Sound and vision blog

6 posts from January 2015

29 January 2015

Inaugural National Life Stories Goodison Fellowship Award focuses on the history of food.

Within living memory the food we eat, the way it’s produced and how it’s sold has changed out of all recognition. Up until 1957 only 20% of homes had fridges, food was purchased daily from local high-street shops and tastes were conservative – for most, eating-out meant fish and chips, eating-in was meat and veg, and garlic or olive oil were unheard of. Today we shop at supermarkets stocked with tens of thousands of products, we eat food from around the globe and we are as likely to eat in a restaurant, pick up a takeaway or reheat a ready meal as we are to cook from scratch. These transformations are detailed in a unique collection of oral history recordings collected between 1997 and 2012 by the National Life Stories project, Food: from Source to Salespoint, which is currently being digitised and prepared for online access.

  Ray Moore Incubator house

 Egg hatchery c.1950. Photograph courtesy of Ray Moore

I first came across the National Life Stories (NLS) as the subject of a newspaper article six years ago and I was immediately captivated by the idea of hearing directly from people in the past talk about their work and lives. After that, every time I came to London, I’d visit the British Library, find a seat in a reading room and dip in and out of the NLS recordings. I’ve been hooked ever since. So, when I heard about the NLS Goodison Fellowship, I leapt at the chance to apply. The award, run for the first time this year, aims to increase awareness of the NLS collections. I submitted a joint proposal with Polly Russell for a project called Food Matters that focuses on the archive’s rich body of food recordings.

Food has long played a central role in my life – after working in the wine industry for five years I then returned to University and completed a Master’s in the Anthropology of Food. Polly’s involvement with food started when she worked at Joyce Molyneux’s restaurant The Carved Angel and then later when she worked as an M&S Food Product Developer. In 2000 Polly left M&S to start a PhD with the British Library. Her research considered connections between identity and food production in the UK and as part of this she conducted life story interviews with food producers which were added to the NLS collections. Polly now works part-time as a curator at the British Library, overseeing, amongst other things, the library’s food holdings and research. Polly and I met when I worked as a British Library intern and we quickly established a shared enthusiasm for NLS and the food recordings in particular.

  Albert Pic 1 - credit A Roux

Photograph of Albert Roux. Courtesy of Albert Roux

The collection comprises more than 250 recordings with producers from across the food industry including factory workers, food writers, chefs, manufacturers and senior retail managers. These recordings document how changes in farming, manufacturing, distribution and retailing have transformed the nation’s diet within a lifetime.  There are interviews with butchers who describe slaughtering animals on their premises, accounts from farmers of how mechanisation transformed the countryside, stories from manufacturers of how the first ready-meals were produced as well as descriptions from Chinese migrants in the 1960s on setting up Britain’s first Chinese restaurants. And it’s not just the NLS food recordings that are a rich source of food history. Food creeps into other collections too, whether it’s descriptions of banker’s business lunches, book-trade deals done in Soho’s restaurants or scientists’ work on microwaves for weapons, that ended up being harnessed to reheat food.

David Gregory (b.1953) descirbes his first experience of walking into a supermarket

Frances Soar (b.1950) describes trying spaghetti and curry for the first time

Having frequently used the NLS recordings in our own research and writing about food we  know what a terrific resource it is.  Over the course of the next six months we will be contributing material to BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme and are planning to pitch for a Radio 4 Archive Hour slot. We are also going to draft an outline for a book that will use the NLS recordings to explore the history of food over the last 70 years. Being awarded the NLS Goodison Fellowship is a great opportunity – it will allow us to delve deep into the archive to discover new stories and characters so we can introduce different audiences to the value and interest of the NLS collection.

Barley Blyton, National Life Stories Goodison Fellow 2015 

Tesco store 1960s - Tescopix

Tesco store c.1960. Courtesy of

21 January 2015

Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust – an online collection of over 280 in-depth Holocaust survivors’ testimonies

This week, to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, the British Library is launching Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust, an online resource giving worldwide access to 289 oral history interviews with Holocaust Survivors. The interviews comprise a vast collection of powerful accounts of the Holocaust from Jewish survivors living in Britain that now, thanks to funding from the Pears Foundation and the Brian and Jill Moss Charitable Trust, have been digitised and made available for anyone to listen to online for the first time at

HOL1 Children at Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland.  Auschwitz/Birkenau was one of the Nazis’ largest death camps.  The children are wearing typical camp clothing behind the electric fence. 

