British Library: Sound & Vision

The British Library is not just about books.  Deep in the bowels of the impressive new building next door to St Pancras station resides the sound and vision archive.  I was fortunate enough to get a tour of the premises with the avuncular curator of pop music Andy Linehan.  The archives first took shape in the mid-fifties under the guidance of  one Patrick Saul who was concerned even then at the amount of recorded material that was not being preserved for posterity and the collection officially became part of the British Library in the early 1980s.  In 1986 Peter Copeland the head of Conservation at the National Sound Archive (as it was then) initiated a programme of digitisation of analogue formats to provide some degree of future proofing.  This work continues to this day: it’s estimated that only about 10% of commercially released popular music is still on catalogue or available digitally.  So what’s down there?  Here’s a potted guide.

Blue, Blue Amberol Blue

The history of recorded music is littered with obsolete formats with every deacde bringing new ways to capture and reproduce sound.  I was delighted to be shown boxes full of wax cylinders, just about the oldest objects squirelled away down here.  Asked to visualise a blue amberol I guessed a blue vinyl record that had been left on gas mark 6 for 10 minutes, turned out I wasn’t far wrong.  These were Thomas Edison’s great commercial hope for the growing cylinder market pre-WW1, a fragile sketchy four minute signpost on the way to the vinyl single, and here they were in abundance each bearing a picture of a slightly grumpy looking Ed.  Here too are 78s, stamper discs that require two people to lift them and the shellac discs in large cloth-bound albums which is the origin of the term which later stuck even after the modern microgroove record arived in 1952.  Some of the contents of these relics have been digitally retrieved but they are retained chiefly for their historical value.

The Vinyl Countdown

Hundreds of thousands of vintage vinyl records are stored in temperature controlled vaults and entered in the central database.  Confronted with the miles of tightly packed spines brings home just how much music has been released since the modern era of popular music began and gives some sense of the scale of the task the archivists face as releases continue to pour in from the major record labels.  Plucking discs at random from the Decca label section we got jazz, pop, easy listening, soundtracks, mood music, swing & big band, exotica, stage shows, field recordings, light opera etc etc etc  Its a musical equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge.  The storage levels extend several storeys into the earth and cover quite some area.  Despite the architects leaving room for expansion you get the feeling that it will be straining at the seams before too long.

Shapes Of Things

Through another set of doors it gets more interesting still – special promos and limited editions!  Herein lurked such dubious delights as  a complete set of Iron Maiden CDs encased in an Eddie head with light up eyes.  Faced with a tsunami of box sets, free t shirts, posters, stickers, badges, lavish accoutrements you could only admire the record industry’s gimlet-eyed desire to part us from our cash.  I’m guessing Kiss could fill the entire floor space on their own.  Also, who did the BPI turn to when they wanted to be rid of their extensive collection of seized bootleg albums?  Yes its all here, alternative illegal history of rock and roll.  And there are row upon row of transcription discs, the off the shelf radio shows complete with printed cue sheets and background info, usually prepared by the BBC.  Those that feature unreleased live recordings by famous bands still fetch big money at record fairs and on eBay.  Brought to you by NOT FOR SALE records.

Demo Yeah (On the Radio)

Andy showed me boxes of the demos submitted to the Glastonbury Unsigned open competition for which the price was a slot on the festival stages.  The dutifully filled out forms with myspace addresses and CDs sent by hopeful bass players are discarded tickets in pop’s great lottery, and as Andy pointed out, nestling among these were the earliest efforts of the Sundays and Newton Faulkner.  Along with Exploding Truss no doubt.

Wishing (If Had a Phonograph of You)

Our last stop was the sound studios where digitisation and restoration work is carried.  Each unit is named after a titan of recording (Hannett, Blumlein) and I was able to geek out all over again as we picked our way through the elephants graveyard of reel to reel tape machines and the sophisticated outboard gear used for rescuing the lost ghosts of analogue recording for posterity.  Digital storage is much more efficient and convenient of course yet there remains the nagging question: if the minidisc recorders in a storage cupboard have gone from bleeding edge to museum piece in about 12 years where will our ocean of zeros and ones wash us up in years to come?

All in all a fascinating glimpse of our national sound archive, and much of it is available for you to visit and hear for yourself.  In finishing I would like to say that the Library is always interested in possible donations of  rare commercially released recordings so if you have any obscure stuff that you do not need or intend to sell, get in touch with Andy


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