This oral heritage of mankind — recordings of voices, noises, music, wildlife chatter — collected within more than 6.5 million documents and 40 types devices — discs, tapes, shellack, cylinders — archives more than 150 years of sounds from around the world. It is housed in a temperature controlled basement of the British Library you only enter with identification. We speak with Will Prentice, conservation specialist and archive technical head, about the unusual compilation and the library’s recently launched SOS for trying to save as much of it as possible.
Mr Prentice, the phone ring when I called earlier, is that a sound worth preserving for coming generations? Yes, and no. To us, this sound is utterly irrelevant. We are so used to it, for decades now, we do not think of it as something special at all. But 100 years from now, the ring tone will represent an era, and, too, a technology that will not be in use anymore.
So what qualifies a recording for the inclusion into your archive? It has to be relevant for a particular time period or a sector of life. It doesn’t have to be rare, necessarily, yet we do own some very unusual recordings. We collect old music records, basically each number one hit there ever was. But we also gather oral history — significant speeches, dialogues, sometimes just fragments. We have Winston Churchill’s voice, Gandhi’s, Stalin’s, Trotzky’s. We have examples of people’s languages that do not exist anymore; also sounds of imperiled or distinct animals.