Sound and vision blog

7 posts from October 2015

30 October 2015

Europeana Sounds Editathon

As part of our Europeana Sounds project we will be holding an editathon at the British Library between 10am and 4pm on Saturday the 7th November, and would love you to join us.


Europeana Sounds is a two year European funded project, coordinated by the British Library. As part of the project we are aggregating over half a million audio recordings into Europeana and have been working on licensing and enrichment and participation which includes smaller crowdsourcing projects.

As part of our editathon we’ll be working with our British Wildlife sounds collection to expand Wikipedia and enrich existing pages. Whether you’re a fan of editing Wikipedia, have a passion for sounds or would like to work with our collection come along and spend the day with the Europeana Sounds team. There will be Wikimedians available throughout the day for hands on training so if you’ve never edited before, now would be an ideal time to come and learn how it’s done. If you have previous experience of editing, bring your headphones and listen to some of our wonderful collection whilst improving Wikipedia.

The full event details are available on our project website, and the sign up page can be found here. We just need you to your laptop, headphones and enthusiasm and we’ll provide the rest (including lunch!).

Workshop Programme:

10.00-10.30 Arrival and welcome coffee. Log on and computer checks.

10.30-10.45 Introduction to the British Library and an introduction to Europeana Sounds.

10.45-11.00 Introductions to British Library Sounds and Wildlife collection from curator Cheryl Tipp

11.00-11.15 Introduction to Wikimedia

11.15-12.45 Hands on session editing Wikipedia and training available throughout.

12.45-13.00 Recap and sharing

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.45 Edits continue

15.45-16.00 Recap of the day and work done

16.00 End!

If you have any further questions or would like to know more please contact Laura Miles:

26 October 2015

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song

The album cover for Fela Kuti’s ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’, artwork courtesy of Lemi Ghariokwu, 1977
The album cover for Fela Kuti’s ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’, artwork courtesy of Lemi Ghariokwu, 1977

The British Library's major autumn exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song, is now open to the public. It's an exciting show that brings to life, in full colour and sound, the intellectual traditions of literature, music and art from across 17 countries, referencing 1000 years of history right up to the present day, from this dynamic and hugely inspirational region of the world. 

Here, in honour of the 10th anniversary of the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage are a few audio tracks from the exhibition for you to listen to.

The first section of the exhibition is called 'Building states'. We explore how stories and symbols within a long literary and oral heritage co-exist, still exist, and how they have been used to forge histories and form the basis of communities and political entities. Music, symbols and words form the backbone of the Asante Empire, in modern-day Ghana, and are of vital importance to the exercise of royal power. Musical instruments - such as drums and trumpets - are part of the king's official regalia. They are used during a variety of royal functions, reciting proverbs and poetry and conveying messages. The atumpan drums are central. The official player is responsible for sending the king's messages across the kingdom, He also plays welcome statements and eulogies, and recites praises and ayan (drum poetry) before and during ceremonies and rituals.

Kofi Jatto performing phrases of text on the Asante atumpan drums in Ghana in 1921. It was taken by the anthropologist Robert Sutherland Rattray

Listen to Atumpan 'talking drums' recorded by Robert Sutherland Rattray, 1921

The 'Spirit' section of the exhibition explores the centrality of words and communication of meaning in religious practice in West Africa. We look at some of the many and varied 'indigenous belief systems', Islam and Christianity. Christian missionaries arrived in West Africa in large numbers during the 19th century. They believed it was essential for West Africans to be able to read the Bible in their own languages and some of their early converts, such as the Nigerian-born linguist, scholar and Anglican bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther (c.1807-1891), was the first to translate the Book of Romans, from the New Testament, into Yoruba, published in 1850.

Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, 1867

Music has always been an integral part of religious practice in West Africa. Christian missionaries taught music along Western lines, often suppressing indigenous musical practices. By the turn of the 20th century, African Christians were translating and composing their own hymns in their own languages. Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, a Nigerian Anglican priest (and, incidentally, grandfather of the famous Nigerian protest singer, Fela Anikulapo Kuti) was among the first.

Here he sings 'Jesu olugbala ni mo f'ori fun e' (I give myself to Jesus the Saviour) in Yoruba, with piano accompaniment.  Zonophone 3394, recorded in 1922. 

