Meet the staff: Katie Tavini, Audio Preservation Engineer

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.

Katie Tavini working hard to preserve our sounds

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!

Genevieve – the film-star car!

By Esther Gill

On Saturday, 2 November 2019, we had a showing of Genevieve, the classic 1953 British comedy featuring the eponymous car and its travails in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. And the following day, the car herself motored down to Brighton for the 2019 Run. Meanwhile, in the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage audio preservation studio here at The Keep, we were busy working on a unique collection of recordings from the National Motor Museum Trust (NMMT) at Beaulieu, including three about Genevieve!

Just to clarify (for those who are now confused!), Genevieve is a car, built in 1904 by the Darracq Company, an early French manufacturer of cars. She shot to fame in the 1953 film and since 1993, has been a regular participant in the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run on the first Sunday of November each year. She is now owned by the Louwman Museum in The Hague, but she’ll be back on UK roads for the Run in a few days’ time.

Promotional image for the 1953 film Genevieve, courtesy Park Circus/ITV Studios

The NMMT collection being digitised includes three recordings about Genevieve, reflecting the particular fondness that people have for her and her significance as a ‘film-star car’ in the world of veteran cars. The three recordings all relate to her return to the UK in 1993 from Australia to be auctioned at Olympia in December 1993, following her participation in the London to Brighton Run. They include a recordings from a Friends Evening at Beaulieu with Genevieve in ‘attendance’ and people’s memories of why the car is special to them.

In one of the recordings, [UTK007/355], Robert Brooks, Auctioneer, comments that Genevieve ‘really is the motor car that trigged the boom in interest that happened for old cars in the 1950s and 1960s. Many people say she was responsible for the popularity of the Brighton run in modern times and I wouldn’t disagree with that’. He goes on to comment that the auction has generated a lot of interest from across the world, mainly due to her film star status. A month later, on 2 December 1993, Genevieve was sold for £143,000 in London.

One of the open-reel tape recordings about Genevieve being digitised at The Keep

The National Motor Museum Trust audio collection is fascinating, but it is also quite a mystery in places as there isn’t much documentation about the actual content of the recordings. We are digitising 625 open reel tapes, cassettes, a digital audio tape (DAT) and a number of tiny mini-cassettes, but we’re going to need help with listing what is actually on the tapes.

So, if you are interested in cars, the social history of motoring, Beaulieu and various related topics, and would like to get involved with Unlocking Our Sound Heritage at  The Keep, do drop us a line. All that is needed is an ability to listen, the curiosity to follow up clues about what may be in the recording and a desire to help save historic sound recordings.

Get in touch through email: uosh@sussex.ac.uk or Twitter @KeepSounds

Our screening of Genevieve, made possible by BFI’s Film Audience Network, with the support of The National Lottery.