Research: Listen; 140 Years of Recorded Sound, The British Library


The British Library has an extensive sound archive, which had been curated into an exhibition as part of the ‘Season of Sound‘ to promote not only the archive itself but also the efforts to digitise the works which are across a plethora of media.




The ‘Voices of the Forces’ piece was of great interest to me. The physical object was a five-inch aluminium disc, although the audio from it had been converted for digital playback on the iPad underneath. The two were also accompanied by a British Pathé film on the subject from 1945 (below).

Besides his love, your man in the forces will now be able to send you his voice – for one and ninepence. It’s a natty Naafi idea. At many of the Nafi clubs overseas, recording rooms have been installed, where the men can come and actually speak the messages they want to send to their people at home.”
British Pathé film ‘Voices of the Forces’ (1945)

The recording was at once an intimate message from a serving soldier to his home and a piece of oral history. In its original state, it was never intended for such wide consumption as an exhibition in a national library, and as the British Pathé film alludes to, the physical media was never meant to last indefinitely. This lent a curious air of voyeurism to the experience of listening.


Built Space and Curation

Wooden slats painted white separated into discrete sections ran along the length of the wall, with iPads mounted next to headphones where the listener could select what to listen to as well as the linked physical media sat above in small inset sections behind perspex.

There were also cove like listening booths, with headphones and seats set up in sections that were cut out from the wood. These cocoon-like spaces were surprisingly effective at removing the person from the immediate context of the large public building. This allowed greater immersion in the sounds, which listeners were able to pick from the large selection on the iPads.

British Library_Sounds Page

Although the context of space is quite different here than the space in which I will be exhibiting, this visit gave key insights to the practices of displaying audio works for public consumption.


What I got from this:

  • How to successfully isolate someone from their immediate context so they can fully engage with a sound piece, something I need to be able to do for my final piece.
  • How small snippets of a strangers history can provide unique archival information for the future. Recording one’s own experiences will always be important and gain importance over time, it’s a powerful link back to a past history.