In early 2015 I was fortunate enough to catch Bex Lyons giving a presentation on The Academic Book of the Future. This is a research project sponsored by the British Library and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and delivered by a research team led by Dr Samantha Rayner at UCL. The project seeks to explore the future of academic books in the context of open access publishing and digital change.
Aside from the fascinating debates about what constitutes ‘academic’, what constitutes a ‘book’, and what an ‘academic book’ might be in the current research landscape – I was struck by the potential applications of the project to the collection I am vested in at The British Library: sound.
The British Library sound archive is an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings dating back to the birth of recorded sound in the early 19th century. If you were to listen to our entire collection back to back, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no holidays or breaks, it would take you over 140 years – plus the collection is growing daily! It is a unique research resource, comparable only to the Library of Congress sound collections in the USA. Find out more about our collection here
Sound recordings are the closest thing to time travel that we have as a research tool. Take for instance this audio clip of JRR Tolkien visiting a tobacco shop. We are instantly transported to 1929 when the recording was made, and it is easy to feel that you are being addressed directly. The time that has passed between then and now seems to vanish. (image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/12255828365)
The Save Our Sounds project
Many of the British Library’s recordings are under threat of disappearing as technologies change and some formats begin to naturally decay, and in response to this challenge the Library has launched a major campaign to digitise our historic sound collections.
As well as enabling us to future-proof our collections, the Save Our Sounds campaign is a unique opportunity for us to take stock of our role as audio heritage archivists, cataloguers, librarians, and collectors. Part of this includes considering access and the ways in which our collections are used by researchers. It is here, at the crossroads of research and engagement, that linking up with The Academic Book of the Future project becomes very exciting.
At the moment, if an ‘academic text’ includes audio or visual resources these tend to be included as DVDs, CDs, and perhaps even CD-ROMs (yes, they are still floating around out there!). As the technological landscape of the world changes, the ability to access and play CDs, DVDs and most definitely CD-ROMs will become increasingly limited. From the initial survey work that has been done for the Save Our Sounds project, the main preservation concern is not that the recordings themselves are at risk of disappearing, but the obsolescence of the playback equipment.
So, how will audio-visual resources be included in academic books of the future?
In current and emerging contexts in which content is increasingly digitised and media-rich, how will the ability to incorporate audio-visual research directly into research outputs change the way in which these outputs are created, accessed, and referenced?
We hope that working with The Academic Book of the Future project to address some of these questions will offer important insights into how researchers are using sound and moving image resources, and highlight common issues and concerns across disciplines.
If you are or have used sound and/or audio-visual materials for research do please complete our short survey. The closing date is Friday 1st April.
A symposium has been arranged to discuss the findings of the survey & hear presentations by publishing houses, app developers, and researchers. The symposium will address and encourage discussing ways of working together to fully explore the potential of audio-visual components in the academic book of the future. Save the date – 23rd May 2016 at The British Library, London.
Find out more about Save our Sounds at www.bl.uk/save-our-sounds, follow @SoundHeritage for live updates from our digitisation studio, @SoundArchive for tweets from the sound team, and use #SaveOurSounds to join the conversation on Twitter.
Steven Dryden - Sound & Vision Reference Specialist