes, sits on a pile of blue and red fishing rope and holds a clump of it in its beak. Photo credit: Thomas Haeusler. 

Today is World Environment Day 2023. This year, it is hosted by Côte d'Ivoire, and the theme is focussing on tackling plastic pollution. By now, we should all be aware of the dangers around plastics entering the environment. The 2017 series Blue Planet II, brought our attention to the plight of our oceans due to the amount of plastic being introduced. We saw disturbing footage of albatross chicks perishing after being fed small pieces of sharp plastic. Since then, hard hitting assessments have regularly been in the headlines like “more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050”, “humans ingest the equivalent of a credit card worth of plastic every week”, and “microplastics found in human blood”. World Environment Day in 2018 also had the same theme and tagline: “Beat Plastic Pollution”. Yet despite this awareness, frustratingly little progress has been made in reducing plastic production and consumption. Worse still, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a surge in plastic waste in the form of PPE.

Plastic affects all life on all parts of the planet, but some more than others. This recording of the week selection (British Library reference WA 1999/058/075 S1 C1) comes from a group of animals especially affected by human actions; seabirds. The northern gannet (Morus bassanus) is an iconic seabird, famous for their incredible fishing technique. As seen in the recent Wild Isles series, gannets catch their food by diving at high speed in to schools of fish, leaving trails of bubbles in their path like avian torpedoes.

Like most seabirds, gannets nest on cliff sides in large and often very noisy colonies, typically alongside other species such as kittiwakes, fulmars and guillemots. As such, getting a clean recording of an individual calling can be very challenging. The recordist responsible for this recording, Victor Lewis, used a long cable and careful field-craft to get his microphone as close as possible to the subject with minimal disturbance. The raucous calls of a pair at the nest is easily lost to our ears in the cacophony of other bird calls and sea sounds, but this is how they communicate with one another, so to hear it from the birds’ perspective gives better context to the sounds.

Listen to Gannets calling

Gannets courting

A pair of northern gannets face each other with their necks extended and beaks touching. Photo credit: Marco Federmann.

Gannets mate for life, and they have a unique mating ritual which they perform each season to re-affirm their bonds. They face each other, extend their necks, touch bills and shake their heads. If you are lucky enough to see this display when watching a colony, you may just hear the subtle clattering of their bills.

Over half the world’s gannets nest around the UK coast, estimated at around 220,000 pairs. That sounds like a healthy number, but it is declining due to a complex array of man-made problems. Overfishing depletes their food source and even ends with gannets caught in trawler nets as bycatch. Bird flu has been devastating to gannets in recent years, spreading through colonies very quickly and leaving thousands of dead chicks and adults. While plastic continues to be a terrible threat. In 2019, the scientists in the British Ornithologists’ Union studied 7280 gannet nests across 29 colonies, and found 46% contained plastic. A gannet colony on the island of Alderney was found by the Wildlife Trust to contain plastic in almost every single nest. Most of this is in the form of fishing gear lost or abandoned at sea. Chicks and adults can get entangled in fishing ropes or even end up ingesting plastic, and this is often fatal.

Every year people visit seabird sites like Bempton Cliffs, the Farne Islands, and Bass Rock in Scotland to marvel at the spectacle of thousands of birds breeding and feeding on the UK shores. To lose this annual festival of nature would be so devastating it doesn’t bare thinking about. As well as addressing other threats, we must stop plastic entering the ocean. Large scale solutions like new laws and legislation must come from higher up, but, in case you need a reminder, we can all play our part. Be mindful of what you are buying and throwing away. If you can afford to, always choose reusable alternatives to single-use plastics. You can also do a lot of good by helping to clean up your local spaces or joining in with a beach clean. The future lives of these beautiful birds, like so many other species, depends on all of our actions now.

Northern Gannets on rock

Several dozen Northern Gannets and their chicks sat at the top of a cliff with the sea in the background. Photo credit: Dr. Georg Wietschorke .

You can learn all about humans’ understanding and interpretation of animals in our exhibition Animals: Art, Science and Sound, open until 28th August 2023.

Today’s post was written by Greg Green, Metadata Support Officer.

24 May 2023

Animals: Art, Science and Sound

Animals: Art, Science and Sound is the first major exhibition to explore the many different ways in which animals have been written about, visualised and recorded over time. Focusing on the British Library’s extensive natural history collections, the exhibition brings together chronologically and geographically diverse material produced over the past 2000 years, from some of the earliest encyclopaedic works on zoology to stunning high-resolution photographs of insects produced using the latest technologies.

Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition poster

The exhibition features over 100 objects selected from the Library's diverse collections and is divided into four main zones that cover darkness, water, land and air. As the name suggests, sound features heavily in the exhibition, both in terms of physical objects and sound recordings themselves. There are soundscapes playing in the gallery space that help create atmosphere and listening points where visitors can explore some of the more weird and wonderful recordings held by the Library. Published discs, field tapes, recording equipment and personal notebooks sit alongside historical manuscripts, paintings and printed works, and many of these items are on display for the very first time. There are objects of celebration, such as the first commercial record of an animal, but also objects of sadness, the most poignant of which is a reel of tape containing the song of a now extinct songbird.

Below are just a few highlights from this textually, visually and sonically rich exhibition.

