Sound and vision blog

341 posts categorized "Recording of the week"

17 January 2022

Recording of the week: Norman Ackroyd on Henry Moore

This week’s selection comes from Karen Atkinson, Assistant Librarian at the Henry Moore Institute.

The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds has collaborated with National Life Stories on its Artists’ Lives project since the inception of the project in 1990. Past and present colleagues have interviewed artists, whilst visitors can listen to a small selection of extracts on the NLS sound point in our welcome area. Selected full interviews are available in our Sculpture Research Library.

Part of my role at the Henry Moore Institute is to curate the sound point. This allows me to delve into Artists’ Lives to listen to artists talking about subjects relating to the exhibition, research and library programmes at the Institute. I find these personal accounts provide wonderful insights into topics ranging from their art school experience, views on past exhibitions, to their artistic thought processes.

Currently on display at the Institute is a small exhibition of Henry Moore sculptures, drawings and collages which focus on Moore’s use of natural forms. Whilst thinking about the exhibition I discovered Norman Ackroyd’s interview with Cathy Courtney where the artist shares an encounter he had with Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure: Festival’ outside Temple Newsam House in the 1950s.

Norman Ackroyd on drawing a Henry Moore sculpture [BL REF C466/293]

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The announcement of the sculpture coming to Leeds had drawn negative comments from readers in the local press but the young Ackroyd decided to see the work for himself, taking drawing paper to sketch the work in situ. Ackroyd gained a greater understanding of the sculpture, relating the natural forms Moore was using to similar shapes he saw in bones when boiling meat. Some smaller reclining figures can be seen in the current exhibition at the Institute.

Three Henry Moore sculptures on display in cabinets in an exhibition roomImage courtesy of the Henry Moore Foundation. Photo by John McKenzie.

Henry Moore explained the importance of these natural forms in his work and how he gained inspiration from collecting objects such as stones, bones and shells, which he then drew, modelled or photographed.

For me, everything in the world of form is understood through our own bodies. From our mother’s breast, from our bones, from bumping into things, we learn what is rough and what is smooth. To observe, to understand, to experience the vast variety of space, shape and form in the world, twenty lifetimes would not be enough.

Henry Moore, 1978

Norman Ackroyd was interviewed by Cathy Courtney for the National Life Stories project Artists’ Lives, 2009-2011. British Library Sound & Moving Image reference C466/293.  

This extract is currently playing on the National Life Stories sound point at the Henry Moore Institute. The exhibition Henry Moore: Configuration runs until 23 January 2022.   

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10 January 2022

Recording of the week: A new year song from Vanuatu

This week’s selection comes from Vicky Barnecutt, True Echoes Research Fellow.

In early 1924, just before leaving the island of Efate due to ill health, the Presbyterian missionary Eric Raff used a phonograph to record around 30 songs on wax cylinders. The performers of these songs came from villages around Port Vila on Efate, the capital of what was then the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides, now the Republic of Vanuatu.

Map of the islands of the Republic of VanuatuMap of Vanuatu © Nations Online Project. Efate circled in red.


These twelve cylinders, now digitised, form the Eric Raff 1924 Efate, New Hebrides Cylinder Collection (C83) at the British Library Sound Archive. The collection is being researched as part of the True Echoes project. Fieldworkers from the Vanuatu Cultural Centre/Vanuatu Kaljorel Senta, a project partner, have recently started to take the recordings back to the communities from which they originate.

The second track of cylinder C83/1502 was described as a New Year song, sung by Tavero and Leiboni from Meli, and Turi from Leleppa.

A new year song from Vanuatu [BL REF C83/1502]

Eric Raff’s widow, Ruth, typed up the translations and transcriptions of the recordings shortly after her husband’s death in 1927. The relevant section for this song includes a translation by Nganga, who was probably a Mele chief at that time:

Transcription and translation of the New Year SongA typed transcription and translation of 'New Year Song' produced by Ruth Raff and held at the British Library Sound Archive (cropped).

