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This project has created a critical mass of the world's rich audio heritage at your finger tips.

British Library archival sound recordings project

Latest News (December 2009): Since the original funding, this project has received an additional tranche of project funding from JISC. The entire fruits of both projects are now available online at

Watch the YouTube Video

Watch the video created about the resource during its second phase of funding.


This project will deliver up to 12,000 items totalling 3,900 hours of segmented recordings from oral history, field and location recordings of traditional and improvised music, rare or deleted classical and popular music recordings, soundscape and educational material. This ground-breaking project will offer users an online fully-searchable digital library of sound recordings from one of the world’s treasure houses of audio heritage.

Users will be able to integrate some of the most evocative recordings to transform learning, teaching and research. Up to 12,000 recordings, totalling 3,900 hours of segmented encodings will represent the expansive range and diversity of the British Library Sound Archive.

The project

The British Library Archival Sound Recordings project draws material from 12,000 individual recordings selected from the Archive’s broad and eclectic holdings. These reflect its strengths in oral history, popular and classical music, soundscapes and spoken word recordings.

The digitisation process conforms to the British Library’s policies of preserving its fragile and difficult to play recordings, by creating sound-perfect copies from original source formats. The collections selected for inclusion in this new and innovative e-resource represent the British Library Sound Archive’s broad remit that includes field recordings, musical recordings and oral history to name a few. This seemingly diverse material is united by the emotional charge attached to the sounds themselves, which makes the resource so distinct from the printed word

The content

Over 2,000 of the recordings are available to the public online. These include classical music, accents and dialects, British wildlife, Holocaust testimonies, ethnographic wax cylinders and Ugandan field recordings. Staff and students at UK FE and HE institutions
can also log in and play or download recordings to cut, loop, transcribe, embed and otherwise repurpose for academic use. By making rare and often unpublished primary source material available online for the first time, Archival Sound Recordings has been opening up
new areas of research for academics, teachers, researchers and students.

Popular Music: the British Library is developing a teaching set of popular music from the last 50 years. Our popular-music curator has selected 400 tracks that will support the growing study of popular music in this country.

The African Writers Club: in the 1960s and 1970s, this was a regular programme on the BBC World Service on Africa. It included current affairs, arts and heritage programmes, which included people reading their own work, panel discussions and so on. It is an important spoken word package.

The Oral History of Jazz in Britain: this includes recording by the key figures in the British jazz scene, talking about their life experience, what has happened to them and reflections upon their careers and the development of jazz in the UK.

Visual Arts Interviews: as with the jazz interviews, each interview could be up to six or seven hours, and all of the key figures in painting, sculpture and photography have participated in this programme. The British Library has a very rich archive of what has been happening in the visual arts in the UK since the Second World War.

David Rycroft South Africa recordings: Rycroft was a linguist and musicologist who worked in the 1960s and 1970s in South African towns documenting and recording daily life and music.

The Klaus Wachsmann Uganda recordings: these are field recordings of traditional music in Uganda. This unique material will be digitised from so-called ‘acetate’ discs. There is a preservation issue here too, as acetate discs disintegrate over a period of time.

What distinguishes the last two collections is that unlike the others they are unpublished. This is the first time the British Library is making this material available to a broad audience.

Soundscapes: the British Library has a collection of sounds which reflect the broad environment around us. This collection will include material from the vast archive of wildlife sounds, and also some interesting collections of actuality, such as fog horns and other ‘industrial’ noise.

Records and record players: this audio-visual presentation is designed to show the technological development of the audio industry and also its social and commercial impacts. This will enable the material to be placed in a context for the teaching and learning environment. Whilst many users will be interested in the clips of material, there are others who will want to understand the origins and contexts of the recordings in order to make the most appropriate use of the material to which we are providing them access.

Sony Radio Awards: a selection from the Sound Archive’s holdings of the best of UK radio programming as entered for this annual competition in the 1980s and 1990s.

The process

In the course of the project the Sound Archive provided and developed applications that allow download, storage and manipulation of these audio clips in order to embed them in learning and teaching materials. This work will driven by the recommendations of a user panel. The methodology of the project is as innovative as the material. Exposure to the more unusual collections will be made more accessible by the provision of clear resource discovery metadata.

The future

The Sound Archive anticipates collaboration with British Library Learning (British Library’s education department) and JISC, to develop the applications of the project for a variety of potential users. A pilot demonstrator to test user need’s analysis on the user interface and resource discovery tools will be available from Autumn 2005. The full service launch is scheduled for Autumn 2006.

With over 3 million separate recordings held in the Sound Archive, totalling 550,000 hours, there is clearly scope for additional online resources.

Project Staff

Peter Findlay (Archival Sound Recordings Project Manager)
British Library
96 Euston Road,