Take a moment and just listen. What do you hear? It might seem like a peculiar challenge, but, it is not as simple as it may, at first, appear.

All around us, the tones and beats that make up the soundtrack to our lives are barely acknowledged let alone cherished. The cacophony of noise that underpins our everyday doings and happenings also defines the mood, era and evolution of society marking the change of culture and the passing of generations. With such lofty responsibilities, our sound heritage is an example of the greatest creative and innovative achievements imaginable

The British Library has launched an extraordinary project to preserve and explore the history of the things we most want to hear about. The preservation and access project, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, is, much like the content of the archive itself, a socially founded and supported collection backed by the British Library’s donors and funders helped along by a hefty £9.5m National Lottery grant. The total project funding stands at £18.8 which will enable the formation of the first ever national network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings that are threatened by physical degradation or stored on formats that can no longer be played.

These recordings tell a rich story of the UK’s diverse history through traditional, pop and world music, drama and literature readings, oral history, regional radio, dialect, and wildlife sounds from around the country. Oral histories from World War One and Two, Cornish brass bands, local dialect from the UK regions, Welsh, Irish and Scottish traditional music, pirate radio recordings, iconic performances at the National Theatre, music from around the world, sounds of rare and extinct species– these are just a few of the culturally significant recordings that shed light on the past and the world we live in, providing a reminder that history is recorded in many forms. The stories of communities, migrant workers and marginalised groups will be told alongside those of notable historical figures, local histories against the national and international; sounds, memories, music and traditions in all their manifold wealth.

The funding will allow the British Library to take its show on the road, sharing skills and supporting ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public. The British Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions.

Unlocking our Sound Heritage forms part of a core British Library programme, Save Our Sounds, which pledges to preserve the nation’s sound heritage. The National Lottery grant will enable the British Library to achieve key aims of its ambitious Save Our Sounds programme by preserving the nation’s most at risk sounds and, with the appropriate licences and permissions, delivering online resources and a vibrant programme of activities across the UK, connecting people with their audio heritage. Save Our Sounds is also investing in new technology to ensure the long-term preservation of UK recordings and broadcast so that this will be available for generations to come for research, inspiration and enjoyment.

A vital element of Unlocking our Sound Heritage will be a website hosted by the British Library, allowing listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

Roly Keating, Chief Executive of the British Library said;

“We are extremely grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund and all our supporters for recognising the urgent need to save these rare, unique recordings from around the UK. The British Library is the home of the nation’s sound archive, and we are delighted that this funding will help us preserve our audio heritage for people to explore and enjoy.”

Ilse Assmann, president of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) said;

“IASA recognises that a significant part of the world’s cultural heritage is captured in the form of sound recordings. These are threatened by decay and media obsolescence and unless something is done urgently, many recordings will be lost and unavailable for access by future generations. The Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project is a fine example being set to secure and make accessible the sound heritage held in UK archives.”

The ten centres who will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

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