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In 1924, 'Meli' referred to the small offshore island of Mele in Mele Bay. In 1950, the government of the New Hebrides ordered the population of Mele Island to relocate to the mainland; today, Mele, or Imere, is a large village a few miles north-west of Port Vila. Around 2000 people speak the Mele language, which is of Polynesian origin. Leleppa, or Lelepa, is an island off the northwest coast of Efate.

Map of Efate, Vanuatu, showing the locations of Mele and Lelepa islands, and Mele village today.Map of Efate, Vanuatu, showing the locations of Mele and Lelepa islands, and Mele village today. Map data ©2021 Google.

Ambong Thompson, Manager of the National Film, Sound and Photo Unit at the Vanuatu Cultural Centre, spoke to Jimmy Lulu Subuso, the fieldworker at Mele village, to ask him about this New Year song. Ambong shared the following via email on 7th December 2021:

Jimmy Lulu Subuso […] confirmed that the singers on C83/1502 were from Mele village. The two singers were Leiboni Sael Taravaki and Tavero Sarapera whose generations are still living today at Mele village. The people of Mele were excited to hear the old voices and Jimmy told me this morning that they are working on recording the same song with more people taking part in the singing. The people of Mele are very well known for singing old and new songs celebrating the new year. They can sing for whole night till dawn. Between Christmas and New Year they can also visit surrounding villages on Efate including some parts of Port Vila capital with their singing and at the same time welcoming new year 2022.

A photo of Jimmy Lulu Subuso holding a guitar at the Vanuatu Cultural CentreJimmy Lulu Subuso, Vanuatu Cultural Centre fieldworker for Mele village.

The song is interesting for many reasons. It shows how concepts introduced through colonial government and Christian churches, such as the Gregorian calendar and the New Year, were celebrated in local languages and local music styles. We do not know exactly when the people of Mele started their tradition of singing in the New Year like this, but it may have been well-established by 1924. To welcome in 2022, we are proud to share with you, 98 years after it was recorded, the song sung by Tavero, Leiboni, and Turi.We thank Ambong, Jimmy Lulu, and the villagers of Mele for their support in producing this recording of the week.

True Echoes – funded by the Leverhulme Trust and BEIS – is a three-year research project centred on the British Library’s collection of Oceanic wax cylinders. These cylinders were recorded between 1898 and 1924 in the Torres Strait Islands (Australia), Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. True Echoes is working with national cultural institutions in Australia and the Pacific to increase the visibility and accessibility of the collections and reconnect the digitised sound recordings with the communities from which they originate.

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27 December 2021

Recording of the week: 'Kuli milimo', there is work in the house of the Lord

This week’s selection comes from Edoardo Marcarini, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Inspired by the festive atmosphere, I bring you not one but two recordings this week. These are meant to be appreciated together just like the turkey and gravy some people will have indulged themselves with this Christmas.

It’s 1973 and we are in Zambia, Brian Stubbings is currently spending his second year among the Tonga people of Kafue and surrounding areas. Over the course of seven years Stubbings will record many traditional songs sung on different occasions. This is the case of our first recording, a kutwa song sung by two women pounding grains using a mortar and pestle.

Women pound maize with a pestle in a mortar Women pounding grains with a pestle in Kalabaya village, Chief Sinadambwe chieftancy, Gwembe Valley, Zambia, 1973. Photo by Brian Stubbings.

They sing:

Kuli milimo (4x), kun'ganda ya ba nasi kulimilimo, alimwi cilabilikita yalila, wailesi njemilimo

[There is work, there is work in the house of the nurse there is work]

Kutwa Song [BL REF C1417/2 BD1]

The pounding of the mortar provides a rhythmical framework for the song, while singing makes the pounding more regular and the workload lighter.
You would probably be surprised to hear the same tune sung in a church, yet, that same melody was arranged into a Christian song by the Kafue Composer's Club, a group of dedicated students who worked closely with Stubbings.

The lyrics have been changed, and the rhythmical pounding of the mortar has been replaced by handclaps and single notes played on a kalimba, a wooden idiophone – not to be confused with the homonym lamellophone!