The hundreds of testimonies now available online at British Library Sounds are drawn from two major oral history projects: Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors’ Centre Testimony recording project which ran 1993-1998, and the Living Memory of the Jewish Community, a project run by National Life Stories at the British Library between 1987-2000 which gathered over 180 life story interviews with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children.  Recordings were made with a wide range of survivors from many parts of Nazi-occupied Europe and with pre-war refugees (such as Kindertransport child migrants).  The main programme of survivor interviews was later supplemented by interviews with the children of survivors - the Second Generation.  With over 1000 hours of recordings, this is one of the largest collections of Holocaust testimonies in Europe. All but a handful of the 289 interviews have searchable content summaries and have been clustered into themes such as ‘camp experiences’, ‘Kindertransport’, ‘ghetto life’ and ‘resistance’ to enhance access for researchers. 

HOL3JPGA Czech Jewish woman from Prague shortly before her deportation by cattle truck.  Many died on the way to work camps or death camps, locked in overcrowded trucks without food or water. 

Since the BL started interviewing Holocaust survivors in 1987 many have sadly died but their voices and experiences have been preserved for future generations. The lesson of what happens when a society discriminates against an entire group of people in its midst could not be more relevant to recent events in Britain and Europe.

The following clips are taken from the full interviews on British Library Sounds

Barbara Stimler (b.1927, Poland, survived Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz concentration camp and a death march) talks about her deportation from the ghetto to Auschwitz. 

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch (b.1925 in Germany) talks about playing cello in the orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. 

The launch of Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust will be marked as part of an event at the British Library for Holocaust Memorial Day: ‘Life in a Jar: Childhood experience of the Holocaust’ on Monday 26 January 2015 at 18.30-20.00.  At this event Lili Stern-Pohlmann and Sir Erich Reich, who both endured the Holocaust as children, will recollect their experiences. There will then be a screening of the emotive film ‘Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers’, which tells the story of a group of Polish women who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children. After the screening and talk there will be an opportunity to explore the oral history interviews now available at the ‘Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust’ collection on British Library Sounds.  Visit and follow the link to book tickets. 

Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History at the British Library

Documenting the Fringe

A guest post by John Park, Editor of Fringe Report.

The first volume of Fringe Report, covering the years 2002-2003, is now available exclusively for consultation by readers at the British Library.

Fringe Report was a website based in London which reviewed fringe theatre, arts, independent and arthouse film, dance, performance, poetry, music - anything that fell off the edge of the mainstream - though it often covered that too. There were no rigid lines.

It published two or three items a week all year round, was an accredited reviewer to Internet Movie Database and did in-depth interviews, features, gossip, and reports on parties. 

Over the coming years, the whole content of Fringe Report 2002-2012 is being put into book form and donated to the British Library as a historical archive, a snapshot of the off-mainstream arts at the start of the twenty-first century.

The next volume, currently in preparation, will cover all the Fringe Report Awards - there are 250 of them - from 2003 to 2012, with the award certificates reproduced in colour.  It is due for presentation in spring 2015. 


The cast and company of Yard Gal (Oval House Theatre, London, 2008), including actors Stefanie Di Rubbo and Monsay Whitney, and director Stef O'Driscoll, accept the Fringe Report Award 2009 for Best Production. Fringe Report Awards 9 February 2009, Leicester Square Theatre. Photo © Stefan Lubomirski De Vaux, 2009.

Fringe Report started in July 2002 and ran until 2012. It covered 50 shows each year and reviewed at the London Film Festival, the Dublin and Brighton Fringe Festivals, with reports over the years from other locations including Camden, Bath, Newbury, Reading and Montreal.

It had permanent writers in London, New York, Dublin, Denver, Edinburgh, Dallas, North-east England, St Petersburg and Hawaii; with up to 12,000 regular readers spread across the globe.  Most of them were in mainland Europe, England, Canada, United States, Republic of Ireland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, with others in the Middle East, across Asia, in Vietnam, China and Australia.

There was a monthly newsletter in English and Spanish as a briefing and gossip loop to PRs, actors, producers, directors, composers, performers, the public, theatregoers, arts enthusiasts, venue managers, promoters, impresarios, journalists, and other industry and showbiz professionals.

Each year there were 25 awards - the Fringe Report Awards - announced in January and presented on any day mid-February that wasn't Valentine's Day.

The first volume of Fringe Report, covering its first two years 2002-2003, was delivered to the Library on 18 December 2014, where it is now uniquely available.  It contains 478 pages of reviews of over 250 shows, plus interviews and articles.  A feature of the book - and of forthcoming volumes - is a comprehensive index of over 4,000 entries including shows, venues, companies and people.  Fringe Report always where possible contained full credits for the shows and events it reviewed or reported, and the index includes the names of 3,000 people involved.

When the whole archive is complete it will comprise 12 books including all published and previously unpublished material, 750 photographs, audio soundtracks of award acceptance speeches (including Sir Arnold Wesker, John Antrobus, Kevin Sampson, Dr Elliot Grove, Kiki Kendrick, Abi Titmuss, Holly Penfield) and film of the several years of the awards.