Listen to JJ Ransome-Kuti hymn in Yoruba

Our section called 'Crossings' explains how the pen became a weapon against the slave trade, introducing the leading writers of African heritage in 18th-century Britain. The section also delves into cultural continuities - how religion, customs such as carnival, and music became acts of resistance and how they continue to circulate within the 'cultural Atlantic' and beyond. 

The exhibition highlights a West African lute, the akonting, of the Jola people from The Gambia. With a round soundboard and a movable bridge, the akonting is similar in structure and playing style to the early minstrel banjo in the United States. 

Akonting made by Daniel Laemouahuma Jatta, 2015

Listen to 'Aleenum' (My brother_sister) song for Akonting by Daniel Jatta, 2015

Our 'Speaking out' section looks at how West Africans used tools, sometimes brought by the colonial powers, to resist colonialism and how they continue to use words (political speeches, newspapers, political novels and poetry), symbols (on cloths, flags and buses), and music to raise social issues and fight injustices. This section features a room dedicated to Fela Anikulapo Kuti and demonstrates his use of music in 'speaking out' against the Nigerian government of the day with clips from Finding Fela, a film by Alex Gibney (2014).

Post-independent West Africa saw an outpouring of creativity in literature and art. The final section of the exhibition, 'Story Now' illustrates the many ways in which stories are remembered, told, created and recreated - from pamphlets and books, to visual art, to popular Nollywood films, radio dramas and works written with new digital forms. 

Chinua Achebe (1930 - 2013) was one of the greatest African writers of the 20th century. He was author of the famous novel Things fall apart (1958) as well as many other works of fiction and non-fiction. This praise song for Achebe, was composed and performed in 2014 by Professor Akachi Ezeigbo of the University of Lagos, Nigeria.

Listen to Achebe Praise Song


For more on 'West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song' go to our exhibition web pages. See also co-curator Marion Wallace's piece on the British Library's Asian and African studies blog. An accompanying book by Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace is available in our bookshop.

Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and our new Save our Sounds programme

Follow the British Library Sound Archive on Twitter via @soundarchive and tag with #SaveOurSounds

Follow the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities on Twitter via @BL_WorldTrad 

23 October 2015

Africa Writes vox pops: What’s new about West African Literature?

Africa Writes blog

Africa Writes vox pops is a new collection of 32 video interviews made at the Africa Writes festival 4-5 June, 2015. See BL reference C1705.

Africa Writes is an annual literature and book festival organized by the Royal African Society in partnership with the British Library. 

The interviews were filmed by the British Library in collaboration with Afrikult to produce a short film now on show at the British Library's new exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song co-curated by Marion Wallace and Janet Topp Fargion.

The collection comprises the raw unedited footage of 32 five-to-ten minute interviews, including set-ups, tests for focus, cutaway shots etc. Highlights can be viewed in the exhibition. The videos capture Africa Writes’ international audience of readers discussing contemporary trends in West African literature.

Participants were asked what is new and exciting about West African literature; how West African literature has changed since Chinua Achebe’s generation of writers; how West African literature connects with people's experiences in Africa and the diaspora today; what role do women play in West African literature; and how could West African literature be described in just three words. The results of the final question are expressed in the word cloud shown below.

Wordle 3__

The interviewees agreed unanimously that West African literature has contributed to their lives by helping them to shape their identities and to make sense of their experiences of migration, diaspora and transculturation. Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie topped the list of recommended authors.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is seen as great empowerer of women and an inspiration for the young. Women are considered more prominent in West African literature than ever, not just as characters, but as writers too.

The value of this collection goes beyond the subject of West African literature, delving into what literature means, how it resonates with its readers and how it has helped Africans to reclaim their own history and to engage with the diaspora.

Several interviewees touched on how social media helps to connect writers, publishers and audiences, making African literature more visible and internationally accessible.

The digital space has also helped to circumvent restrictions on publishing in languages besides the hegemonic English and French, providing opportunities to authors who write in West African languages. Furthermore it has expanded the possibilities for online publishing in general and for multilingual and multimedia e-publications such as the Valentine's Day Anthology 2015  of short stories, published by Ankara Press, which includes audio readings by the authors and can be downloaded for free.

When asked what would they like to see more of in the future interviewees' thematic concerns were heterogeneous, including topics and genres such as queer, different gender dynamics and disability stories, thrillers, crime fiction, romance, pop culture, traditional stories, science fiction and non-fiction.

If you haven't read much West African literature and don't know where to start this vox pops collection will set you up. And if you were already into West African literature it will probably help you to expand your reading list until the next Africa Writes festival in 2016. 