Here, they sing:

There is work, there is work in the house of the Lord there is work

Christian song based on a pounding tune [BL REF C1417/2 BD2]

Re-arranging popular and traditional melodies for religious purposes is a fairly common practice around the world. In fact, I was very surprised when, as a child, I found out Simon and Garfunkel’s 'The Sound of Silence' wasn’t originally an Italian Catholic song.

In this specific case the use of a traditional tune is rather important, as it signals a necessary transition from a purely European form to a more grassroots approach to Christian music that uses local tunes.

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13 December 2021

Recording of the week: Recollections from a political activist

This week’s selection comes from Georgia Dack, Web Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

The British Library recently launched its new website Speaking Out, an online learning resource exploring the power of public speaking, protest and debate through its sound archive.

Featured in Speaking Out, is an interview with Lou Kenton (1908 – 2012), captured by Louise Brodie and Roy Gore as part of the Labour Oral History Project. Kenton was a big player in the campaign to suppress fascism and anti-Semitism in interwar Britain. As someone who knew little about the British anti-fascism movement in the 1930s, I found it fascinating to listen to Kenton’s recollection of events, and learn about his rich and intriguing life of political activism.

In the 1930s, British fascism had a short-lived rise that mirrored that of Nazi Germany, but lost momentum and died out at the beginning of the Second World War. The fascist movement was ushered in by Oswald Mosly, a Conservative-then-Labour MP who, taking inspiration from Hitler and Mussolini, formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in 1932. The party similarly adopted virulent anti-Semitism and exploited widespread unemployment and poverty to gain traction. Its uniformed paramilitary group, the Blackshirts, brought violence and intimidation to the BUF rallies often in held in London’s Jewish neighbourhoods.

Lou Kenton, born in Stepney to Ukrainian Jewish parents, left school at 14 to work in a paper factory, where he experienced such anti-Semitism first hand. This led him to join the Communist Party in 1929. As a printer, he also galvanised his trade union in anti-fascist work. As far-right sentiment grew, Kenton participated in two major events that helped to stifle the rise of the BUF. In the clip below Kenton talks about an attempt to disrupt a rally at the Kensington Olympia in June 1934. The Blackshirts responded to hecklers brutally, but they received a torrent of negative press as a result.

Lou Kenton on the BUF rally at Kensington Olympia

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Woman being violently arrested by police in political protestImage © Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

On 4 October 1936, Mosly had planned a march in the East End of London, an area with a distinct Jewish community. This led to the Battle of Cable Street, in which 6000 Metropolitan Police officers worked to clear a path for the BUF’s march of some 3000 people – but thousands of anti-fascists and local people outnumbered them and successfully blocked their route. Kenton was one of the people behind organising this, and during the event, he sped on his motorcycle to relay police movements to the crowds.

Lou Kenton describes the Battle of Cable Street

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Mosley called the march off, and the Public Order Act of 1937 was passed, which banned the wearing of political uniforms in public. The British Government finally banned the BUF in 1940.

Kenton continued to be a remarkably dedicated campaigner and activist for the rest of his life. In 1937, he rode his motorcycle to Spain during the civil war and joined the International Brigades (IB) as an ambulance driver on the front lines; in 2009, he was awarded Spanish citizenship for his contribution. Following the brutal Nazi massacre of the village of Lidice, Kenton joined the ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaign and served as its chairman.

After the Second World War, he helped organise the Homes for Heroes campaign, which helped homeless veterans and their families take residence in unoccupied properties. He worked for the communist party until the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, after which he was a member of the Labour party for the rest of his life. He worked for the Financial Times as a proofreader into his 70s, but even well into retirement, Kenton supported his causes, creating commemorative pottery for trade unions.

Speaking Out has been delivered as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, a UK-wide project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, that will help save the nation’s sounds and open them up to everyone.

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29 November 2021

Recording of the Week: The musical pillars of a medieval Indian temple

This week's selection comes from Jim Hickson, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In the British Library's sound archive collections, we have a lot of recordings of temple music – various types of song and music in dedication to any number of religions across the world, performed in a holy space.

Today’s Recording of the Week is temple music with a slight difference –music performed not only in a temple, but also on a temple.