19 January 2015

Below the lines in the ice: the sonic world of icebergs

No exhibition about the Arctic would be complete without some reference to icebergs. It just wouldn’t be right. During the planning of the British Library’s current exhibition, Lines in the Ice: seeking the Northwest Passage, icebergs, or more specifically, the sounds of icebergs, cropped up in a number of meetings and so the hunt for these sounds began.

A common misconception would be that icebergs are silent, white giants, moving noiselessly through the freezing waters of the polar seas. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Though at the opposite end of the world, crew members of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) commented on the sheer variety of sounds heard in the presence of the Rampart Berg:

“Close to the berg the pressure makes all sorts of quaint noises. We heard tapping as from a hammer, grunts, groans and squeaks, electric trams running, birds singing, kettles boiling noisily, and an occasional swish as a large piece of ice, released from pressure, suddenly jumped or turned over.”

Frank Worsley, Captain of the Endurance (excerpt from 'South' by Sir Ernest Shackleton)

With our focus firmly on the Arctic, the work of Irish composer Dr Karen Power, who, in 2013, spent time in the Arctic as part of the Arctic Circle Residency programme, came to the forefront. Wanting to explore and document the sounds of the ice, Power armed herself with a weaponry of drills and hydrophones in order to explore this mysterious world.  

“Despite the silence, there is a tremendous pressure in the atmosphere. I wanted to get inside what I thought might be the cause of this pressure – the ice reshaping, melting - so I drilled some holes in some icebergs, at first on the shore and then floating in the middle of the water, and I was introduced to the most amazing sonic world”.

“First above the ice, then inside the ice, and finally at different degrees below the ice, I managed to drop hydrophones down as far as 20 metres below the surface to hear the icebergs cracking and resonating on the sea floor. What I found down there was truly, truly extraordinary.”



The field recordings collected during the residency open a fascinating acoustic window onto the usually hidden world of Arctic ice. Pops, cracks, creaks, groans, bangs and taps are just some of the sounds encountered during this incredible journey beneath the surface of the Arctic Ocean, a few of which are featured here:

Close up iceberg pops just under surface

Extreme iceberg close up with moaning

With room for only one recording from the collection in the exhibition however, the decision was made to include this wonderful example, which ranges from high-pitched tinkling to low, drawn-out groans.

Pops and smashes from icebergs at waters edge

On her return from the residency, Power created a short documentary, Can you Hear the Arctic?, in an attempt to express how the Arctic has affected her past and present practice, but also what compositional work might lie ahead of her as she draws on the life-changing experiences of spending time in one of the most beautiful and extreme regions of the world.

“I thought I was going there to record above and below the ice, and that’s what I did. What I didn’t think about was all of the other ways that these spaces, the silence, the vistas, people and the places would affect me and leave their imprint on my work.”

“I left there with the most amazing sound recordings but also a change in the way I think about time and space and sound.”

Karen in the arctic photo by Tina Kohlmann
Dr Karen Power in the Arctic (Tina Kohlmann)


A versatile, enthusiastic and well-received Irish composer, improviser, educator and curator Karen seeks to stimulate, engage and interact with audiences. Her work utilizes two primary sources; acoustic instruments and everyday sounds, spaces and soundscapes. Karen’s output is diverse - both in its approach and delivery - and her primary aim is to capture and translate the essence of an idea through any artistic means necessary. For example, recent projects have been presented as orchestral works, sonic installations, radio art, collaborations between sound and dance, image and experimental film, free improvisations and musical happenings.

Some exciting current and upcoming projects include; Gorging Limpet, which is a collaborative project between sound and experimental film, The Arctic Circle Residency, hearSpace (2014) - an exploration into the world of Radio with a new interactive radio art composition, a large-scale collaborative commission for Canadian-based Quatour Bozzini and a DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Award for 2015/16 residency. Her latest album, Is it raining while you listen, features compositions and field-recording based work.

15 January 2015

Help Us Create a Directory of UK Sound Collections

Amongst the literary treasures held in the basements of the British Library sits an extraordinary collection of sounds.  From recordings of extinct species, voices from the past, to music across all genres, the British Library’s sound archive is held on more than 1.5 million physical items, just waiting to be heard.

But all of these recordings, from those made on the earliest wax cylinders to contemporary CD-Rs, face a real and immediate threat.


Edison 'Concert' wax cylinders in the collections of the British Library

Within 15 years, the combination of physical degradation and the disappearance of the technologies that support physical media will make accessing the nation’s sound archive difficult, and in many cases impossible.  Without taking steps to preserve these recordings now, they will be lost.

