Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

Thousands of cassettes, open reels, CDs and MiniDiscs are sitting in archives, museums, libraries and in people’s homes all over the UK. All kinds of unique live music, radio and conversation are recorded on these tapes and discs. We’ve already lost many of the people captured on them. And the British Library estimates that we have fifteen years to preserve the sounds themselves.

Unique sounds held on physical formats risk being lost as the carriers degrade over time and the equipment to play them is no longer produced. If we don’t transfer the tapes from analogue to digital now (and get the data from the discs onto backed up storage) we many never get the chance again.

The Manchester Studies oral history collection at Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre

That’s why the British Library has received funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to establish Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, an exciting new national project to save thousands sounds which are at risk of being lost forever.

Archives+ is the hub partner for the North West region, which covers Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside. We’ll be digitising around 15,000 recordings on 5,000 cassettes, reels and optical discs held all over the region here at Manchester Central Library.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Manchester Central Library
Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Manchester Central Library

The collections proposed for digitisation range from the oral histories of seafarers, dockers and football fans in Liverpool, to mill and hospital workers in Lancashire, to the stories of mountaineers from the Mountain Heritage Trust, immigrant stories from Tameside and Cheshire lives captured by the Chester Archaeological Society. Not to mention dialect poetry from Lancashire to the Lakelands. And local BBC radio recordings from all over the region, as well as output from pioneering independent radio stations like Piccadilly Radio. Plus live music recordings including 1960s folk gigs on the Wirral, Royal Northern College of Music student performances, Irish traditional music and, of course, loads of brass bands!

So far we have started digitising three collections held at Manchester Central Library. The first is an eye-opening open reel collection called Voice in the Crowd, broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester in the mid-1970s. In it you can hear ordinary people describe their often extraordinary lives. Here’s the BBC Radio Manchester news team, some of whom put Voices in the Crowd together.

BBC Radio Manchester Newsroom, 1970 (m06300)

Listening to some of the interviews brings home how much things have changed since the 1970s – and not just in the Newsroom! Here’s a vegetarian talking about how she explains her ethical beliefs to other people.

Explaining vegetarianism to other people (RMAN/1121 © BBC Radio Manchester)

Meanwhile a sword-swallower explains why it’s not a good idea to eat curry or drink cola before a performance…

The diet of a sword-swallower and foods to avoid (RMAN/1155 © BBC Radio Manchester)

The second collection is a classic local oral history project recorded on cassette by BBC Radio Manchester journalist Alec Greenhalgh, who applied his journalism training to find out about the childhood experiences of elderly people around Manchester. Here’s an anonymous woman from Greenfield, born in 1893, describing her mother’s delicious sheep’s head broth…

Our third collection is the North West Film Archive’s oral histories. These capture memories of all kinds of cinema and film experiences across the region, from the projectionists to the punters. Frank Molyneux was twelve-year-old chocolate boy at the Thatto Heath Empire when he got his big break into the projection room…

The British Library will archive the digital sound files and provide access to a proportion of them online; the rest will available to listen to locally. We’ll be creating a sustainable centre of excellence in digital audio preservation here at Manchester Central Library, recruiting volunteers and involving new audiences in engaging with their audio heritage in innovative ways.

Follow this blog for much more from the project team and volunteers – including lots more voices from the archives, project updates, and advice on caring for your own sound archives.

You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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