Have you ever wondered how Christabel Pankhurst sounded when rousing women to fight for the right to vote? Or Aga Khan III speaking to Muslim people? Or the Queen mom as a young woman exhorting the women of England to be brave during war? How about Robert Baden Powell, speaking to young boyscouts in the early 20th century?
We can easily find material to read about these people and what they stood for. But it is rare to actually hear their voices and hear their passion and personality come through in speech.
The British Library Sound archive holds recordings of various public figures including these and many more, most of them recorded before the advent of long-playing records and tapes.
They are recordings of speeches and messages addressed to the British parliament or the public at various events.
The library warns users to be aware that the recordings are historical documents and that language, tone and content could be offensive to present-day listeners
Another interesting collection within the British library’s sound archive are recordings of childrens’ games and songs made by Iona Opie and her husband Peter between 1969 and 1983, the Opie collection.
The Opie’s dedicated their working lives to the documentation of children’s play, folklore, language and literature.
They also published several influential works, most notably The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959).
Recordings are searchable by British county using an alphabetical drop-down menu, or by the name of the interviewer or interviewee.
While researching the specifics of early audio recordings for a short story I wrote a few months ago, I came across the Vernadsky library’s collection of sound archives in Kiev and it made me think of this different format of documents that – to a music lover and aurally-focused person such as myself – opens up a whole new world of fascinating historical materials.
It’s got one of the biggest collections of recorded sound in the world and includes music, spoken word, and ambient recordings as far back as 1905, mostly on metal cylinders.
A digitizing project began in the 1990s, allowing much of the collection to now be electronically accessible.
The British Library sound archive’s collection of six million recordings come from BBC radio broadcasts and privately made recordings . They include first hand accounts of Holocaust survivors and of WW I vets held in German prisoner-of-war camps, soundscapes of street scenes including open markets from the Victorian era, the sound of a sail being hoisted on its mast on an early sailing ship, recordings of early folk and opera singing, writers – including an interview with Leo Tolstoy and other noteworthy writers – bird calls and wildlife recordings from many parts of the world, and UK dialects.
In a nutshell – here are the classifications of different recordings available. I’ll delve into these more in the weeks to come.
Drama and literature
Popular music and jazz
Spoken language and dialects
Wildlife and other nature sounds
World and traditional music
It makes me think of all the amazing ways these recordings could be used – in art and theatre projects to help set a scene. In academic investigations comparing the predominant sounds of yesteryear to those we hear today. And to hear – perhaps for the first time for contemporary audiences – the sound of birds and animals that have become extinct.
Many of these archival clips and recordings are available online to the public and some can be imbedded into various kinds of documents, but there are others that are restricted to use by students and faculty of British universities that have subscribed to its collection. However – if you are in London – and go into the reading room, you can listen to almost anything in the collection.
More in the coming weeks on use of this collection, restrictions, and a selection of recordings.
The library holds one of the largest collections of phonographic recordings of Jewish musical folklore in the world – including Jewish synagogue singing – on more than 1000 wax cylinders.
Before I worked in an archives I remembered hearing news-stories about things being discovered in different archival repositories and I couldn’t understand – why didn’t they know what was in their collection?
But now that I understand better how many unique items are housed in archives, I see that not everything can be added to a searchable list.
Not to mention the political restrictions that can make archival materials unavailable and even subject to destruction.
In January 1949 the Soviet government confiscated the entire archival collection of the Institute of Jewish Culture and arrested almost all of its employees including Moishe Beregovski who I wrote about last week and about whom I fictionalized a story called Pale Shadow*.
After the break-up of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in the early 1990s, the Vernadsky collection of wax cylinder recordings became publicly available and researchers have been going through them ever since – a veritable renaissance.
The collection includes music collected by several generations of cultural researchers who gathered material from as early as 1908 out of Belarus where there was a large Jewish diaspora as well as a plethora of traditional religious centres.
A huge project to re-recording the collection was carried out between 1996 and 1999, from which a CD was produced, “Treasures of Jewish Culture in Ukraine”, in 1997.
*I entered Pale Shadow into a story contest that the magazine Prairie Fire ran so don’t want to jeopardize my entry by posting it here yet.
I’ve been working on a short story for a contest this week that’s been percolating in my mind for more than 10 years – that’s the way it goes sometimes – but I was happy to have the chance to finally write it.
The story would probably never seen the light of day if it hadn’t been for the break-up of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in 1991 when archival records that had been restricted and virtually inaccessible, were released
The idea for the story I wrote all started at a concert at the Chutzpah festival in Vancouver when the band leader, Alicia Sviegels told the story of an ethnomusicologist, Moishe Beregovski, who travelled through the Ukraine in the 1930s and collected Klezmer folk music in one of the world’s most comprehensive studies.
Beregovski was sent to prison in the 1940’s and his research was confiscated from the Ukrainian Academy of Science. He never knew what had happened to it by the time he died in the 1960s’s, but probably assumed they had been destroyed by the Communist government.
However, after the break-up of the Soviet Union – a whole slew of archival records were released, providing a glimpse into the USSR that academics and geneaologists have been gobbling up ever since.
