Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

03 October 2023

Listening Desk by Emily Peasgood at the British Library

What can you see and hear on the upper ground floor of the Library? If you find yourself by the gallery outside the King’s Library, you will discover our Listening Desk, a cross between a gramophone horn, a desk, and a touch screen. This sound sculpture, and others around the country, are a legacy of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), our five-year project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to restore and catalogue rare and at-risk sounds.

A large red curved horn coming out from and hangs over a desk with a touch screen panel in it. There is a stool on a circular yellow rug in front of the desk.
The Listening Desk at the British Library.

How does it work? By sitting down at the desk, you will be able to interact with a touch screen application. This contains a playlist of clips for you to scroll through from recordings digitised by UOSH. Then it is up to you to remix and listen to these sounds in new ways by composing your own soundscapes using a sound sequencer with an intuitive interface. The big red horn encloses a sound-shower speaker, keeping the sound directed to the seated listener for an immersive experience that minimises any sound-leakage into the surrounding area.

A close-up of the touch screen, with the words ‘Coast Atmosphere’ and buttons for different sounds.
The Listening Desk touch screen.

The fun design for the desks was inspired by historic listening devices and was conceived by the artist Emily Peasgood. She created them in collaboration with designers from Studio Ben Allen and the software designer Jim Hall of Happylander.

Emily wanted sound from the archives to become more accessible, and for the desk’s users to engage with sound in a fun, playful, and educational way. She hopes people will be both amazed and inspired to learn more about sound. She adds:

Sound is a gateway to our imagination. We can picture how things might have been, through the medium of sound, in a way that is uniquely individual, but often with surprising accuracy. Sound can tell us about history: the machinery around at the time, how our accents have changed, the way we dress, travel, behave, the technology that was used to record it, the shape of a space. Sound can tell us infinite things. It is exciting and can transport us to a different space and time.

The Listening Desk at the Library is one of ten that can be found across the UK, from Northern Ireland to Norfolk. The other nine desks can be found at UOSH’s local partner hubs, all the desks look the same, but each one features a distinct locally relevant playlist with recordings digitised as part of the project. The network of Listening Desks will continue UOSH’s legacy by opening up the UK's sounds for everyone.

Eoin O’Cearnaigh, Network Partnership Manager, says:

These desks let visitors engage playfully and creatively with clips curated from sound recordings digitised by Unlocking our Sound Heritage. In doing so, they aim to increase awareness of these recordings and to encourage more widespread appreciation of our sound heritage, as something that requires ongoing preservation.

The current playlist on the desk at the Library showcases a selection of sound recordings from wildlife collections held at the Library. This was curated by Greg Green, who also worked on UOSH as a cataloguer. Listen to the sound of stormy Islay below for a taste.

Listen to stormy Islay

If you have not explored sounds at the Library before now, the Listening Desk is a fun and accessible way to dip your toe into the collections. Next time you walk past the gallery on the upper ground floor, take a moment to sit down and compose your own soundscape. Get creative and make some noise with clips sampling everything from fairgrounds to foghorns.

Article written by Katerina Webb-Bourne and Charlotte Wardley