A big thanks to the 33 interviewees and Afrikult members: Zaahida Nalumoso, Henry Brefo and Marcelle Akita. And please come to the exhibition which is on until 16 February 2015.

Is Derbyshire 'the best of all dialects'?

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Burton upon Trent, Belper, Two Dales, Heanor and Swadlincote. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Derby. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Two Dales, Heanor and Swadlincote also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

These linguistic descriptions, created by researchers in the Library’s Voices of the UK project, identify and celebrate the fascinating combination of local, vernacular and archaic vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar that make up our regional accents and dialects. The following passage, recorded in Swadlincote, illustrates a number of intriguing features of broad dialect:

and that’s why I cudna spell at school they said teacher used say to me sound it and write it how you sound it well (so we did) if I was if I was calling my next door a gel and I’d got write girl I cudna write ’cause hoo were a gel to me so I wrote G E L gel (gel gel) so I cudna spell never could spell and I canna now cause I were always taught the wrong teacher used tell me off for not not sounding it and when I sounded it I sounded it as I said it (yeah) and I were wrong (that’s right) so whichever road I did it I were wrong

There are a number of grammatical constructions here that are typical of speech in the area. Firstly, the speaker forms negative statements by adding the suffix <na> to the verb rather than the more common variant <n’t> that occurs in most parts of England. In an area centred on the Peak District and the Potteries some speakers say, for instance, dunna for ‘don’t/doesn’t’; inna for ‘isn’t’; anna for ‘hasn’t/haven’t’ ; and adna for hadn’t and – as here – canna and cudna for ‘can’t’ and ‘couldn’t’ respectively. Derbyshire dialect also exhibits the so-called bare infinitive – that is the word ‘to’ is omitted with verbs such as ‘want to’, ‘have to’ and – as here – got write [= ‘got to write’] and used say [= ‘used to say’]. This construction occurs more widely in dialects across the East Midlands and North West England and crops up regularly, for instance, in the dialogue of the BBC sitcom Peter Kay’s Car Share. In the final episode (22 May 2015) John, played by Bolton’s Peter Kay, presents Kayleigh with a novelty lamp to mark their last car-share trip together, explaining how he’d struggled to find one but ‘I managed _ track one down in Preston’.

Perhaps the most intriguing item here, though, is this speaker’s use of the feminine pronoun hoo [= ‘she’] (like many speakers in England he drops the initial <h> sound so it sounds like he says ‘oo were a gel’). Research carried out for the Survey of English Dialects in the 1950s uncovered a handful of examples of ‘hoo’ in a similar area of the North West Midlands. An extraordinary example of the survival of the Old English pronoun ‘heo’, it was considered extremely rare even then and most observers expected it to disappear within a generation. Yet here we are at the start of the 21st century and a Derbyshire dialect speaker is using a historic form perfectly naturally and spontaneously.

Maybe Mrs. Gardiner was right when reassuring Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that ‘Derbyshire is the best of all counties.’

20 October 2015

Radio Festival 2015 at the British Library - with highlights from the radio archive


Brian Eno delivering the John Peel Lecture at the British Library
Brian Eno delivering the John Peel Lecture at the 2015 Radio Festival

The British Library recently hosted the 2015 Radio Festival, including BBC Radio’s John Peel Lecture, presented this year by Brian Eno, and a two day programme bringing together leading figures and experts from the UK radio industry. Hosted by Paddy O’Connell, this year’s speakers included radio and TV presenter Chris Evans, Will Page of online music service Spotify and Peter Barron, Google’s European Head of Communications.

Ahead of the Peel Lecture on the Sunday 27 September, BBC 6 Music took up residence in the foyer of our St Pancras building for an ‘Afternoon from the British Library’ with musician/DJ Jarvis Cocker and Mary Anne Hobbs broadcasting live. During the programme, Cocker and Hobbs registered for Reader Passes, before exploring the Library’s collections underground. Here they discovered some of the many rare and unique recordings in the sound archive, and even came face to face with an early edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Jarvis Cocker visiting the British Library (photo Toby Keane)
Jarvis Cocker exploring the LP stacks in the British Library's sound archive. Photo by Toby Keane

The Festival was the perfect opportunity to raise awareness of the British Library’s sound archive, an extraordinary collection of around 6.5m recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the 19th Century. Adam Tovell, the Library's Production Co-ordinator (Technical Services), delivered the TechCon keynote address, outlining our concerns and solutions to the threats currently facing this unique collection; not least the danger that sounds may soon be lost due to obsolescence of the historical playback devices required to reproduce them, or as the materials from which they are made naturally decay.

