Raised voices

A close up of tape on a reel.

By Henry Rowsell, Rights Officer, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

I’ve been a librarian for about 20 years and have worked on digitisation projects and access to online resources for most of that time. That has meant a lot of wrangling with copyright, licensing and accessibility issues, but for the most part it’s been with the written published word not the spoken recorded word. Working as Rights Officer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project’s South-East Hub based at The Keep, Brighton, for the last 16 months has changed that.  

2020 has been a reflective time for many (a time for anxious questioning for many too), so in the process of writing this blog, more ‘big picture’ and personal career context has come into my thinking than I’d originally figured. I’m sat here working from home, feeling a bit disconnected in many ways, and in asking myself what to write about my work on audio-visual heritage, it occurred to me that what is front and centre right now in my working life, has been colliding and connecting with my past as I try and make sense of things.  

From 2012 to 2016 I worked on the Mobilising Knowledge for Development (MK4D) Digital Library, a collection of publications (over 6,000 at last count) produced by 30 research institutes and NGOs in Africa and Asia focussed on economic and social development. Working in partnership we (a group of librarians and administrators dispersed around the world) digitised publications originally published from the 1940s to the 2010s, and previously only available (but not readily accessible) in hard-copy, and made them available online in an Open Access repository. A typical day on this project might involve talking to partner institutes by email about progress, supervising project assistants on scanning, uploading and metadata creation, and contacting potential new partners. 

Ambitious Open Access projects like MK4D reinforced the importance of libraries and archives in removing barriers to information, and enabling participation and visibility of researchers and groups who are excluded both financially and culturally from the established scholarly publishing system, often because of the national environment they are working in. This unevenness, sectoral, geographic and linguistic, is often referred to as ‘Digital divide’ and ‘Visibility gap’. In addition to attempting to address the global discrepancies and power dynamics present in the visibility of publications, MK4D also made the case for the value of older research being available as readily as new research outputs being published by major academic presses.  

In my now portfolio career, as well as working on UOSH I am the Librarian at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in South London where we are also interested in digital preservation and access to an otherwise untapped resource of audio-visual materials held in the museum library at Forest Hill. The historic collections at the library are mostly centred around musical instruments, anthropology and natural history, and include field recordings, recordings of performances of instruments held in the collection, and the archives of the Boosey & Hawkes instrument company. We are finalising a new digital preservation strategy for ‘born digital’ assets, and identifying analogue (print and audio-visual) resources in the library and archives from which digital surrogates could be made for preservation and access. Even with general good-will, finding the capacity and resources to do this work remains challenging. 

I mention the aims of other initiatives to show how the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project is an example of innovation (in its aim to digitise and clear for online access a large part of the nation’s sound heritage) as well as of wider ongoing effort by libraries, archives and museums to use digital technology to open up (and preserve) their collections. These ambitious initiatives often mean working with multiple partners, and always involve navigating the regulations and licensing relating to making copies, intellectual property rights and personal information. 

As well as the aims, the challenges are familiar too, and exacerbated in 2020: how to connect, co-create, and solve problems in partnership when opportunities to meet with individuals and organisations are constrained. The patchiness of resources and capacity is familiar to anyone in the sector. 

Drawing more connections between these past and present efforts, a quick search of the MK4D Digital Library highlights various papers published by African research institutes relating to the importance of sound recordings. These include papers on oral histories in qualitative research; the benefits of community radio; and investments in audio equipment in countries looking to upgrade their educational technologies often in the wake of cultural renewal post-independence. I know too that an inventory of the Horniman Museum library’s audio-visual collection already benefits from what I’m learning as part of the UOSH project, though being furloughed the last number of months this work is patiently waiting for me to pick it up again. 

A grid of six photographs of four women and two men.
Portraits taken as part of a series to complement the Ashdown Forest Oral History Project 2006. c. Anthony Oliver http://www.aoimages.com

Another parallel across such initiatives is the language used in the projects, across various formats and contexts. The words ‘Unhiding’ and ‘Unlocking’ are frequently used for interventions where the status quo risks continued lack of accessibility or invisibility (not to mention permanent loss or damage) to heritage resources, or where collections are ‘hidden/locked’ in obsolete formats or in inadequate conditions for long-term access. The word ‘voice’ was also often evoked. The voices to amplify being those representing countries and communities where digital divide and the visibility gap prevented them from being heard (or read) by a wider audience. In repeated project documents and presentations reference would be made to ‘making all voices count’, ‘ensuring different voices are heard’, and working to change ‘a system that only gives a voice’ to a certain few.  

I’ve noticed that the word ‘voice’ is used a lot less to define UOSH’s work on sound heritage. Perhaps that is so as not to dismiss the wonderful range of non-vocal sounds, like the wildlife, engine noises and train slam-doors that feature in our sound recordings alongside all of the oral history and radio broadcasts we work on, or simply to avoid being so literal! But for me in the UOSH project, the idea of less-heard voices being unhidden, being heard more, is what I’m most engaged with.  

The less-heard voices collected at our regional hub are fascinating to me, telling rich stories that connect the local to the global. The range of voices include those that you don’t normally hear, or familiar voices that perhaps you’ve never really stopped to listen to at length or with full attention.  Many of the stories told by these voices in our oral history collections remind us of how resonant the upheavals of the first half of the 20th century are with the issues of here and now. Among the collections we’ve digitised, we have reflections on migration from Brits who migrated to Australia post-war (the ‘£10 Poms’ [UTK001]) and back again, and Caribbean migrants to the UK (the Windrush Generation in their own words) who settled in Southampton, and often experienced institutional racism [UTK010]. There are memories too of a changing country life intercut with world wars and local issues told by elders of Lewes [UTK002] and Ashdown Foresters [UTK003] of a certain age.  

In another blog I will go into more detail about some of their stories, and the balancing act of allowing these to be heard more easily and any legal and ethical concerns in doing so. I’m happy to say that we will be able to share a lot of voices that deserve to be heard. 

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