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19 February 2020updated 20 Feb 2020 10:25am

The noise of time

The British Library Sound Archive preserves millions of audio recordings for future generations. But what does the past sound like – and can listening to it help us understand history better?

By Sanjana Varghese

In 1930, a 17-year-old boy called Patrick Saul walked into a music shop in London in search of a particular recording of a violin sonata by the Hungarian composer Dohnányi. It was no longer on sale, and Saul moved swiftly on to the British Museum, in the hope that he would at least be able to listen to the record there. On arrival, he was told that the museum held no gramophone records. Later in life, after founding the National Sound Archive, Saul would describe the sensation of realising that the record was completely lost as “feeling like a child hearing about death for the first time”.

After time spent working in a bank and studying, and several years haranguing wealthy donors, Saul opened the Institute of Recorded Sound (as it was first called) in 1955. Many decades, grants and buildings later, it’s now the British Library Sound Archive, home to more than seven million recordings of all kinds. Housed in a nondescript part of the British Library in London, recordings are preserved on every format from wax cylinders to WAV files. Clips date back to the beginning of recorded sound and range from an oral history of jazz in Britain to the call of the Bolivian earthcreeper bird.

In the years since its inception, the archive has expanded what it preserves, including global music and radio broadcasts, interviews with famous cultural figures and even sound maps, where people can upload recordings of themselves speaking with their own regional accents to the Sound Archive’s website.

Preserving the sounds of the past and present for future generations is a Herculean task, and audio recordings aren’t viewed as historical artefacts in the same way that photos and letters often are. So what does history sound like? And how do you choose which sounds are worthy of record?

Emily Thompson, recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2005 and author of The Soundscape of Modernity in 2002 (which is widely credited with launching the field of sound studies), emphasises that using sound as a lens to view history can give us particular insights. In 2013, she created a website called the Roaring Twenties – an interactive map of noise complaints in New York City from 1926 to 1932. In an introduction to the website, Thompson explained that her aim went beyond simply presenting the sounds to a new audience. “The goal is to recover the meaning of sound, to undertake a historicised mode of listening that tunes our modern ears to the pitch of the past.”

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Like Thompson’s database, the Sound Archive preserves the context and technical details of each of the sounds that it holds, so that anyone who listens to a recording can understand where it is situated historically. “We have this ability to travel back in time,” says Will Prentice, the head of technical sound at the archive. “We’re a visually oriented culture, so people aren’t necessarily aware of the value of sound. But the great thing about sound recordings is that they’re a recording of time.” Listening to a folk song from the 1950s, or to a talk between two leading intellectuals in the 1960s, has a very particular function – it juxtaposes the past with our experience of the present. Inevitably, we find similarities and differences – the most common sound on the streets of London in the early 1900s is the jarring clop of a horse’s hoof, but the calls of a stall keeper at Berwick open-air market are almost indistinguishable from the sounds you would hear in a similar location now.

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Trying to understand the past is a slow, incremental process, and it’s often not as distant from contemporary life as it seems. Some of the sounds we now consider historical – the dial-up tone of a modem, for example, or the choo-choo of a traditional locomotive train – have only recently become artefacts of the past. Many of the irritating sounds of today – such as the chime of an iPhone, or the growl of a motorbike – will soon go the same way.

Some of the recordings are donations, while others are specially commissioned, as a team of curators try to fill gaps in the collection in an attempt to ensure, for example, that the particular lilt of an accent from the Midlands has been documented. “If our copy is lost, then it’s completely lost to humanity,” says Prentice. “I want everything to be preserved, because it’s here for a reason.” The archive holds 185,000 cassette tapes. In the next five years, it is hoping to digitise 160,000, containing about half a million recordings. (The copyright will be cleared for roughly 20 per cent of those tapes, so they can be put online.) But that still leaves thousands of recordings that could be lost forever.

In the archive, a sound engineer, sifting through boxes of discs and tapes, is usually one of the first to listen to a recording, and try to put it into a category. In a single day, an engineer or an archivist could go from listening to an interview with an exorcist from the 1970s, to the sound of a specific kind of frog in Indonesia. Some recordings arrive with a note or an estimation of what they are (“1918, radio broadcast, Devon?”), but others require the engineer to pay attention to the language that people may use, or the kinds of instruments being played.


In 1857, the French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville patented the phonautograph, the earliest sound recording device. It was composed of a very large funnel and a needle, which tracked vibrations on soot-covered glass (the earliest visual representation of a sound wave). Twenty years later, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which had two needles – one for recording, one for playback – although the funnel remained large in order to capture a range of frequencies. Today, many of the archive’s recordings are stored on formats such as vinyl, tapes and wax cylinders.