Hampi030Some of the musical pillars of the Vittala Temple. Photo by Tom Vater’s travel companion Aroon Thaewchatturat.

The Shri Vijaya Vittala Temple sits among the breath-taking and sprawling ruins of the ancient city of Hampi, in Karnataka, India. Dedicated to Vittala, a manifestation of the god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna, the temple began construction sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries but was never finished – the city was destroyed in 1565.

The impressive temple is famous for many reasons, including a giant stone shrine in the shape of a chariot, which is pictured on the ₹50 note. It is also known for its 56 musical pillars.

Each of the temple’s eight main pillars are surrounded by seven smaller pillars. When these small pillars are struck with the hand or a wooden beater, they ring in a clear, bell-like tone. Not only that, but each pillar in a set is tuned to a different note, meaning that together they sound a scale on which music can be performed.

Vittala Temple C799/6 S1 C2 [BL REF]

The pillars are made from solid granite, with minute differences in size and shape to give them their clear and perfectly-tuned tones. Different pillars are also said to represent different instruments, some representing melody instruments such as the veena and some representing percussion such as the mridangam.

This recording – which can be found in the sound archive's catalogue, was made by Tom Vater in 1995, and it’s one of the clearest and most detailed recording of a ‘performance’ of the Vittala Temple pillars. While most other recordings demonstrate the sound of just one or two pillars, Vater’s captures the sound of several sets of notes, while insects and birds fill the soundscape behind.

The entirety of the ruined city of Hampi is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and in order to protect the temple and its pillars, it is no longer permitted to play the musical pillars. Vater’s recording gives a valuable insight into this fascinating monument of the medieval world as well as being an outstanding and intriguing document in its own right: where temple music meets 'architecturomusicology'!

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18 November 2021

Introducing the Collections in Dialogue commission with Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library

Written by Jill McKnight, Artist-in-Residence.

I am an artist based in Leeds working across sculpture, writing, installation, drawing and print and I’ve been selected as the artist in residency for Collections in Dialogue, a co-commission project by the British Library and Leeds Art Gallery. The project brief particularly interested me because it focused on cultural identity which is one of my central artistic concerns, particularly the representation of working-class people in Northern England and lesser-heard voices that would otherwise be lost or overlooked. This opportunity has been incredibly timely, enabling me to develop these interests through researching the Library’s and Leeds Art Gallery’s digitised collections. My research will culminate in an exhibition of new artwork at Leeds Art Gallery next year.

I am exploring specific areas of the two collections; World & Traditional Music and Accents and Dialects collections in the British Library’s sound archive and Works on Paper at Leeds Art Gallery. As both collections are vast – 6.5 million recordings in the sound archive, and over 10,000 works on paper – I established key themes to direct my research. As an artist working in the city, I chose to explore how people in the Leeds region have represented themselves and others in the two collections. Where there are gaps in representation in one collection, particularly of people traditionally underrepresented in the arts, I plan to bring them into conversation with representations in the other collection through my work.

Following meetings with British Library Curators Jonnie Robinson and Andrea Zarza and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team, I have been searching the Library’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue to identify relevant recordings.

The Opie Collection of Children’s Games & Songs fascinates me because rhymes passed down by word of mouth tell collective stories about society. Rowland Kellet was a folklorist born in Leeds, who I learned about from this collection. Kellet collected children’s games, songs and jingles from across the UK, including variations of the same song in different parts of Leeds. Although many different versions of folk songs exist, each version is unique to the performer. These communal songs share a relationship with work songs and folk songs, which connect with Leeds’ industrial history.

Kellett comments on the timelessness of these songs in his interview with Iona Opie, saying, ‘There is no life, there’s no deaths of these songs. To me they are eternal. You can’t kill them because, because if you try to kill it you bring a different variant of it.’ I have been fortunate to view some of Kellet’s paper archives held at Leeds Central Library, and will be listening to folk songs performed by Kellet, recently catalogued as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Leeds is a city that has thrived due to the diversity of its population. In recordings like 'Conversation in Leeds about accent, dialect and attitudes to language', part of BBC Voices, six interviewees from Moortown, Leeds, talk about their own accents, Yorkshire dialect and the Punjabi language – one interviewee recognises both regions as being rooted in common industrial identities, saying, ‘you could say they were twin cities basically, twin states Yorkshire and Punjab.’

