Interview by Lindsey Tydeman
This is all new to me – I’ve never worked in archives before! As a child I learned the violin and went on to do a music degree. There was a small recording module on the course which involved time in a studio and I absolutely loved it. I used to stay there for as long as possible and one of the lecturers found me some work in a studio. The producer I was working for was the first person to teach me the importance of preserving sound recordings and my interest began there.
There are four of us based at The Keep; we started in November last year and we form the South-East Hub of the British Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project (UOSH). There are ten regional hubs and we are all involved in digitising cassette and open reel recordings, both to preserve them and eventually provide to better access. Before we play them, however, we have to check the condition of the cassettes and reels. Many of them have been sitting in boxes for years and will need remedial treatment if they are sticky, mouldy or brittle. If we tried to play these straightaway we could possibly end up damaging them. Some items need special treatment before they can be digitised – in fact I feel very sad when I take an open reel tape out of its box only to find that it’s disintegrated.
One of the best things about this job is the huge diversity of content. Since we started at The Keep, we’ve digitised the oral history collections from the Lewes U3A Group and the Ashdown Forest Heathland Project, and have recently completed digitising the Australian Migration Collection, which accompanies the book Ten Pound Poms; Australia’s Invisible Migrants by A James Hammerton and Alistair Thomson (Manchester University Press). We’re currently working on lectures from the Headstrong Club in Lewes and the Raye du Val Archive, and as part of the project, will be digitising material that ranges from motor sounds from the National Motoring Museum Trust’s collection, to birdsong, programmes from the early years of Radio Brighton, and reminiscences for D-Day commemorations.
Our priority is to make all this material accessible but this currently depends on copyright issues. If the material has rights clearance, it will be uploaded into the British Library Universal Player and this will be available to the public when the Sounds.BL.UK project launches in September. If we have no rights clearance, anyone wanting to access the recordings will need to hear them where they are stored, and this will usually be in regional libraries or archives such as The Keep. We’re in the very early days of the project, so watch this space!
Do I listen to it all? I’d love to, but we digitise two items at a time so I only get to hear a percentage of what’s there. Items can last from three minutes to 13 hours, so it would take forever if I did one item at a time! However, I have managed to listen to some of a U3A oral project which covered the years from the 1980s to 2002 – it’s a fascinating record of social change. And I love knowing that I’m probably the first one to listen to it since it was packed away!
Of course the job has its challenges. One is when you’re presented with a good collection of tapes but you can’t play them – not because of remedial reasons, but because we simply don’t have the correct equipment to play them on. For example, the recordings of Sussex folk music made by the Copper family were originally recorded at a slower speed than our equipment can play, so we have only digitised half of them so far. We can’t leave it at that – somehow we need to get hold of a slow-speed (1.78 ips) open reel machine. There must be one out there somewhere!