This is one of the two central challenges of our Save our Sounds campaign, which we highlighted throughout the Radio Festival conference, the other being the archiving challenges of capturing today’s radio for researchers and students of the future.

During the Festival, we also played attendees some of our favourite sounds from the British Library’s radio archive, a collection of some 200,000 hours dating back to the 1920s. They were chosen by curators and staff from across the Library and played in between festival sessions:

Mary Stewart - The Ballad of John Axon - BBC Home Service, 1958

Luke McKernan - The Sinking of Radio Caroline, 1980

Caroline Brazier - Folk-Song Cellar - BBC Home Service, 1966

Jonnie Robinson - The Listening Project, 2012

Nora McGregor - Pressures of the Unspeakable - Resonance 107.3 FM, 1998

Andy Linehan - Johnny Rotten on Capital Radio, 1977

Rob Perks - George Ewart Evans - BBC Third Programme, 1964

Polly Russell - Anna Raeburn on The World Today - New York, 1974 

Richard Ranft - Music From a Small Planet - BBC Radio 4, 1983

Steve Cleary - Sono-Montage - BBC Third Programme, 1966

Steven Dryden - Kenny Everett on Capital Radio, 1970s

Paul Wilson - Pre-War Radio Luxembourg, 1935

To mark the end of the Festival, visitors to the Library were rewarded with an unexpected 15-minute performance by award-winning musician and BBC Radio 2 presenter Jamie Cullum, whose group played in our Entrance Hall.

Jamie Cullum (photo by Tony Antoniou)
Jamie Cullum playing in the Library's entrance hall. Photo by Tony Antoniou

With thanks to producer Simon Tester for recording the radio collection highlights, the Radio Academy, Gregory Whitehead, Anna Raeburn, Frances Taylor and Sophie McIvor.

19 October 2015

British Library captures the largest ever snapshot of the nation’s recorded audio heritage


The British Library is home to the nation’s sound archive: a collection of more than 6.5 million recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the late 19th century and held on over 40 different types of discs, tapes and other formats.

Global professional consensus is that we have fifteen years in which to digitise these historic sound recordings before they risk disappearing, as the means of playing them disappear from production and some materials begin to decay naturally.

In January this year the British Library launched Save our Sounds, a major programme aiming to preserve the nation’s sound heritage, looking not only at sounds in the national collections, but at the wider picture across the UK.

To kick-start the programme, we set out to conduct a National Audit of the UK’s Sound Collections. Over a five-month period we asked libraries, archives, record companies, and individual collectors to come forward and tell us what kinds of material they had in their archives, their condition, which formats they were held on and the recordings they contained.

A snapshot of the results

Map showing collection locations
Map showing collection locations

The results make up the largest ever snapshot of the UK’s sound heritage: we gathered information on over 1.8 million recordings held in over 3,000 collections and 400 different locations across the UK.

Mirroring the challenges facing the British Library’s sound archive, many of the sounds around the UK are held on formats which need to be digitised in the next 15 years. A staggering 78% of the recordings surveyed are held on formats which are vulnerable to technological obsolescence, such as shellac discs, DAT tape and some early digital formats. Over half of all the collections were reported as having no digital copies. 

The collections represent a wealth of cultural memory: over three quarters were reported to contain rare or unique recordings.

What kinds of sounds were identified?

An Edison Grand phonograph cylinder showing signs of deterioration

There is a wide variety in terms of the kind of collections identified in the audit, ranging from major collections to small focused collections of local significance.

400 institutions, societies, associations, trusts, companies and individual collectors took part in the National Audit. Examples include: 

