Audio preservation in lockdown

By Esther Gill, Project Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

A helpful cat: one of the challenges of working from home.

We are living in unprecedented times, a cliche but true. Our project, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, stopped work on site at The Keep archives on March 19th 2020 and since then we’ve been working from home.

Like many people, we are facing a range of work-related challenges, above all the fact that we can’t get into the digitisation studio or use the equipment in it. In addition, we can’t listen to most of our recordings or bring home the archive documentation that provides context to what we are listening to. And all the while the team is juggling work with family responsibilities, the challenges of life in lockdown, caring for loved ones and, most importantly, staying at home.

So, what does it mean for an audio preservation project to be working in a time of lockdown? Well, we’ve had to be flexible about what we do, while maintaining the focus on our project ambition of preserving and improving access to sound recordings across the South East and the wider UK. For us at The Keep is has meant:

Implementing our ‘ideas list

Those ideas that we’ve talked about but not quite got around to finishing are now coming to the fore. Our Engineers have been focussing on a range of tasks including sorting out our image bank – a long-overdue job; creating a sample pack of ‘sounds from the studio’, which can be downloaded and used here; and developing new skills in areas such as cataloguing.

Working around the challenges

The Cataloguers continue to create the catalogue records for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue. This is part of the core work of the project: enabling researchers to find content they want, and ultimately to explore the wealth of sound recordings. Our Rights Officer continues to clear the rights to recordings, essential if they are to be made available online. But not having our usual equipment and documentation means that we have to accept the pace is slow – frustrating at times.

Embracing new technology

Software tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WhatsApp are transforming our ability to keep in touch and work collaboratively as a team now spread across Brighton, Hove and Lewes. We are embracing this new technology, getting up to speed with what’s possible and sharing a wealth of morale-boosting content, including: cute pets, interesting mugs, ‘what I had for lunch’, along with work queries and software solutions.

However, in embracing this technology, we are also realising its limits: they are very useful, functional tools, but sometimes you just want to share the same space with somebody, to scribble your ideas on a shared piece of paper, and to not have to juggle with the distorted sound of an ‘unstable network connection’.

Looking to the future

We are all living acutely in the moment, with daily updates of news and not knowing what tomorrow will bring. However, for our work, this is also a time to think about what we will learn from this experience to take forward. There has been an out-pouring of digital content from the galleries, libraries, archives and museums (GLAM) sector, along with many other cultural organisations, that has contributed to our shared experiences of lockdown. Clearing rights to put sound recordings online and creating resources using archive sound recordings are already part of this process, but what else could we be doing?

We look forward to getting back to The Keep, but we know that we are some of the lucky ones. We are able to work from home with the knowledge that our project and jobs will still be there for the next 18 months, thanks to National Lottery Heritage Fund and Lottery Players.

For now, the process of audio preservation will continue from a network of living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across East Sussex. Stay safe, and we’ll speak to you soon.

picture of the team at unlocking our sound heritage
The Unlocking our Sound Heritage Team

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