September 12, 2023
Music History

The British Library Races Time to Save Rare Recordings

The British library has an archive of some 500,000 sound recordings that stretch far back into the last century. And they’re all dying. Many will be gone forever within 15 years.

These recordings–on cylinders, Edison and Berliner discs, tape, vinyl and other formats–are slowly by surely decaying into nothingness. And even if they were somehow still playable, the equipment used to listen to them is long gone. I mean, who’s got a high quality wax cylinder phonograph theses days? And what do to about ancient acetate lacquer discs that are incredibly fragile? Lacquer actually dries out and shrinks over time–and that’s bad.

The “Save Our Sounds” project is out to digitize all these recordings. Digital isn’t the perfect long-term storage medium, but at least you can make a zillion copies for safekeeping.

What about recordable CDs? Forget it. Will Prentice, the leader of the project, says “The dye layer in these [recordable] discs will fail if exposed to daylight and the information is often poorly burnt into them in the first place.

“The error correction mechanisms built into the CD replay system [make it] difficult to know to when they are close to unplayability, so we are keen to extract the information from them as soon as possible. We have over 30,000 of these and less than a third have been copied so far.”

About 14,000 lacquer discs need attention along with 8,0000 cylinder recordings and whack of reel-to-reel tapes.

Among the recordings out to be saved include a Louis Armstrong performance at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1962.

Once the project is complete, they’ll all be available to the public free of charge. This means that for the first time, we will get to hear what the older generations sounded like. That’s cool.

(Via The Australian)

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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