  • Doc Rowe Archive Collection: Internationally significant archive of British folk life, lore and cultural tradition featuring 12,000 recordings.
  • Jem Finer Collection: The personal collection of the musician, sound artist and founding member of The Pogues, Jem Finer. Includes 9,000 items many of which are unique personal recordings or works in progress.
  • Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Collection at Cecil Sharp House: An internationally significant collection containing 10,000 folk and traditional music recordings including rare and unique field recordings and private recordings by noted folk musicians and composers.
  • Delia Derbyshire Archive: 267 tapes covering Derbyshire's time as a composer at the BBC's ground-breaking Radiophonic Workshop between 1962 and 1973.
  • Essex Record Office Traditional Music Archive: 1,000 recordings of traditional and folk music played by Essex musicians or performed at Essex venues.
  • The Rambert Archive: 800 recordings created by the Rambert Dance Company through the process of the work the company produce.
  • Manchester Jewish Museum Archive: 716 recordings from the early 1970s onwards containing interviews providing unique anecdotal evidence of the mass migration of Eastern European Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • University of Reading Special Collections, James & Elizabeth Knowlson Collection: 290 recordings relating to the life and work of Samuel Beckett.
  • Centre for Wildlife Conservation, University of Cumbria: Underwater hydrophone recordings made in the waters surrounding Shetland including recordings of killer whales (Orcinus orca) and Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus).
  • Canterbury Cathedral Archives: Recordings of events at Canterbury Cathedral from the 1950s onwards, including services for past Archbishops' enthronements, Lambeth conferences and choral evensong; performances of children's operas and choral music by J.S. Bach, Britten and others.

What next?

A British Library engineer conducting preservation work

We have been delighted by the range and volume of responses to the National Audit of the UK’s Sound Collections run by the British Library. While the results are not comprehensive, they provide the largest ever snapshot of the wealth of audio heritage materials held in archives across the country.

We will be working closely with the contributors to identify the most at-risk collections, to share preservation knowledge, and to grow a network of audio preservationists. The data and findings will also be used to inform the British Library’s Save our Sounds programme which, as well as drawing attention to at-risk sounds, aims to to celebrate the UK’s sound heritage and raise awareness of this treasure trove of living history held in archives across the country.

From 2017, thanks to £9.5 million of earmarked funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, we’ll digitise and publish online up to 500,000 rare and unique sounds from the Library’s own collections and those around the UK which are most at risk.

We’ll also work with partner institutions to develop a national preservation network via ten regional centres of archival excellence which will digitise, preserve and share the unique audio heritage found in their local area.

The Directory and a summary report on our findings are available on the Directory of UK Sound Collections project page. Please support us by tweeting #SaveOur Sounds and follow our own digitisation process on @SoundHeritage.

13 October 2015

Ada Lovelace - first in a long line of female programmers

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day of celebration of women in science and engineering, named in honour of the remarkable 19th century mathematician Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace

"Ada Lovelace portrait" by Alfred Edward Chalon. Science & Society Picture Library. 

Although born into a privileged family, Lovelace's upbringing was far from conventional. Her mother, the well-educated Anne, encouraged her studies of logic and mathematics, apparently in the hope of countering the influence of her wayward father, the libertine poet Lord Byron. Today Lovelave is best known through her connection with the irascible polymath Charles Babbage, designer of several Victorian era schemes for mechanical calculators and computing machines. In particular, Lovelace is often regarded as the first computer programmer, after developing an algorithm to run on Babbage's Analytical Engine in the 1840s, although as the engine was never built the program went un-run.

A century later, when the new electronic computers came into wide use in the 1950s, women again had an important role in programming. Although it required a considerable grasp of logic and mathematics, programming was initially viewed in a similar way to skilled clerical work or running a desktop calculating machine, and by the standards of the day thought a suitable occupation for women. Moreover, doing skilled technical work did not mean that women programmers were awarded the same status as men doing similar work, as Mary Berners-Lee, a programmer at Ferranti in Manchester during the 1950's recalls:

Mary Lee Berners-Lee discusses equal pay for women programmers

Another problem facing women programmers was the expectation that having children meant leaving the workforce to raise a family, an experience shared by programmer Dame Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley in the early 1960s. Realising that many others were in her situation, Shirley started Freelance Programmers Limited to offer work at home to women programmers who had left their jobs to raise families.  As she recalled in her interview for An Oral History of British Science, adopting the name 'Steve' was just one of the tactics she used to break through the sexist attitudes she encountered to build her new business into a major success:

Dame Stephanie Shirley discusses the creation of 'Freelance Programmers Ltd'


Stephanie 'Steve' Shirley checking the randomness of Premium Bond number 'computer ERNIE at Dollis Hill, 1950s. © Dame Stephanie Shirley

Voices of Science is a growing web resource featuring audio and video extracts from the British Library's oral history of science collections.  The website provides links to full unedited interviews and transcripts available to users worldwide via British Library Sounds

Dr Thomas Lean
An Oral History of British Science