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Save the Voices of Tolkien, Joyce And Tennyson

The British Library is fighting time and budget constraints to save its vast collection of audio recordings

James Joyce in 1938. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

Over a century of noise lives on in the vast collection of the British Library’s sound archives.

There’s the slightly high voice of James Joyce, reading an excerpt from Ulysses. A warbling recording captures Lord Tennyson reciting a poem. J.R.R. Tolkien has a short conversation with a tobacconist. There's hours of testimony from WWI soldiers. The national archive of music lives there too, as do hundreds of recordings of nature, the sounds of industry, the oral histories and decades of theatrical performances.

While these recordings have been preserved and are available on the web, archivists now say that thousands of others—including some of the oldest in the collection—are at risk of deteriorating and disappearing if action isn’t taken soon.

On Monday, the British Library issued a public call for help safeguarding the over 6.5 million recordings in their archives through digital preservation. It will take around $60 million (£40 million) to fully fund the effort, and time is running short.

“Archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost,” the library's statement says.

As the years pass, the library has run into the problem of how to play the recordings, some of which date back to the 1880s. They exist in various formats, from wax cylinders to cassette tapes. As the technology to play these recordings disappears, so do archivists’ hopes for preservation.

Among the most at-risk portions of the collection include recordings of long-gone dialects, the national collection of music and environmental soundscapes, including the noise of steam engines and factories. The British Library is accepting donations from the public, as well as information on valuable sound recordings that may exist in private collections.

The Telegraph has a selection of audio clips already saved through digital preservation for you to sample—including the likes of Florence Nightingale, Tennyson, and Tolkien. To browse the whole online sound archive, check out the addicting British Library Sounds site.

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