In 'Leeds - Millennium Memory Bank' six teenagers from South Leeds talk about being proud of working-class, with one explaining, ‘Even when my dad gives me pocket money I don’t like it, because you know like I ending washing up for him or something, because I like earning money because then I know I’ve worked for it.’ This same work ethic in 1999 connects with lines from folk song The Maid’s Lament, performed by Mrs Johnstone and recorded in 1967, by Fred Hamer.

Excerpt of The Maid's Lament sung by Mrs Johnstone [BL REF C433/7]

At Leeds Art Gallery, I chose to focus on the works on paper collection due to its range – from sketches to finished compositions; watercolours to photography; large quantity and conservation considerations that have meant some works have never been on display.

Works of art on paper spread out across a wooden table.            Selection of works on paper that I viewed in person at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

I met with Assistant Curator Laura Claveria to discuss key words and themes, including working-class culture, women, children and Leeds-related artists, from which Laura sent an initial longlist of relevant works from the collection. From this, I made a shortlist to view in person. It was fantastic to see the works up close, where intricacies and details conveying the hand of the artist often jump out more directly than in digital form.

Artist sitting at a wooden table consulting paper files and writing with pencil in notebook.                 Researching Edna Lumb’s artist file archive at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

So far I have discovered a number of artists unknown to me, including Edna Lumb (1931-1992) and Effie Hummerston (1891-1982). Both artists were born and studied in Leeds and went on to capture some of the area’s male-dominated industrial landscapes in their paintings. Edna Lumb’s work achieved national recognition during her lifetime. This is reflected in the large amount of material in Lumb’s artist file. However, critics noted that it was the scientific community, rather than artistic, who more frequently celebrated the work due to its realist depiction of industrial technology.

Painting of Tingley Gas Works in the distant horizon above green fields.                Edna Lumb, Tingley Gas Works, oil on canvas, 1964. © Leeds Museums & Galleries.

Another fascinating part of the collection are works on paper by seven artists that were ideas for a mural scheme for Leeds Town Hall, a commission in 1920 led by Michael Sadler, which was also intended as a commemorative response to the First World War. Artists selected were local and national including Percy Hague Jowett, Jacob Kramer and Albert Rutherston. The mural designs took into account the architecture of the Town Hall, with features such as doorways represented by blank spaces. The majority of the works feature industrial or pastoral scenes of Leeds, including woollen mills, the canal and Kirkstall Abbey. Perhaps this is how the artists thought the people of Leeds would want their city represented, however the designs were heavily criticised and the murals were never realised, providing an insight into the politics of that time.

My first few weeks of research have unearthed an abundance of stories, which I am now responding to through initial sketches and writing of my own. This will further direct my ongoing research and inform my final proposal at the start of next year for the exhibition in spring.

Collections in Dialogue

Collections in Dialogue is a new artist co-commission project between Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library.

It is formed around the commissioning an artist based in the North of England to work with collections at both institutions as a catalyst to produce new work that creates a dialogue between them. Following a recruitment process, the commission was awarded to Jill McKnight in summer 2021. The work Jill creates will be exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery from March – October 2022 with some digital elements shown online.

Collections in Dialogue is part of the British Library’s growing culture programme in Leeds and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project.

15 November 2021

Recording of the week: Graham Stuart Thomas on bringing historic flowers back to life

This week's selection comes from Chloe Lafferty, Remote Volunteer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

As autumn slowly unfurls, with colder mornings and falling leaves, it is comforting to think of sunshine and new life. ‘Down to Earth: An Oral History of British Horticulture’ documents the lives and careers of twentieth century gardeners, landscape architects, and other horticultural experts in a series of long life story interviews and was conducted by Louise Brodie between 2001 and 2009, in the UK. Audio recordings of these interviews have recently been digitised as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project, and in the following excerpt, horticulturist Graham Stuart Thomas (1909-2003) discusses his life-long interest in historic roses with Louise Brodie. The interview took place in 2001.