These risks face all recorded sound collections, across the country; from boxes of forgotten cassette recordings to professional archives.

To understand the risks facing the UK’s sound collections, the British Library has initiated a project to collect information about our recorded heritage, to create a Directory of UK Sound Collections.

By telling us what you have, we can understand more about the breadth of the nation’s collections and the risks that they face, and this will help us plan for their preservation, for future generations.

Our aim is to be comprehensive; to search out sounds that exist in libraries, archives, museums, galleries, schools and colleges, charities, societies, businesses and in your homes.  And we’re not just interested in large collections: a single item might be just as important as a whole archive.   

So if you think you might have a rare or unique collection of sounds, or just a recording that should be preserved, let us know!

The census is live now and will run until the end of March 2015.  You can read more about the project, and send us information about your collections here:

Responses have already started to come in, and we’ll be publishing updates on the project, and some of the things we’ve found on this blog, so enter your email address and click the Subscribe button at the top of this page to receive notifications by email.

The British Library’s Directory of UK Sound Collections is one of the first steps in our Save our Sounds programme; one of the key strands of Living Knowledge, the British Library’s new vision and purpose for its future.

You can follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and tag with #SaveOurSounds

12 January 2015

Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections

The UK’s audio collections are under threat. Often created on media that over time has become unstable, they are at risk - both from physical degradation and from the obsolescence of technology to replay them.

Professional consensus is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save the UK’s sound collections before they become unplayable and are effectively lost. The solution is to digitally preserve them, but the scale of the task required is considerable and time is running out.

Digitisation of a 1960s magnetic wire recording

The British Library is home to the national sound archive, an extraordinary collection of 6.5 million recordings of speech, music, wildlife and the environment from the 1880s to the present day. We need both to ensure that the existing archive is properly preserved and that new systems are developed for the acquisition of future sound production in the UK.

BLCK-SOUND27The voice of Florence Nightingale recorded 30 July 1890 on wax cylinder

Save our Sounds is a new programme the British Library has created to answer this imperative need. It has the following aims:

•    to preserve as much as possible of the UK's rare and unique sound recordings, not just those in our collections but also key items from other collections across the UK
•    to establish a national radio archive that will collect, protect and share a substantial part of the UK’s vibrant radio output, working with the radio industry and other partners
•    to invest in new technology to enable the Library to receive music in digital formats, working with music labels and industry partners to ensure their long-term preservation.

You can listen to the kinds of sound recordings that we are preserving for the UK, by visiting our Sounds website at It has a selection of 60,000 sound recordings for all to enjoy, covering the entire range of recorded sounds: music, accents and dialects, drama and literature, oral history, wildlife and environmental sounds.

This playlist of a dozen tracks starts with an early recording of a Beethoven piano trio, one of the earliest recordings of chamber music, recorded in 1905. The violinist we hear performing was born just 30 years after the  composer's death in 1827.

We have launched the Save our Sounds programme with a major fundraising campaign to digitise and digitally preserve the most fragile and unique recordings. Save our Sounds is one of the key strands of Living Knowledge, the British Library’s new vision and purpose for its future, news of which was announced today by the Library’s Chief Executive, Roly Keating.

Sound recordings document some of our greatest creative endeavours, preserve key moments in our history, capture personal memories, give a sense of local and regional identity and they help us to understand the world around us. And they are extraordinarily powerful in bringing back to life past events: famous speeches, the voices of loved ones and those who have sadly left us, musical and other artistic performances, notable events in recent history and the familiar and exotic sounds of natural and urban environments.

We need to preserve sounds today - to listen to the past tomorrow. So it’s vital that we act now to ensure they are accessible for future generations.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision


How to get involved:

  • We are mapping the condition of sound archives around the UK to identify threatened collections – if you have a sound collection which you think could be at risk, get in touch and let us know. The census will run until the end of March 2015, and we’re keen to hear from those with private collections as much as the public and commercial archives out there. All you need to know is at
  • We’ll be issuing updates on this blog, so enter your email address and click the Subscribe button at the top of this blog page to receive notifications by email.
  • You can follow us on Twitter via @soundarchive – and do make use of the hashtag #SaveOurSounds
  • Please consider your organisation making a major gift to support our programme:


More information:

  1. Save our Sounds website
  2. UK Sound Directory
  3. Living Knowledge: The British Library strategy 2015–2023
  4. Launching Living Knowledge 12 January 2015
  5. Sounds of the past, ways of the future” (Financial Times, 9 January 2015).
  6. British Library seeks £40m to 'save' sound archive (BBC News, 12 January 2015)
  7. British Library recording of Florence Nightingale, originally made in 1890.
  8. Rare Noël Coward recording rediscovered