British Library

Summary of activity

Unlocking our Sound Heritage (UOSH) was a UK-wide project which aimed to save the nation’s sounds and open them up to everyone. The project ran between July 2017 and March 2023 and  formed part of the British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme.  

Professional consensus internationally is that time is running out to save many sound collections. They are under threat, both from physical degradation, and as the means of playing them disappear from production. The Save our Sounds programme was developed in response to this need.  

Through the UOSH project the British Library worked with ten hub partners alongside artists and performers to develop new creative responses to sound archives.The project was enabled by a £9.3 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, alongside funding from charities and individuals, including the Foyle and Garfield Weston Foundations. 

Image credit: British Library

Challenges and opportunities

Unlocking our Sound Heritage was delivered by a consortium of partner institutions, led by The British Library. The partners were:  

  • Archives+ Manchester 
  • London Metropolitan Archives 
  • Bristol Culture  
  • University of Leicester 
  • Norfolk Record Office 
  • Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums  
  • National Library of Scotland 
  • The Keep, Brighton 
  • National Library of Wales  
  • National Museums Northern Ireland

These partner institutions acted as hubs for their geographic area, working with other archives, libraries, and museums who are holders of sound collections.  

The hubs were focused on preserving recordings which explore a diverse range of themes. Collections preserved included a BBC interview with an anonymous female wrestler which are held by Archives+ and interviews with Eric and Jessica Huntley, highly respected racial and social justice activists which are held by London Metropolitan Archives.  

In addition to preservation, members of the consortium have delivered a programme of public engagement activities. The South East hub (led by The Keep, Brighton) have been working with Brighton & Hove Music for Connection to explore a number of creative approaches to using sound for engagement. Their first project, Sounds to Keep, involved participants creating a digital story based on sounds collected in the local environment and clips from the sound archive at The Keep.  

The greatest challenge the project partners have faced to date is accessing and using the sound archives. Finding and getting hold of the means to play sound recordings has proven to be difficult in some instances. Ensuring copyright of the sound recording is cleared for use also raised a number of issues and challenges. 

The consortium partners were a little apprehensive at first about working with sound archives for engagement projects. The first projects undertaken by the partners were focused on gaining confidence in working with the medium of sound. One of the important factors early on projects was to identify the most compelling stories to inspire different projects and activities.   

Covid-19 presented significant challenges to UOSH. Many of the Hub engagement programmes were scheduled to start just as restrictions came into place. It was not possible for people to be on site to deliver activities. To overcome this the consortium partners found creative ways to engage artists and participants. Recognising that not everyone had access to Zoom, some partners created resources which could be used in care homes and by carers. For example, The British Library collaborated with Care Visions Healthy Ageing to create a dementia friendly film and the University of Leicester created a number of resources including a toolkit on using sound archives to create reminiscence material.

Outcome for service users

A key outcome for this project is that participating hub partners are more confident in using sound archives. The project has increased awareness of sound and safeguarded the UK’s long-term capacity to care for and use audio collections. The achievements of UOSH include the: 

  • Establishment of a network of audio preservation centres across the UK,  
  • Skills development of expert staff to catalogue, digitise and preserve sounds. 
  • Preservation of 350,000 rare and at-risk sound recordings. 
  • Improved discoverability and access to sounds through new and improved cataloguing records. 
  • Delivery of a programme of learning and outreach activities across the UK, including workshops, learning events for families, public tours and exhibitions. There are also new digital resources and engaging websites like Coast, History of Recorded Sound and If Homes had Ears. In addition, the British Library have produced a series of brief introductory guides to caring for sound collections and using them in an archival context (links to the guides are provided below). The guides are primarily aimed at non-specialist galleries, libraries, archives and museums who hold sound recordings. They include information on how to identify and care for sound collections, how to store and catalogue sound collections and copyright and data protection rights.  

The impact of specific UOSH partner projects is continually being measured.  Examples include evaluating a project led by Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums who led a project with people recovering from alcohol and drug addiction; Norfolk Record Office worked with people recovering from mental health issues.  Reminiscence and rehabilitation work using audio heritage has been a powerful way to work with different users through projects which partners have been delivering. An evaluation report is expected to be published in March 2023.  

What was learned from the process?

The most successful part of UOSH was the partnership working among the hub partners. Each hub had different strengths, and they worked well in sharing their experiences with each other. The partners met once a month with representatives from the learning and engagement team at The British Library. At these meetings they shared knowledge and their learning from their individual projects 

A very broad range of activities has taken place through the project. Partners have worked with many different audiences including schools and students in higher education. They also worked with families using wildlife recordings to develop creative outcomes. Other projects involved community partners including people of Somali heritage taking part in listening sessions that featured music and poetry from Somalia. 

The partners also shared the challenges they encountered in using resources. This included getting sound archives ready for use in participatory activities, curating the works, creating digital spaces, and developing content around several themes. They have also explored other subjects including researching untold and less visible histories. Working with artists and community organisations has been an important way to bring new perspectives and interpretations to different collections.  

There will be a new website which will act as an information portal and place to showcase case studies for the different regions and hubs due to be launched early in 2023. 

Key advice

The one piece of advice the UOSH team would give to anyone thinking of taking on a project using audio heritage is the need to carefully consider the focus of the project. The hub partners identified that it is important to spend time finding the most powerful stories, the ones which connect people emotionally, or that explore and reflect the stories in different regions. They have also found that when they are working with a broad range of material it is best to focus on a few specific stories. For example, Hidden Stories, Shared Lives was an oral history project which was delivered in partnership between Cumbria Development Education Centre, South Lakes Equality and Diversity Partnership, South Lakeland District Council and AWAZ – the Voice of Black and Minority Ethnic People and Communities in Cumbria. 

In 2017 interviews were conducted with 50 people who were born outside of the UK and now live in Cumbria. Interviews cover their life story, from birth and family background to exploring the reasons they left their country of birth, how they came to Cumbria and their lives now. The project highlighted the human stories behind the migration statistics in Cumbria. The interviews were then a starting point for a special exhibition and learning resource that toured libraries, museums and schools. 

How will this work be developed in the future?   

As the active digitisation phase has now come to an end, this project will primarily be developed through the hub partners. They have been very successful in developing the volunteering elements of their projects and are looking at ways to build on this in future projects and activities. Partners are also exploring options for collaboration, information sharing and mutual support. 

The partners are also considering how they can continue to use sound as part of future engagement programmes. They have learned through UOSH that audio can enhance work with audiences and be a way to engage people who may not have originally used or visited an archive. Alongside this some partners are planning to use some of the sound archives they have preserved through the UOSH project in future exhibitions.  

An UOSH event will be held in early 2023 at The British Library at which the hub partners will be presenting their wider project findings.  

Introductory guides to caring for and using sound collections

How to identify and care for the sound formats in your collection (PDF) 

Storage for sound collections (PDF) 

Disaster prevention and recovery of sound collections (PDF) 

Getting your sound collections digitised: the first steps (PDF) 

Cataloguing your sound collections (PDF) 

Demystifying rights: Copyright (PDF) 

Demystifying rights: Data protection (PDF) 

Long-term storage of digital sound files (PDF) 

Want to find out more about caring for sound collections? (PDF) 

Learning packages

History of recorded sound

If homes had ears

Speaking out

Windrush sound tours

Women’s rights

Find out more about this case study by contacting the British Library