Those recordings are vulnerable and grow closer to erosion every year. Even if the recording itself is in perfect shape, the equipment necessary to listen to it could very well become obsolete. A decade ago, a particular kind of professional-grade, reel-to-reel machine could be bought for £100 on eBay. Now, they go for upwards of £1,800, and finding technicians with the knowledge to operate them is tricky. As a result, the archive has significantly expanded its digitisation efforts, as part of an initiative called Save our Sounds, due to run until 2023. Under it, the archive has partnered with regional centres around the UK, training engineers and archivists in the technical knowledge they need to continue preserving local history, and ensuring the focus isn’t solely on its work in London.

That includes visiting nursing homes and schools with tapes, vinyl and MP3 files in tow – playing audiences in classrooms and community halls the oral histories of their area, or a radio broadcast about a local news event in the 1960s. “You’re telling people something about themselves and the places they’re from, something that even they don’t know,” says Prentice. “We play people recordings of the inside of a steel mill, and for people who used to work in them, it kicks up all sorts of memories.”

At the Sound Archive, everyday occurrences (such as a conversation between two friends from Manchester, detailing their schooldays) are given equal weight to significant events (a recording from Joel Joffe, Nelson Mandela’s defence counsel, recounting Mandela’s famous Rivonia Trial speech of 1964) or moments of cultural interest (an hour-long recording of John Berger reading one of his short stories at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1991). They’re all digitised and preserved, carefully tagged on the website so that anyone who wants to find them can. There are moving recordings of people from around the UK, many of whom are not household names but whose accounts of their own lives – the people they met, the music they listened to, the things which they felt and saw – are crucial to understanding the past. Within the walls of the archive, history becomes more than a collection of news headlines and incidents, but a series of emotional excursions too.

The archive’s careful, considered work is arguably a contrast to an emerging model of preservation, where websites such as YouTube or the internet more broadly act as inadvertent and inadequate archives. In March 2019, MySpace announced it had lost tens of millions of music files that had been uploaded to the website between 2003 and 2015.

Belying the adage that everything on the internet lives forever, a dichotomy seems to emerge. Access to the internet democratises the sounds of history, making them freely available to people without specialist equipment or knowledge. But the actual materials themselves – music, field recordings, clips of ambient noise – are maintained on websites and social networks that may shut down in a year, or require software that will soon become defunct.

While digitisation is necessary to preserve many of the older recordings, some of which are rapidly deteriorating, intangible parts of a recording may disappear too. In his podcast and book of the same name, Ways of Hearing, musician and writer Damon Krukowski explores changes in sound quality – and what that means for our experiences of it. Krukowski notes that the shift from analogue sound recording to digital formats alters our sense of time as the compression and processing inherent to most digital formats cuts out ambient or background noise.

Of course, ambient and background noises are a big part of what the archive seeks to preserve. A recording of a Number 7 Routemaster bus from 1987, taken from the top deck as it travels through Portobello Road, makes you feel like you’re there, thanks to the whir of a distant engine, the particular, bright ding of the bell signalling a stop, the slow patter of rain on the window. When the recording ends, you may look up and be surprised to find yourself in the same time and place. Analogue recordings have an appealing imperfection about them. The crackles, static and background noise are part of what makes them so immersive.

The archive needs further funding and partnerships to digitise and preserve everything that it currently holds, which has led some to suggest that not all of its material may be useful. “If we don’t do it now, then we won’t be able to do it in the future,” says Prentice. This is a core tenet of the archive, present since its founding days. In 1955, Saul and newly appointed governors at the Institute of Recorded Sound appealed to the public to give them any recordings they might have – nothing would be rejected “on aesthetic grounds”. It was controversial then, and potentially still is – but as one of those governors pointed out, “We cannot tell just what will interest posterity… the only safe rule is to be omnivorous.”

Even as the world seems to be getting louder, the advent of headphones and portable music players have offered the opportunity to choose what sounds you hear, to shut everything else out. Listening to the rush and din of a busy street in Manchester from half a century ago is also a reminder that sound itself used to be a shared experience – in concert halls, on busy streets, gathered around a radio in a living room. The sound recordings of the 2020s will likely sound very different to those of a century ago – potentially more fragmented, and almost definitely more chaotic. But if institutions such as the archive are listening carefully, then future generations will be able to hear the past, as well as the present. 

This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics