Sound and vision blog

10 June 2015

Listening Project booth comes to the British Library

Holly Gilbert writes:

Being immersed in the BBC Listening Project collection at the British Library for the last three years has felt a bit like embarking on a compelling and often emotional journey around the UK without ever needing to leave my desk.

The Listening Project is a collection of 40-minute conversations between two people who have decided to take the time to talk about something of their choice that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to discuss.

The topics include a fascinating range of unusual lifestyles or jobs, such as living with wolves, being a polar explorer, performing as a drag queen, working as a soul midwife and being involved in the peace movement. There are inspiring and moving accounts of surviving sickness and trauma as well as living with terminal illness, disability and mental illness. Family experiences such as love, partnership, pregnancy, birth, divorce, death, adoption and infertility all feature in the collection, including what it’s like to have an arranged marriage, to be a single parent, to come out and to survive domestic abuse.

The Listening Project recording bubble at the British Library

Widening the scope of the project beyond national borders, people share their experiences of moving to the UK from other countries including Poland, Iraq, Jamaica, Afghanistan and Uganda. There are also personal accounts of historical events such as the Second World War, the Northern Ireland Troubles, the Holocaust, the 1974 Miners’ Strike and the Nagasaki atom bomb.

A conversation that particularly haunts me is the one in which Tricia describes to her friend Carol the experience of spending some of her teenage years and most of her twenties in the terrifying psychiatric hospital High Royds near Leeds in the 1980s.

Her description of the imposing Victorian architecture and incomprehensible mental health system which she did her best to resist is unforgettable and extremely powerful, as is her subsequent release, recovery and experience of returning to and photographing the building when it was closing down in 2003 which was for her a kind of healing process. It is a privilege to hear the story of this part of Tricia’s life as described by her and to be able to archive it in the British Library, making it accessible in perpetuity.

I sometimes wonder what researchers in 100 years’ time will make of the experiences and preoccupations of the people who have shared their stories as part of the Listening Project and of the wider society that these small insights into their lives reflect.

The recordings cover the length and breadth of the UK, from the South West of England to the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, from East Anglia through Wales and over to Northern Ireland. The youngest speaker is 7 year old Felix talking to his brother Kit about being siblings in the twenty-first century and the oldest is 101 year old Muriel talking to her son Julian about her memories of the First World War.

With more than 650 searchable recordings available to listen to worldwide on the British Library Sounds website there is almost no limit to where you might be transported and what you might learn from someone else’s experience of life. So I invite you to join me, open your ears and mind and begin your own journey via the conversations of others.

The Listening Project Booth will be at the British Library in St Pancras on 10 and 11 June 2015 before touring all four corners of the United Kingdom.  Visit the Booth on the piazza to find out how you can record a conversation, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and archived by the British Library.


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