Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

15 posts categorized "Books"

10 November 2015

Celebrating 80 years of talking books

80-years-of-talking books

The gathering of famous literary characters pictured above - I think that's Hercule Poirot at the back there - took place at the British Library on 5 November. It was organized by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to highlight the 80th anniversary of the Talking Books service for people who are blind or partially sighted.  

The RNIB's Talking Books service provides 4,000 audio books every single day to people with sight loss.

In celebration of its 80th anniversary, the service will be provided entirely free for all blind and partially sighted people, starting today.  

The first talking books were issued on 24-rpm discs with Braille labels, under the series title 'Talking Books for the Blind'. 

The British Library holds a collection of around 200 or so of these. They were donated by the RNIB in 2009, long after the format had been discontinued.

The content ranges from Bible stories to classics like The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot and thrillers such as The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.

However many of the sets are incomplete and many titles are not represented at all, including the very first: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Library is keen to expand the collection should the opportunity arise. If you have any of these discs please do get in touch.

And if you would like to know more about the history of talking books I can recommend this 2013 blog post by Matt Rubery: The First Audiobook.

11 June 2014

Inspired by Flickr: Jez riley French

Geology is at the heart of our latest Inspired by Flickr contribution. Out of more than 1 million images, field recordist and artist Jez riley French was drawn to a simple line drawing of a piece of chalk, found amongst the pages of the 1883 publication 'The History of a Lump of Chalk, etc' by Alexander Watt F.R.S.A.

I’ve long been fascinated by the musicality of non conventionally ‘musical’ forms: photographic images, the sound of places, objects and species, architecture and, of course, language. I often read, for example, certain poetry for the internal music the words create, often slipping adrift from their literal meaning. So, how could I ignore ‘The History of a Lump of Chalk’ by Alexander Watt - coming across its illustrations whilst browsing the British Library’s Flickr pages, especially as i’ve recently been gathering material, new and from my archives, for a series of pieces entitled ‘dissolves’ and including several recordings of chalk and various minerals in flux.

For me focusing on what is at first an overlooked detail of a locale can always offer up a rich and vast supply of information, inspiration and experience (visual and sonorous). The illustration i’ve selected from the book also appears simple - an academic, technical rendering of a mineral, yet the clear use of line and space offers other possibilities. For me there is a strong analogy here with ‘field recording’ - it is possible to approach it from only a technical outlook / technique, and yet to do so is a kind of poverty - a lack of connection and an intuitive, emotive response. Put simply, listening is more that that, as also a lump of chalk is more than its human chemical categorisation, and a drawing of it can be the line, the ink, the texture and age of the paper - or in the case of a digital archive, the viewing of it is in the context of the time spent exploring and all that it brings.

The small lump of (coombe) chalk used on the accompanying recording was dissolved in east yorkshire. The entire recording is several hours in duration, with the sound eventually becoming thinner and thinner. The section here is from the first 10 minutes of the process.

After you’ve read this and listened to the recording I strongly advise you to download the pdf of Watt’s book - the layout of the cover is worth it alone: though be advised that reading through the pages (or just the glossary for that matter) one can be easily diverted

asparagus stone  |  babbingtonite  |  iceland spar  |  fluor spar  |  calc-tuff  |  puzzolene  |  chaonite  |  corn brash  |  oolite  |  greensand  |  marl  |  foraminifera

Words that seem as clear and at the same time as elusive as the materials they refer to. 


(coombe) chalk dissolve

A strong advocate of the importance of listening, French encourages an active participation with the recording. To do so reveals a wealth of subtle acoustic effects, otherwise hidden within the seemingly homogeneous sound of the chemical reaction.

As many readers will know, chalk dissolves when placed in certain solutions - for some of us this was first observed during science lessons at school. If only we’d been able to listen to the results as well as see them! At first what appears to be uniform - a chemical reaction, certain and measurable, is in fact an incredible chorus of variables. A slight shift in ones openness to the act of listening and one is transfixed, listening more closely, becoming more and more aware of the different sonic events - some returning and some barely audible just once.


