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Sound Archive Collection Development Policy

The research value of the Sound Archive's collection resides in the uniqueness of the unpublished recordings, the comprehensiveness of its commercial holdings and the range of events and interviews recorded by the Library itself. Internationally, the depth and scope of the Library’s sound collections are unmatched. Dating back to the end of the nineteenth century, there are more than 3.3 million recordings from every corner of the globe and from sources ranging far beyond the products of the national recording and broadcast industries.

Types of material

  • Sound recordings made, commissioned or supported by the British Library (field recordings, oral history interviews, live performances, talks and events)
  • sound recordings made privately by individuals or organisations acquired by donation, bequest, loan or purchase
  • all sound recordings released in the United Kingdom deposited voluntarily by members of the BPI and AIM
  • new releases in other territories purchased selectively
  • retrospective releases acquired from private collectors or institutions as purchases, gifts or bequests
  • recordings of radio broadcasts, selected in accordance with current arrangements, such as  with the BBC, which includes all recordings on the Radio International label
  • recordings of user generated content and commercial releases available exclusively on the Web and that have not been released previously on physical formats already held
  • supporting documentation, metadata, images, web pages (published and unpublished).

Current holdings

Around 10% of holdings consist of unpublished recordings, most notably of oral history interviews (highlights include the 6000 interviews carried out for the Millennium Memory Bank project and the National Trust Sound Archive), ethnographic field recordings (including the collections of many well-known folklorists and ethnomusicologists such as A.L. Lloyd and Klaus Wachsmann) and important collections of British traditional music recordings formerly in private hands gathered and conserved by the Traditional Music in England project), stage performances, debates and readings (including the output of influential companies such as Forced Entertainment, recordings of over 200 poets deposited by the British Council and Cambridge University Union debates 1963-1999), private collections from composers and concert performers such as Elizabeth Maconchy, Sir Alexander Gibson and Shura Cherkassky, soundscapes, vernacular speech, local and regional languages, actuality, events and wildlife sounds (the largest publicly available collection in Europe). The BL is the place of deposit for sound records from Government departments including the Central Office of Information.

The Library aims to acquire, through voluntary deposit, copies of all recordings commercially published in the UK, and has extensive holdings from this source from all periods. The collection is particularly strong in published classical music, ethnographic, spoken word and wildlife recordings from all periods, and in the entire range of UK published output since 1980. This collection is enhanced by selective purchasing of historic and overseas published material, and by donations and bequests, of particular note being the Hugh Davies collection (C1193), a large collection of rare LPs and tape recordings of avant-garde music, the Ray Batt bequest of early jazz recordings.

Among broadcast material, notable collections include BBC radio programmes from all periods; the Capital Radio archive; Leech Collection (C738) of off-air broadcasts from 1936 onwards; White collection (C1026) of off-air recordings from the late 1950s and early 1960s; the programme sharing archive assembled in the 1980s by the Association of Independent Radio Contractors; and numerous smaller collections including Kenny Everett's personal archive.

The Sound Archive records many events as they happen, and interviews a wide range of informants on aspects of national interest not covered by other sources. It has recorded hundreds of unique live theatre recordings: National Theatre productions from 1963 to the present; RSC productions from 1964 on; and Royal Court (London) productions from the mid-1970s on. All the recent annual WOMAD festivals, and numerous jazz and traditional music performances, have been recorded. Oral history recording projects include subjects such as politics in Britain, experiences of illness and disability, gay and lesbian life, the Holocaust, City of London financial institutions, the steel, oil, food, publishing and fashion industries, authors and writers, visual artists, sculptors and craftspeople. Most significant figures in British jazz have been interviewed for the Oral History of Jazz in Britain project. The Theatre Archive Project administered in collaboration with the University of Sheffield has generated more than 150 audio interviews on the subject of post-war British theatre.

Future collecting

The Library will continue to acquire UK published sound and video recordings through voluntary deposit and donations. It will encourage the acquisition of more private collections of unpublished recordings in all subject areas through deposit or temporary loan for copying, recognising the increase in cross media collections e.g. those comprising written, manuscript, moving image and audio materials in a single collection.  It will broaden the subject coverage of both unpublished and published acquisitions and in association with other departments, including developing language and dialect holdings, sounds of contemporary and recent British culture and heritage in the broadest sense (sport, sound effects, media studies, drama, soundscapes, 'vanishing' sounds), and selected recordings of BL events. It will develop a policy (in 2008) for acquiring recordings and moving image available on electronic networks. It will continue to acquire overseas commercial material selectively through purchase, in particular in the areas of literature, music (all genres), and wildlife and to develop its collections of unpublished recordings in these areas as well as in oral history.

New initiatives include: 

  • the acquisition of more early recordings on original formats where they have significant value as artefacts in their own right or where they represent significant first examples of new formats and technologies
  • strengthening the collection of radio broadcast content from both public and independent broadcasters and consider acting as a portal to Web radio
  • explore the potential for electronic delivery of BBC broadcasts
  • download audio and associated information selectively from the Web, i.e. recordings available exclusively on the Web, including user- generated content that may be of interest to any subject expertise group in the Library, in particular those that relate to the scientific, industrial and cultural heritage of the UK.

Rationale for future collecting

These materials are relevant across all subjects, with particular importance for the performing arts, the music industry, social history, ethnography and bioacoustics. As well as building on existing strengths, the drivers for continuing collection development include the increasing importance and prevalence of multimedia and online resources in research and teaching, and the increase in student numbers, e.g. figures for 2005 showed a 15% rise in admissions for media studies courses. There is also a fit with UK research council priorities, e.g. identities and cultures (oral history), creative industries (music/broadcasts), language-based studies, environment and human behaviour (soundscapes/wildlife), economic performance and development (oral history).

Further information

Sound & Vision Reference Service
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7831
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7691

E-mail: Ask the Sound & Vision Reference Team