Graham Stuart Thomas talks about roses C1029/03/04 [BL REF]

Graham Stuart Thomas began collecting roses early in his career as a nurseryman, motivated ‘to bring forth these lovely things from retirement’. Many of these varieties had become rare by the mid 20th century, as they were less commercially viable than modern roses. The culmination of Thomas’ work now forms the 'National Collection of pre-1900 roses', cared for by the National Trust at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire, U.K.

A painted engraving of a roseRosa centifolia foliacea, a painted engraving of a rose by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759–1840).

However, this national collection of traditional flowers has some surprising links to revolutionary France.

This 2001 interview with Thomas demonstrates the connections between his own research and the botanical prints of Belgian artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840). Redouté’s prints are as detailed as photographs, but were painted over two hundred years ago, when the artist was patronised by Marie-Antoinette, and subsequently Napoleon’s wife Josephine. As Thomas describes in the following excerpt from his interview, Redouté’s work helped to document the roses growing in Josephine’s garden at Malmaison. He has been termed the ‘Raphael’ of flowers. 

Thomas talks about a historic collection of roses C1029/3/4 [BL REF]

In the mid 20th century Redouté’s prints were expensive and largely inaccessible. In order to research traditional rose varieties, Thomas needed to consult old volumes held in library collections; the British Library holds copies of much of Redouté’s work.

Since then, many of these prints have been digitised and are widely available online, which would have saved Thomas significant amounts of time and effort!

painting of students at botanical drawing school in 17th century FranceJulie Ribault, Pierre-Joseph Redoute's school of botanical drawing in the Salle Buffon in the Jardin des Plantes, 1830.

These interviews demonstrate how Redouté’s prints influenced Graham Stuart Thomas’ rose collection, and their legacy survives in a living garden. Although most roses bloom in early summer, some of Thomas’ historic examples make an appearance in autumn, and are still there even though the leaves are beginning to fall.

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08 November 2021

Recording of the week: James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union

By Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

The British Library launches a new web resource this week. It is called 'Speaking Out', and it seeks to explore the spoken word in its most forceful guise: that of the public address.  Through historical archive recordings, together with new essays, we aim to shine a light on the art and power of public speaking in all its forms.

Today's 'Recording of the Week' showcases a landmark speech by the US writer James Baldwin.

On 18 February 1965 Baldwin was invited to speak at the Cambridge University Union. The motion was 'The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro'. His opposite number in the debate was the conservative writer and broadcaster William F. Buckley Jr., a supporter of the racial segregation that existed in the Southern states.

The debate was a significant moment in the story of the US civil rights struggle. Baldwin's speech specifically is among the most celebrated in the history of the Cambridge Union. David Leeming's 1994 biography of Baldwin tells us it received a standing ovation and carried the post-debate vote, receiving 544 votes, as against 184 for Buckley.

Photo of James Baldwin - copyright Getty Images

James Baldwin. Photo copyright © Getty Images. 

Listen to James Baldwin

Audio copyright © James Baldwin Estate

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Founded in 1815, the Cambridge Union Society is the oldest debating society in the world. Speakers are drawn from all walks of public life and include politicians, peers, scientists, journalists, celebrities, experts of all kinds, and student debaters. 

In the summer of 2007, following successful negotiations with the Cambridge Union Society, the collected recordings of more than 600 of the Society's weekly debates were transferred to the care of the British Library. The Society was concerned to find a new permanent home for the collection, lacking the facilities on their own premises for archival storage of the material or the provision of regular public or student access to it.

The period covered is 1963-1999. Although the bulk of the collection is made up of TDK D90 audio cassettes dating from 1983 onwards, there are also many open reel tapes dating from the earlier period (such as the James Baldwin tape, pictured below). 

Photo of James Baldwin tape box

All the recordings are available to listen to at the British Library but you will need to apply for a Reader Pass if you don't already have one.

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