It was at that time that Beregovski’s early recordings on wax cylinders and his extensive documentation of the music – more than 100 questions for each piece of music – were unearthed and are now available for researchers at at library in Kiev, the Vernadsky National Library of the Ukraine.
I’ll write some more about this in the weeks to come and also will post parts of my story, which is called Pale Shadow.
Last week I reported that the Vancouver Sun newspaper is now searchable online within the Ancestry digital resource of the VPL for the date range 1912-2018.
This way to search will shave hours off your research time plus give you easy access to news stories that might whet your appetite and inspire you to to write a story, make a movie, paint a picture, or just have fun exploring the antics you humans get into.
It sure beats locating, loading, scrolling, and unloading rolls of microfilm that can eat up lots of time with sometimes negligible results.
This new database allows you to search by keyword, title, news-reporter, or date and to narrow it by country, province, city, and individual newspaper – of which there are hundreds.
If you’re looking for stories from the Vancouver Sun specifically you’ll need to narrow your search by choosing country (Canada); province (British Columbia); city (Vancouver); and finally, newspaper (Vancouver Sun).
Or you search within one entire newspaper from one a particular day or date-range, or by date-range followed by keyword search within that range.
You can also select any number of newspapers to do a simultaneous search in multiple newspapers anytime or for a specific date-range.
Like any kind of searchable database, there are usually multiple ways to search and you’ll probably find your favourite if you do enough searches and within a short enough period of time to get it into your head.
I always find it easiest to have a search in mind before I go through a new database. It makes it less vague and probably more useful in the long-run. Here are my steps:
Go through each tab on the database’s interface page (what you see on your screen which is a user-friendly rendition of the back-end of the database) and see what options they provide; also any sidebars
Keep track of how I do my searches, making hand-written notes on a sheet of paper at each step so I don’t get lost or forget what I’ve done
Assess the value of those steps for the type of search I’m doing and adjust/go back/keep as appropriate.
It’s sometimes tempting to get lots of results but if 99% of them are no good you just end up spending time combing through and eliminating them. Better to get fewer, more specific results than hundreds of useless ones.
Unless you’re just browsing for ideas …….
I did a search for a column I wrote for the Sun in 1997 which I’d couldn’t find in my paper files anymore. First I narrowed my search to the Vancouver Sun, then to the date I knew it was published, and finally I did a keyword search within those parameters, and it came up nice ‘n easy.
I’ve just added it to my “Clippings” file that is part of the Ancestry site you might find useful.
If you want to try out online searches from your home or office there is a 7-day free trial after which you have to start paying $74.90 for six months, unless you cancel your free trial before it ends. So write on your calendar when you need to cancel the free trial if you don’t want to be charged. This is the only way to access it from home after your free trial ends.
But if you can get into any branch of the Vancouver Public Library, you can get free access to it through the Ancestor digital resource. Check with a librarian for any help getting into it.
I imagine it’s the same with most public libraries but call your first to be sure.
And would you leave a comment if you get free access to it at another library or your experience using this resource so we can all learn?
Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One – the so-called war to end all wars. A senseless slaughter of young men on both sides, sent to fight from muddy, disease-ridden trenches, and told to wipe the memory from their minds after peace was declared and move on.
Yet the physical and emotional trauma those soldiers suffered followed them home after the armistice. Many ended up in insane asylums or became burdens to their families for the rest of their lives, shunted off to a back room in the family home plagued by nightmares or strange mutterings, or drunkenness. Even those who seemed to be doing alright walked the streets at night, unable to sleep because of their nightmares.
Broken lives. What we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But those soldiers were told basically, to suck it up and forget their experience of war, and move on.
When I worked at the City of Vancouver archives, I got researchers looking into all kinds of things. Military units and people prominent in the armed forces. Evidence of women’s political groups or agencies or information about those working for suffrage, women’s rights, and equal pay.
And though there were a few documents scattered throughout the collection documenting the issues or the people working for political and social justice, there were plenty of documents about the military and their people.
I encouraged those who wanted to unearth records about progressive history to look at what we had and try to read between the lines as to what wasn’t there or what was on the other side of the mirror. But that kind of research is harder and takes longer to do.
And often, these researchers were so discouraged by the lack of information about progressive movements that they resorted to the easy-pickings; the men, military, and marine records that have traditionally been abundant in archives. And the result?
The war records get used and studied and written about again and again.
And the documents kept coming in. Old women came to the archives from time to time, proudly carrying their brothers’ or father’s, or uncle’s, or husband’s personal records or war mementos, and offering them to our collection.
Yet they seldom brought in anything that would memorialize their own life’s work or passions. And when I’d ask them, they’d became self-deprecating, shake their heads and deny that they had ever done anything of lasting value.
Generally it takes a certain kind person or a certain kind of organization that, dare I say, has enough of an ego to think their actions and the documents that record them have historical value and relevance. And then think about bringing them into an archive to be preserved and made available to future historians.
Altogether, this makes it easy to see why many archival records are of a conservative nature. They’re more accessible, follow a familiar and logical organizational scheme, and pertain to institutions, organizations, and people who have access to funds and political power.
And that makes them easier to access and get funding to research and commemorate as well.