Using intuitive composition, field recording, improvisation and photography, Jez riley French has been exploring his enjoyment of detail, simplicity and his emotive response to places and situations for the past 3 decades. Alongside solo performances and exhibitions he collaborates with other artists, runs the ‘in place’ project on field recording – a subject on which he also lectures, organizes the ‘seeds & bridges’ event series and runs the ‘engraved glass’ label.
In recent years Jez has been working extensively on recordings of surfaces and architectural spaces, some results of which make up the ‘ silence’ project and has also been developing the concept of photographic scores.
His work has been performed, exhibited & published widely, including in France, Austria, Japan, Korea, the Czech Republic, UK and Belgium.

20 May 2014

Sonic migrations: natural sounds on the international exhibition scene

The British Library is home to one of the largest and most important collections of wildlife and environmental sounds in the world. Coming in at over 160,000 recordings that cover all animal groups and biogeographical regions, the archive has served the needs of researchers for more than 40 years, both at home and further afield.

The collection is more than just a source of data for academics though. For curators and exhibition teams it has been, and continues to be, an Aladdin's cave of audio treasures that have the ability to
breathe life into inanimate objects and enhance the visitor experience.

A variety of chirps, clicks, hums and whistles can currently be heard around the upper ground floor of the British Library, as visitors to the Beautiful Science exhibition explore the voices of 100 species, from birds to amphibians,that have been specially added to the OneZoom Tree of
Life installation.


Bottlenose Dolphin recorded by Dr Oliver Boisseau

Song Thrush recorded by Richard Savage

On the other side of London, at South Kensington's Victoria and Albert Museum, birdsong from the collection weaves its way around the artefacts on display in the museum's current exhibition William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain. The quintessential sounds of the British countryside merge with music from the time to create a multilayered atmosphere that is part natural, part human. Moving along to Richmond, an Amazonian rainforest soundscape, recorded and created by Richard Ranft, will soon take up residency in the Palm House of Kew Gardens, a few months after it featured as the soundtrack to their annual Orchid Festival.

Extract from Rainforest Requiem

The use of recordings from the collection is not restricted to the UK alone either. Across the pond, in a new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, a range of wildlife and environmental sounds from our collection are being used to complement the books, drawings and prints on display. 'Of Green Leaf, Bird & Flower: artists' books and the natural world' examines the intersections of artistic and scientific interest in the natural world from the sixteenth century to the present day and provided Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, with the perfect opportunity to source audio content from the British Library:

"The bird sounds and environmental recordings of the British countryside have enhanced our visitor’s experience of the exhibition beyond all expectations.  They are being asked to curate their own experience, choosing the tracks on the ipod based on their interest in particular birds or sounds.  We illustrated each track with a picture of the work in the exhibition so visitors can then go find the drawing or print as a bit of a treasure hunt.  Visitors seem thrilled by the opportunity." 

European robin_ba-orb-11411486-0015-pub
James Bolton, European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) with Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.), from the natural history cabinet of Anna Blackburne, ca. 1768, watercolor and gouache over graphite on parchment. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, in honor of Jane and Richard C. Levin, President of Yale University (1993–2013)

Robin recorded by Alan Burbidge

In 2012, a number of bird songs were featured in the exhibition 'Between Heaven & Earth: birds in ancient Egypt' at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago while a few years earlier, a selection of avian recordings were set alongside exhibits at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Our sounds have helped visitors at the Science Museum of Minnesota examine the biological roots of music and have formed part of a travelling exhibition against animal cruelty in Syria.

In addition to natural sounds, the collection also contains a range of mechanical field recordings, from steam trains to watermills. Last year a few of our railway recordings helped bring to life the long silent engines on display at the National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone.

"This is really going to bring history alive for a lot of people who have never seen - let alone
heard - a train move before" Tim Dunn, Marketing Communications Officer, National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone

Steam age railway station

The evocative nature of sound lends itself extremely well to exhibitions dominated by paper-based artefacts. More than just an embellishment, sound offers a new level of stimulation and exploration for visitors, inviting them to interact with the exhibition environment on more than just a visual level.

Providing recordings for inclusion in external exhibitions helps us fulfil our commitment to move beyond these four walls and share our wonderful collections with listeners all over the world. Public
engagement is at the heart of what we do and the knowledge that our sounds may help educate, inspire or simply bring enjoyment to visitors is something we feel very proud of.

10 June 2013

Sound, Listening and the Art of Field Recording

There has been a flurry of new books in recent months that deal with the interlocking subjects of sound, listening and field recording. The first to emerge was In the Field: the art of field recording (Uniform Books), edited by CRiSAP Directors Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle and launched during the In the Field symposium held at the British Library in February.


This anthology brings together an impressive collection of interviews with practising field recordists with diverse interests, methodologies and experiences. From Annea Lockwood's fascination with rivers to Ian Rawes' work in documenting the sounds of London, these conversations give insight into the working lives of some of the most respected figures in the field recording community. Other interviewees include Gruenrekorder co-founder Lasse-Marc Riek, Japanese sound artist Hiroki Sasajima,Vancouver Soundscape Project member Hildegard Westerkamp, British field recordist Jez riley French, anthroplogist and ethnomusicologist Steven Feld and Berlin-based recordist Peter Cusack.

Next came David Hendy's Noise: a Human History of Sound & Listening (Profile Books), written to accompany the 30 part BBC Radio 4 series of the same name. From prehistoric times to the present day, Noise explores the role of sound and listening in the history of Human culture over the past 100,000 years.

Noise a human history

Noise begins with the acoustic characteristics of caves used by our prehistoric ancestors and concludes with modern day methods used to retreat from the noise and bustle of contemporary life.  Music, speech, echoes, chanting, drumbeats, bells, gunfire, laughter, birdsong, machinery, water and much more are covered in the book and were the foundations of the series that was developed in collaboration with the British Library's Sound Archive.

Finally, Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age (Polity Books) by Dr Kate Lacey from the University of Sussex was published in May and explores the practices, politics and ethics of public listening. Michele Hilmes from the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote of Listening Publics:

'At once subtle and stunning, Kate Lacey's exploration of the history and concept of listening as a distinct cultural practice adds immeasurably to both the field of sound studies and our understanding of the role played by mediated communication in modern history. This careful delineation of aural practices shows how central the act of listening has been in the formation of social structures and ways of understanding the world around us.'
















Upcoming releases to look out for include The Memory of Sound: preserving our sonic past by Professor Seán Street and the anthology On Listening which explores the many ways in which skilled listening can mediate new relationships with our physical environment and those that we share it with.

08 April 2011

The Writing Life: Authors Speak podcasts

Sarah O'Reilly, project interviewer for Authors' Lives writes:

Extracts from the oral history collection Authors’ Lives have recently been published on a 2-disc CD, ‘The Writing Life: Authors Speak’. One of the most difficult tasks in putting the CD together was to boil down the hundreds of hours of interviews we had in the archive into two 70-minute CDs. And seeing as those interviews covered all aspects of the writer’s life – from what may make someone grow up to be a writer, to their experience of the writing process and the things that inspire them, to the changes they may have witnessed over the last half century to the way in which books are written, published and read – we had a job deciding which aspect of the writer’s life the CD should focus on.

In the end we felt that a CD which could shed some light on the creative process would be of most interest to listeners, and the most straightforward way of handling the heterogenous material within the collection. Because though we may know as readers what it is to live with (or should that be through?) a book, we probably don’t know much about the writer’s experience of the creative process, let alone their values, inspirations and perceptions of their craft. And how much do we understand about the way in which a writer’s life may be put into the service of their work? We hope ‘The Writing Life: Authors’ Speak’ will shed some light on these mysterious areas.

A BL podcast on ‘The Writing Life: Authors Speak’ can be found here.  To hear three interviewees – Philip Hensher, Hilary Spurling and Michael Frayn - discussing their writing lives in a recent event in the Library Conference Centre, click here.  The interviews within the Authors' Lives archive can be browsed on the Sound Archive catalogue by searching with the collection reference number C1276.

28 March 2011

The Writing Life: Authors Speak

Elspeth Millar, Oral History Archive Assistant, writes:

The Writing Life: Authors Speak is a new British Library publication compiled using extracts from the Authors’ Lives oral history collection. Authors’ Lives started in 2007 and is an on-going project run by National Life Stories at the British Library. Through in-depth life story interviews the project provides a panoramic view of the literary landscape as it exists today and within interviewees’ living memory, whilst capturing on record accounts of individual authors’ experiences of the writing life. The archive contains recordings with biographers, literary and popular novelists, poets and children’s writers.

The Writing Life: Authors Speak is now available for sale from the British Library ( but support from Arts Council England is enabling us to distribute 2,000 free copies of the CD to people in schools and universities involved in fostering writing skills.

An event to celebrate the Authors’ Lives project and the publication of The Writing Life is being held tonight (28th March 2011) at the British Library.  Writers Michael Frayn, Philip Hensher and Hilary Spurling will join in a discussion, chaired by Deborah Moggach, to offer insights into their own creative practices and reflect on the changes they’ve witnessed to modern-day authorship.  The event will be recorded and we hope to provide a link to the podcast within the coming weeks.

15 March 2010

Recommended reading no. 2 - Filming Literature

Here's number 2 in an occasional series that reviews unfamiliar or neglected books on film (which of course you can find here at the British Library). This time we take a look at Neil Sinyard, Filming Literature: The Art of Screen Adaptation (London/Sydney: Croom Helm, 1986).

"The legacy of the nineteenth-century novel is the twentieth-century film".

The opening line of Neil Sinyard's Filming Literature is typical of the work as a whole - a witty and wise observation, broad in its remit, bold in its assumptions, elegant in its expression. This has long been one of my favourite film books, one to which I can come back time again for useful insights and guidance on a subject which I find endlessly fascinating, the relationship between literature and film. The book seems little known, and may have been hampered by a dreadful cover and a minor publisher that long since went out of business. But I would urge anyone with an intelligent interest in film or literature to seek it out, or simply if you take pleasure in fine writing.

Its subject is, therefore, the relationship between film and literature. This is a field where one can go back and forth endlessly, and where many a writer has got bogged down in attempting to identify the minutiae of differences between the book and the film of the book. Sinyard avoids such traps, taking a broader view of how and why such films are made. His style is approachable, unburderened by theoretical language (while remaining aware of theory), and shows equal ease with literature and film.

He does not attempt to cover the whole field. The focus is on English-language literature to begin with, and the chapters focus on significant themes and examples. So we get chapters on Shakespeare, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, George Orwell, Harold Pinter's The Go-Between, James Agee's film criticism, analogies between the film and literary artist (Dickens/Chaplin, Twain/Ford, Greene/Hitchcock, Conrad/Wells), adaptation as criticism (looking at Great Expectations, Death in Venice, Barry Lyndon and The French Lieutenant's Woman), bio-pics, and finally film and theatre. Sinyard's great gifts are to understand equally the literary and filmmaking processes, to be able to call upon a wide range of film examples, and to come up with ideas that delight with their originality and expression. Here are some choice examples:

"The extraordinary opening chapter of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, with its free movement between time and space, is one of the finest examples of montage in fiction."
"It is axiomatic that very few directors have become successful writers - Elia Kazan is a notable exception - whilst even Burt Reynolds and Sylvester Stallone can make technically competent directors."
"Olivier's Richard III (1955) is a splendid film, but it is a shame that the crowd scenes ... seem so sparsely populated, like friends gathering glumly for a thinly attended Equity meeting."
"Film lovers must find many of Orwell's remarks about the cinema distasteful and glib ... Dismissing popular cinema as 'treacly rubbish' is no substitute for a serious consideration of how films work and why they give so much pleasure to so many people ... It brings out the negative side of Orwell's posture as the honest, commonsensical man: an occasional philistinism and impoverishment of imagination, and unintellectual conservatism about new art forms and alternative modes of expression to realism."
"Film reviewing was no routine chore for him, but the culmination and fullest expression of his maturity as a writer. The film criticism of the 1940s is the heart of Agee's achievement, with his work in the following decade developing out of it and his work in the preceding decade seeming an important preparation for it."
"Kane and Kurtz are both men of limitless but frustrated potential ... Both men are disappointed with the world they find and compensate by building their own isolated monarchies."
"[T]he spirit of James is elusive, distilled as it is in a sensbility and style essentially attuned to an era before the film age. Still, this is a matter more of record than regret. A cinema that has produced its own rosebud need not lament the absence of a golden bowl."

And so on. Sinyard makes you want both to reach up to the bookshelf and to put on a DVD. You want to read again and to see again. He illuminates and intrigues. Seek out his argument of why One-Eyed Jacks is a Hamlet-derivative, or his discussion of the parallels between Great Expectations and Sunset Boulevard. There, you see - you are just going to have to take a look at them again.

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