Holgate Mark VI portable bat detector

The Holgate Mark VI bat detector which was one of the earliest portable models produced (British Library, WA 2009/018)

Greater Horseshoe Bat echolocation recorded using the Holgate MK VI by John Hooper in Devon, England, 1968 (WS7360 C10)

Colour painting of a horse surrounded by annotations describing its bad points

Illustration of the defects of a horse from Kitab al-baytarah (Book on Veterinary Medicine) by Abu Muhammad Ahmad ibn Atiq al-Azdi, 13th century (British Library, Or 1523, ff. 62v-63r)

Page showing examples of musical notation being used to represent the songs and calls of European birds

Musical notation used to represent the songs and calls of birds, from Athanasius Kircher's Musurgia Universalis (Universal Music), Rome, 1650 (British Library, 59.e.19.) 

Front cover of the 2nd edition of Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch's sound book Animal Language

Second edition of Julian Huxley and Ludwig Koch's Animal Language sound bookUSA, 1964 (British Library, 1SS0001840)

Bactrian Camel calls taken from disc 1 of Animal Language (1CS0070755)

Coloured woodcut illustration of a monkfish from Pierre Belon's De Aquatilibus

An image of a 'monkfish' from Pierre Belon's De aquatilibus (Of aquatic species), Paris, 1553 (British Library, 446.a.6.)

Colour illustration of a fruit bat

An illustration of a fruit bat, painted at Barrackpore, India. 1804-7 (British Library, NHD3/517)

Childrens education record featuring a disc surrounded by a cardboard illustration of hippos

The Hip-po-pot-a-mus children's educational record published by the Talking Book Corporation, USA, 1919 (British Library, 9CS0029512)

Animals  Art Science and Sound at the British Library 4 small

A section in the Land zone displaying textual and visual accounts of animals appearing in countries beyond their usual geographic range.

Animals_marketing_shoot_17_04_2022_024 bird voices small

A section in the Air zone exploring the history of recording bird voices including the first commercially released record of an animal from 1910.

Actual Bird Record Made by a Captive Nightingale (No.1), Gramophone Company, 1910

Animals: Art, Science and Sound runs until 28 August 2023. Please visit to book tickets and to find out more about the exhibition's accompanying events programme. Thanks go to the Getty Foundation, Ponant, the American Trust for the British Library and the B.H. Breslauer Fund of the American Trust for the British Library. Audio soundscapes were created by Greg Green with support from the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project, made possible by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and scientific advice provided by ZSL (the Zoological Society of London). 


22 May 2023

Recording of the week: Listening to Sun Ra in the year 4000

Publicity shot of Sun Ra

Publicity shot of Sun Ra, 1973. Distributed by Impulse! Records and ABC/Dunhill Records. Photographer uncredited. Public domain.
Throughout his long career the pianist, composer, bandleader and Afrofuturist pioneer Sun Ra (1914-1993) released over one hundred albums, many under his own record label Saturn Records. His sprawling recorded output is matched in extent only by the longevity of his band, the variously-named Arkestra, which formed in the 1950s and still performs to this day under the leadership of saxophonist Marshall Allen - surely one of the longest-running bands in existence.

This combination has served well to preserve the legacy of Sun Ra who passed away almost 30 years ago today on 30 May 1993. His death was mourned worldwide but not more so than by his devotees from within the Arkestra as captured by an all-day KPFA memorial programme which aired in the summer of 1993. This week’s highlighted recording is from this broadcast, which forms part of the Christ Trent Collection (C833). Chris Trent is a Sun Ra historian and founder of the archive-led, Ra-oriented record label Art Yard. The programme features interviews with several members of the Arkestra including saxophonist John Gilmore, trombonist Julian Priester and trumpeter Michael Ray as well as Evidence label founder Jerry Gordon and Jim Newman who produced the Afrofuturist sci-fi film Space is the Place (1974). Whilst the majority of the interviews are anecdotal and focus on Sun Ra’s history, saxophonist Ronald Wilson’s contribution stands apart in its pertinent reflections on the future of Sun Ra’s music.

Ronald Wilson interview excerpt

Download Ronald Wilson transcript

In this clip, soundtracked by the syncopated piano chords of ‘Somewhere in Space’, Wilson talks about the House of Ra in Philadelphia. The house functioned as a communal living & rehearsal space, the Arkestral headquarters and to this day is still lived in and used by the very same band. At the time of broadcast the house was overflowing with tapes which spilled out onto the kitchen sink, underneath tables and on top of cabinets and windowsills. According to Wilson, Sun Ra recorded everything that he did.

Photo of the Sun Ra Arkestra in Brecon

The Sun Ra Arkestra performing in Brecon, Wales in 1990. Photo by Peter Tea. Sourced from Flickr under CC BY-ND 2.0.

To me, it feels as if Ronald Wilson is not only addressing the KPFA listeners of 1993 but also those of us working in the British Library’s sound archive in 2023, as well as the musicologists and archivists of the future. Whilst it is sometimes easy to lose sight of the long-term importance of archives, Wilson’s clear-sighted appeal is a reminder of why audio preservation is needed in order to understand the lives of these artists as they unfolded and the music that came from them. Sun Ra must have shared this viewpoint himself. His explanation, as recounted by writer Robert Campbell, on how he chose which music to release on the Saturn label, says as much:

Whatever I think people are not going to listen to, I’ve always recorded it. When it’ll take them some time - maybe 20 years, 30 years - to really hear it.

Reference: Campbell, R. in  Omniverse: Sun Ra edited by Hartmut Geerken; Bernhard Hefele (Wartaweil: Waitawhile. 1994).

Today’s post was written by Gail Tasker, Metadata Support Officer.