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Sound recordings offer us extraordinary insights into the past.

To take just one example from my own experience.  I had read the text many times, but I never fully understood the popularity or impact of J.B. Priestley’s Second World War radio broadcasts until I heard him speak.  His homely, warm Yorkshire tones contrasted with the cutglass BBC English of the announcer and created a welcoming world of shared experience: intimate, comfortable, encouraging – a popular voice.

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However sound recordings are extremely tricky to manage.  Like film, they present a mass of complications.  Sound recordings exist in many many formats, often short-lived and made of vulnerable materials.  These formats require equipment to access them.  This quickly becomes obsolete and hard to obtain.  Said equipment also must be stored and made available to listeners.  It is also more difficult to get a quick sense of the content of a sound recording compared to a photograph or a book.

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From moonshake’s flickr stream under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

All of which means that sound recordings in archives are less likely to be catalogued and made available than paper or photographic media.  Hidden from the public, many are deteriorating fast.  The British Library estimates that we only have only a few years before the task of preserving the national sound record becomes impossible …

Lots of excellent work is already being done by larger organisations, but there is much more to do.  The British Library is surveying the UK’s sound collections to find out more about what we have and whether it is at risk.   Please do complete the survey if you have any such collections – it’s a step towards preserving them.

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Open reel audio tape from Idedeyan’s flickr stream under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Part of the Dorrance Stalvey Papers (Collection Number 1896). UCLA Library Special Collections.

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