‘That’s what you do as you get older; you look back’

This year the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project at London Metropolitan Archives teamed up with University College London (UCL) to offer a 10-week placement for two students from its Archives and Records Management MA course.

Here, UCL student Josie shares her experience …

I’ve been lucky enough to gain valuable insight into four processes undertaken by the UOSH team: cataloguing, digitisation, rights & sensitivities and learning & engagement.

UCL Students Paul and Josie In the UOSH Digitisation Studio 

Throughout the placement, I worked with Help Make History, a collection of oral history interviews held at Southwark Local History Library and Archive. The collection is made up of 16 compact cassette tapes featuring interviews recorded in 1986 by The Dulwich Society’s History Group at Dulwich Library. The Group interviewed residents on their memories of Dulwich and Peckham during and before the Second World War, as well as changes to local transport and shops in the area.

Many interviewees in the ‘Help Make History’ collection describe the shops in Dulwich and Peckham, and often mention deliveries of bread and milk made by horse drawn carts.

P. Baker Dairy in Peckham Rye, c1903 (COLLAGE 341112)
P. Baker Dairy in Peckham Rye, c1903 (COLLAGE 341112). Image courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives.

Before the placement, I hadn’t any experience of working with sound archives, so wasn’t sure what to expect or how practice might differ to archiving other media. It turns out they’re horses of very different colours! In principle it’s the same: there are things in an archive (often paper documents) that you need to document, you need to preserve things, you need to review how sensitive they are to determine access to them, and you need to provide and promote that access. In every stage of the placement, the main difference for me was that in practice each process feels so much more involved with sound.

We began at the very start, by condition checking the collection for any obvious issues with the physical tapes, listing visible characteristics and any liner notes which indicated content (which, peskilly, can often differ from the audio content of recordings!). These activities are known as ‘Stage 1 Cat’, or the first stage of cataloguing.

We then submitted the tapes for digitisation. Robin, the UOSH sound engineer gave us a brilliant introduction to the sound studio at LMA as well as a brief history of analogue formats, all of which are at different places on the vulnerability/obsolescence scale. Sadly, there is a chance that the physical process of playing some tapes for digitisation could render the original unplayable. This sad fact is weighed out by the threat that if you don’t digitise, there’s a chance they’ll be unplayable anyway, so it’s seen as a risk worth taking. The physical interaction and intervention with sound formats, including the associated risks, brings you so much closer into the digitisation process than photographing or scanning items. Working so closely with the tapes also makes the reality of losing sounds much more recognisable, underscoring the importance of the work the team are doing.

Many Southwark residents remember the tram service fondly in the ‘Help Make History’ recordings.

“For The City Via Southwark Bridge, also Embankment Services to Blackfriars” An London County Council Tramways poster showing a tram heading south on Southwark Bridge with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background, 1928 (COLLAGE 36917). Image courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives.

After digitisation, the next step was ‘Stage 2 Cat’, or second stage cataloguing, with UOSH Cataloguer, Kate. For this stage, we moved away from the physical items (the tapes) and recorded information about the (now) digital recordings themselves: this means summaries. On the face of it, it’s simple: you have 16 recordings of interviews, you just need to summarise what the interviewee speaks about. But, like the obsolescence of certain formats, this is where the experience of working with sound becomes much more involved and intimate, as you’re capturing information about (in this case) someone’s own words when describing their own life, which needs to be concisely summarised without losing or altering their sentiment. At the same time, you’re trying to capture anything that could be a way-in for a user, whether that’s mentioning a particular road or characteristic or event. When a user is faced with a summary in a catalogue (potentially without the recording available to listen to there and then), you want to try and make sure you can cover all interest bases. Without the recording, sound is a totally hidden entity; without adequate indicators its contents may never be sought out and listened to. I can’t quite articulate it, but with sound the potential is vast, and the experience of listening to one interview is totally different to reading a summary of it, and to listening to a ‘similar’ interview.

Despite the challenge of creating good summaries, this part of the process was brilliant. I really looked forward to getting to LMA to listen to oral histories each day and even found myself becoming attached to some of the speakers. Every interview had amazing anecdotes: about seeing the Crystal Palace on fire in 1936; about schoolgirls having snowball fights with Prisoners of War on Peckham Rye during World War Two; or the rivalry between egg-boys and the delicatessen owner in Lordship Lane.

We also gained an insight into UOSH rights and sensitivities review activities with Rights Officer, Victoria. One ‘Help Make History’ interviewee recounted political meetings at The Plough in Dulwich in the 1930s, commenting on the rise of Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts (I highly recommend this recording!). Although the content had every potential to be sensitive or contentious, the interviewee spoke objectively about what happened, and so there was no real issue to be flagged. This was an interesting for me because throughout my studies, context has been paramount, but in this case, content took precedence over context.

The final element of the placement was gaining insight into learning and engagement with Project Manager, David. For us, this meant picking out interesting clips for an exhibition (to be confirmed – watch this space!) and writing short interpretation texts for the clips. This was a great opportunity to revisit my own highlights from the collection and introduce them to others. My favourite clip is below: the anecdote is brilliant, but I love that it contains the voice of the interviewee and, if you listen carefully, her husband who is simultaneously being recorded in a separate interview as part of ‘Help Make History’. As a cataloguer it was great to hear both of their perspectives separately, but I find that the sound of both voices in this recording builds a vivid sense of place and time for the day of the interviews at Dulwich Library in 1986.

Marjorie and George Payne were evacuated from their homes due to the fear of the nearby water tower at Crystal Palace collapsing.

I loved my time on placement with the UOSH team. I learned a lot, met some amazing people and worked with fascinating content. I thoroughly recommend getting involved with the UOSH Project if you have chance. If you haven’t, keep your eyes peeled for the British Library’s Universal Player to be launched, which is due to provide online listening access to many of the recordings catalogued as part of the UOSH Project.

Title quote taken from Help Make History interview. To learn more about the collection, contact Southwark Local History Library and Archive.