Save our Sounds

Edison Concert Cylinder in the British Library sound archive, containing aboriginal language recording made in Stevenson Creek, South Australia, by Baldwin Spencer, 1901. Photo by Clare Kendall.

Save our Sounds is the British Library’s programme to preserve the nation’s sound heritage.

Published date:

The nation’s sound collections are under threat, both from physical degradation and as the means of playing them disappear from production. Global archival consensus is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unplayable and are effectively lost.

The British Library is home to the nation’s Sound Archive, an extraordinary collection of over 6.5 million recordings of speech, music, wildlife and the environment, from the 1880s to the present day. We need both to ensure that the existing archive is properly preserved, and that there are adequate systems in place for the acquisition of future sound production in the UK.

The Save our Sounds programme has been created to answer this imperative need. It has three major aims:

  • to preserve as much as possible of the nation's rare and unique sound recordings – not just those in our collections but also key items from partner collections across the UK; in July 2017, the Library started a five-year The National Lottery Heritage Fund-funded project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, which will help save the nation’s sounds and open them up online for everyone to hear
  • to establish a national radio archive that will collect, protect and share a substantial part of the UK’s vibrant radio output, working with the radio industry and other partners
  • to invest in new technology to enable us to receive music in digital formats, working with music labels and industry partners to ensure their long-term preservation.

We are also developing a ground-breaking new ‘Universal Player’ for sound as part of the programme. Funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, the Universal Player is built using the same infrastructure as the Library’s ‘Universal Viewer’ for images and aims to offer an improved user experience for listening to sound recordings on our website and Reading Rooms. The Player is open-source and uses the IIIF standard for interoperability, so other organisations are free to use it for their own collections.

Watch the BBC Arts film about the British Library Sound Archive

    UK Sound Directory

    As part of our Save our Sounds project, we undertook a national audit to map the condition of sound archives around the country and identify other threatened collections. Our aim was to create a comprehensive picture of the nation’s sound collections with the creation of a UK Sound Directory

    Support the project

    Please get in touch with us if you would like to donate to support this project, or to discuss how you or your organisation can help preserve the nation’s audio heritage.

    Find out more about the Sound Archive

    Visit our Sounds website which includes over 90,000 sound recordings for you to enjoy, covering the entire range of recorded sounds: music, drama and literature, oral history, wildlife and environmental sounds.

    There is more information on the Sound Archive on our Help for Researchers pages, including how to order and listen to collection items in our Reading Rooms. 

    Follow us on Twitter @soundarchive and use the hashtag #saveoursounds

    Keep up with the latest news on Sounds through our Sound and vision blog.

    For further information about the Sound Archive and the Save our Sounds project, contact sound-archive@bl.uk.

    Projects

    Directory of UK Sound Collections

    The British Library has created a directory of UK sound collections

    Digital Audio Collection

    The Digital Audio Collection aims to preserve a broad spectrum of sounds to reflect the UK’s audio publishing industry.

    National Radio Archive

    We aim to create a digital radio archive which will preserve a representative proportion of ongoing UK radio output.

    Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

    Unlocking our Sound Heritage is a UK-wide project that will help save the nation’s sounds and open them up to everyone.

    All projects

    Blog posts

    Gerry and Paula discuss Paula’s severe social anxiety

    Thursday, November 25, 2021

    An interview from The Listening Project looked at for Disability History Month

    Introducing the Collections in Dialogue commission with Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library

    Thursday, November 18, 2021

    Written by Jill McKnight, Artist-in-Residence. I am an artist based in Leeds working across sculpture, writing, installation, drawing and print and I’ve been selected as the artist in residency for Collections in Dialogue, a co-commission project by the British Library...

    Recording of the week: Graham Stuart Thomas on bringing historic flowers back to life

    Monday, November 15, 2021

    This week's selection comes from Chloe Lafferty, Remote Volunteer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. As autumn slowly unfurls, with colder mornings and falling leaves, it is comforting to think of sunshine and new life. ‘Down to Earth: An...

    Recording of the week: James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union

    Monday, November 8, 2021

    By Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings. The British Library launches a new web resource this week. It is called 'Speaking Out', and it seeks to explore the spoken word in its most forceful guise: that of the...

    More blog posts