A week in sound: volunteering with UOSH

Blog post by Hannah Tame

After attending the Archives for London talk ‘London Unspooled: Sounds from the Strongrooms’ at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) back in May, I really wanted to learn more about sound archives and get involved in the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project. I particularly wanted to get some hands-on experience with both digitising and cataloguing audio material. I got in touch with Kate at LMA and was thrilled when they agreed to have me for a week’s placement.

My hope for the placement was to come away with an understanding of the process of cataloguing and digitising audio material, as well as a more general understanding of what working with audio collections involved. Although I was going into the placement with no experience of working with audio archive collections, I had heard a lot about the UOSH project and have always been really interested in the digitisation of archive material.

My time at LMA was split between working with two very different collections: the Audio Arts collection and a small group of oral histories taken in a reminiscence group at the Woodberry Down Estate in Hackney.

Tape reel in tape box with 'Topsound' on the cover. From the Audio Arts collection.
Tape reel from the Audio Arts collection, held by Tate Library and Archive (TGA 200414/7/4/4)

I spent the first day working on the Audio Arts collection from the Tate Archive, which – being something of a Tate fan – I was really excited about. Audio Arts was a cassette-based magazine established in 1973 by William Furlong and Barry Barker. Over the next 35 years the magazine featured contributions from over nine hundred artists, including Tracey Emin, Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. For this collection, I catalogued some of the unedited tape reels and cassettes – including unpublished recordings – which involved recording any information on the tapes and their carriers. I also spent some time in the studio with Robin, the audio digitisation engineer.

Hannah and Robin in the sound studio, with masks on
Hannah and Robin in the UOSH studio

My remaining time was spent cataloguing the Woodberry Down Estate oral history collection, newly arrived from Hackney Archives. This was post-digitisation cataloguing, which involved listening to the interviews, writing summaries of the recordings, checking the transcripts and recording timecodes at key points. One thing I underestimated about this task was how time consuming it would be to compile each interview summary. Thankfully the interviews were a pleasure to listen to, as the interviewees described their experiences of growing up in the East End around the time of the Second World War. I only managed to catalogue the first few sessions, which mainly covered the interviewees’ childhoods. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how quickly I became immersed in their stories and was fascinated by the first-hand accounts of family and home life in east London in the 1930s. The interviewees described their experiences of poverty, class discrimination, school and home life, war, rationing, first jobs and first dates in frank and honest detail.

Architectural plan of Health Centre and Day Nursery for the Woodberry Down Estate
Woodberry Down Health Centre and Day Nursery plan (GLC/AR/G/09)
Photograph of blocks of flats on the Woodberry Down Estate, taken from Seven Sisters Road in 1955. People walk along the pavement next to the flats and buses and cars can be seen on the road.
Woodberry Down Estate from Seven Sisters Road, 1955 (SC/PHL/01/408/55/2939)

Something that really resonated with me during my time at LMA was learning about the time pressure of digitising sound material compared to documentary archive material. I learnt that there are only around 15 years to save sound collections through digitisation, before many of them become unreadable. It would be an incredible shame if sound collections such as the ones I had the opportunity to work with became lost without ever being digitised.

What I enjoyed the most about listening to the audio material was that with the oral history accounts, you get a sense of immersion that you don’t necessarily get with manuscript archive material. I certainly felt privileged to be able to hear such personal memories about East London and think it’s amazing that thanks to the UOSH project these recordings will be digitised and easily accessible for all. The biggest thing that I have taken away from my time on placement is that it has given me a confidence in being able to work with sound archives in the future.

A man passes a front door key to a smartly-dressed young girl, flanked by her parents. A man in mayor's chains is in the background. The family were the first to move into this block on the Woodberry Down Estate.
The first family in the block receiving their keys, Woodberry Down Estate, 1949 (SC/PHL/02/0898/76/10498)