Black Britain: music and audiovisual

Smiling audience members at a performance during the British Library's West Africa exhibition(2015-16)
© Toby Keane Photography

We have extensive, rich and wide-ranging collections of recorded sound and sheet music, and some moving image holdings. These collections are particularly strong for music, and also include literature and drama, oral histories, news broadcasts and material relevant to a wide range of themes including anthropology, history and politics, and linguistics.

About the collection

The British Library has very strong collections of music recordings. We hold one of the largest and most wide-ranging collections of pop music in the world, covering all eras and genres. Our radio collections are strong in music, including, for example, live performances of musicians who never recorded albums.

These collections include sound recordings of countless Black musicians, from pioneering jazz performers to early pop and today’s grime recordings. There is also an oral history of jazz in Britain. In the classical field, we hold recordings of the work of composers including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Our extensive world and traditional music collections offer expressions of the cultures of people of African heritage in Britain, including performances recorded live. For example:

  • we record and make available the annual WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) festival in the UK, and
  • the Emma Brinkhurst collection consists of Somali music, poetry and discussion recorded in London in 2010.

Our collections of printed sheet music include the works of historic Black composers and musicians such as Ignatius Sancho and Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de St Georges, as well as many more modern figures including Bob Marley and Errolyn Wallen. Our music manuscript collections include works by Coleridge-Taylor as well as a tuning fork given to the violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower by Beethoven.

We have an extensive collection of UK drama and literature recordings, including poetry, plays, readings and discussions. As well as collecting published recordings, we make our own recordings at events, performances and literary festivals. Our Author's Lives oral history collection includes interviews with Linton Kwesi Johnson, Andrea Levy and other Black writers.

We also have selective, but rich and varied, moving image collections, including footage of dance, music and drama, ethnographic film and documentaries of performers’ lives.

Our sound recording collections include a wide variety of resources relating to history and current affairs. We hold radio recordings from across the UK, dating back to the 1930s. Our Broadcast News service records both television and radio programmes, focused on news but covering a variety of other subjects.

Our oral history collections include:

What is available online?

You can find out more about what we have by using our online catalogues:

British Library Sounds gives access to some of our sound collection:

Other British Library resources:

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

For most sound and moving image recordings, you will need to come in to our London Reading Rooms and use the Listening and Viewing Service. This provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and moving image in St Pancras.

The Sound Archive Information Service is based in the Humanities Reading Room in St Pancras, where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.

For printed sheet music and music manuscripts after 1500, head to the Rare Books and Music Reading Room.

What is available in other organisations?

The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has strong collections related to Black theatre and performance. See also their guide to Black and Asian performance.

The British Film Institute has strong relevant collections, including their Black Britain on Film (free) and Black Star (subscription) online collections.

Europeana, the European digital library, gives access to extensive audio-visual collections from European institutions.

See also Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire.