World and traditional music collection

Albert Stewart (fiddle) and unidentified accordionist with other Stewart family members.
Albert Stewart (fiddle) and unidentified accordionist with other Stewart family members. New Pitsligo, Aberdeenshire, June 1955. Photo: Peter Kennedy

We document, preserve and make accessible one of the world's largest collections of published and unpublished recordings of music from all over the world dating back to as early as the 19th century. The collection represents commercial and ethnographic archival recordings variously described as traditional, folk and ‘world music’.

About the collection

Archival collections comprise original field recordings made by leading scholars and enthusiasts including over 3000 brown wax cylinders (part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World International Register), such as recordings made during A. C. Haddon’s expedition to the Torres Strait Islands in 1898, as well as recent born-digital ethnographic recordings on audio and video formats.

The Library aims to collect all specialist UK-releases of world and traditional music, and selected recordings published in other countries including rare items published only in the country of origin and obtained through donation or purchase from local shops and distributors. The collection includes an extensive back catalogue of historic recordings dating back to the early days of the international recording industry on formats.

The Library has recorded at world and traditional music concerts, conferences and festivals in the UK; in 2019 it celebrated its 34th anniversary of recording at the UK’s number one world music festival, WOMAD.

Traditional music is often inseparable from other cultural expressions, such as ceremonies and rituals, and from art forms such as dance and oral literature. Field notes and photographs created in the field often accompany the collections of sound recordings. These are further reinforced by relevant monographs, journals, catalogues and discographies.
Through donations, exchange agreements, collaborative fieldwork projects and purchase, the collection of published and unpublished recordings and books continues to grow. It provides a rich resource, unique in Britain, for scholars, musicians, media producers and general music enthusiasts.

What is available online?

Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.

The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

You can also use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.

In addition to its own selection of recordings, we can provide access to recordings in the BBC sound archives.

The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.

Further information

Contact us at:

World and Traditional Music
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Michele Banal, Lead Curator
Isobel Clouter, Curator
Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7427


Follow us on Twitter: @BL_WorldTrad