Taking a walk into sound

Our You Are Hear project Sound and Video Digitiser, Catherine Norris, reflects on sound and why it matters ahead of our ‘Sounds in the City’ event on Friday 27 October 2017.

I’ve always been slightly obsessed with sound since I was very young. My very first bedroom growing up was positioned at the back of the house and the view from my window looked out onto a street lamp. One night I heard a buzzing sound and I thought it was in my room. I would have only been four or five years old but I distinctly remember checking under the bed and in the wardrobe as I was convinced there was a giant buzzing monster in there.

I then saw the light of the lamp and walked towards the window and realised that it was the lamp making the noise; it was hypnotising. Years later when training to be a sound engineer and learning about acoustics, I realised why I heard what I did and why it appeared to be such a strong sound.

The sound that I heard was affected by the environment it was being captured in. The fact that it was night time, that there was no traffic and no one walking around, the open casing around the lamp and the location would have all had an impact on the sound and amplified it.

There are many factors in play as to why we hear what we hear, and how and why the sounds around us change depending on what the environment is like and what else is happening within it.

I love how the outside of buildings can affect what we hear because of their shape and size, what they are made out of and how they can be a sound barrier. I also really like the contrast between man-made and natural sounds and how they can mix together.

Weather, traffic, wildlife and people all add to the soundscape we hear on a daily basis. But with many of us just rushing to get from A to B it is as if we tune out of what we could be listening to. This is a shame because there is so much out there to hear and discover.

Just over a year ago, as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project at the Essex Record Office, we launched the Essex Sounds map, made up of old and new sounds captured in Essex. This got me thinking about what else we could do to create sounds, which then led on to the idea of doing a sound walk somewhere in Essex. The sound walk would be a way of encouraging people to collect sounds and create their very own soundscapes.

This idea has now grown into a fully-fledged event taking place in the city of Chelmsford on Friday the 27th of October 2017, as part of the Ideas Festival and the Art of the Possible Festival. Chelmsford is a city that is forever changing and in soundscape terms is very interesting. It’s mixture of historic and modern buildings, nature and busy streets makes it the ideal place for a walk of this kind.

The morning session will include a talk on recording soundscapes, then the sound walk around parts of Chelmsford. During the sound walk we will be recording sounds at specific locations, with myself leading the walk and providing advice on recording techniques and acoustics and how to create the best recordings.

The afternoon session will include learning the basics of editing sound recordings with specialist software at the Essex Record Office.

You don’t need to have any previous experience with recording to come on the walk as training will be given throughout the event. We will also provide recording equipment to those not bringing their own. All you need to have is a passion or interest in sound (and suitable footwear!).

It’s going to be a very interesting event, and I’m looking forward to listening to all the sounds that get recorded on the day.

Date and time: Friday 27 October, 10.00am-4:30pm
Price: £20
Location: Meet at the Essex Record Office, Wharf Road, Chelmsford, CM2 6YT

Advance booking to our ‘Sounds in the City’ event is essential. Please book through our website, or contact us for further information.

Harwich Society’s Memories Exchange Interviews

Recently, we have been uploading a collection of oral history interviews conducted by The Harwich Society between 2009 and 2014 (Catalogue Reference SA 49/1/2).

These twenty-four interviews are just the first instalment of an ongoing project to record the experiences of current and former residents of Harwich and Dovercourt. As with most collections of oral history interviews, they reveal shared experiences but also how life varied even in one town depending on personal circumstances.

Harwich Junior School (T/Z 241/1)

The playground of Harwich Junior School was flooded to a depth of 1½ metres (T/Z 241/1).

Most of the recordings touch on the 1953 flood. On the night of Saturday, 31 January, a storm surge caused the sea to overwhelm flood defences along the eastern coast of Britain. Harwich was one of the places affected, and the traumatic experience is unsurprisingly etched on the town’s corporate memory.

Even here, experiences varied. Some residents in Dovercourt only knew about it from news bulletins on the television. But in the Bathside area, the water rose to the first floor of people’s houses. Tom Bell and Danny Goswell, then young lads who belonged to the sailing club, were kept busy ‘fishing people out of houses’ in boats, ‘rowing around doing what we could’ (SA 49/1/2/12/1).

Evacuees sought refuge in the drill hall, where the Salvation Army was handing out blankets and cups of tea, before being billeted with family members or kind-hearted strangers with rooms to spare. The water took a week to recede, and the houses were permanently damaged. Ruby Cooper-Keeble recalls how they lost all their possessions. By the time the family moved back to the house, it had been cleaned out and redecorated, but the smell ‘stayed with it for years and years’, and ‘you could actually scrape the salt off the [wall]paper’ as it seeped out of the walls, residue from the sea salt water that flooded the home (SA 49/1/2/9/1). But as a child, she still saw the ordeal as something of an ‘adventure’.

Some people, such as Mr and Mrs Moore, never moved back (SA 49/1/2/14/1).

The interviews are full of memorable details that bring the event to life: tables laid for breakfast that neatly settled back into place once the water receded; the vigour of local hero Leonard ‘Pummie’ Rose in organising the rescue operations. The stories take different tones. Tom and Danny chuckle over how, after working all day in rescue boats, they still had the energy to go out in the evening. ‘Commandeering’ a dinghy tied up outside the police station, they rowed down the main road to the Spread Eagle pub that remained defiantly open, to enjoy a couple of Vimtos before rowing home.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, recalling the childhood trauma of that long, cold, dark night spent trapped in the bedroom waiting for rescue affected one interviewee so much that it sounds as if he had to pause during the interview to compose himself.

Whether they were only onlookers or whether they lost everything, when listened to together the interviews reveal how the town rallied together to overcome this ordeal – as they had done just ten years earlier during the Second World War. From the family who tirelessly worked to restore their grandparents’ house to normal in time for Christmas (interview with Diane Butler, SA 49/1/2/11/1), to the boy who joined with his friends to build a sea wall in the sand when they moved back, ‘in our own simple way to try and stop the waves coming again’ (interview with Ray Chippington, SA 49/1/2/22/1), the town was determined to recover. And what better way to cheer flagging spirits than travelling in a ‘cavalcade of coaches’ to a football match at Wembley to support your local team in the FA Amateur Cup final? Harwich and Parkeston Football Club’s finest hour was among the happier events of 1953, as recalled by Malcolm Carter (SA 49/1/2/16/1).

The collection covers other topics as well, including experiences during the Second World War; growing up and working in Harwich; and how the town has changed. We are grateful to The Harwich Society for taking the time to capture these memories, and for allowing us to make them publicly available. We are also grateful to the participants who, as June Cummings describes, had to relive the events in the act of sharing them (SA 49/1/2/20/1).

 

You can listen to these oral history interviews in the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office, Chelmsford, or, thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project, in the comfort of your own home through Essex Archives Online.

It is not surprising that such a momentous event crops up in several of our other collections. You can search the subject index term ‘Floods’ to find related material, such as this film footage of the floods on Canvey Island. Or look up Hilda Grieve’s authoritative work on the 1953 floods in Essex, referred to in some of these clips: The Great Tide: The story of the 1953 flood disaster in Essex (copies available in the Searchroom Library or in branch libraries across Essex).

Further afield, the East Anglian Film Archive holds a compilation of film footage of the floods which reveal the devastation caused. You can watch it for free on their website here.

Does your community have a story that should be recorded? Do you want to undertake your own oral history project? Contact us to find out more about the oral history training we provide.

Open your ears to Essex Sounds

Have you ever had an ear-opening moment?

This was a phrase used by legendary wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson in a keynote address delivered at the Sound+Environment Conference hosted by the University of Hull in June 2017. He used it in his narration of his personal journey into his career as a sound recordist, and it struck a chord. Have you ever experienced a moment where the soundscape was so startling, unexpected, beautiful, quiet, or loud that it opened your ears and heightened your awareness of the sounds around you?

The Essex Sounds audio map, Screenshot of the Essex Sounds audio mapdeveloped as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, could provide moments like that. Although you can listen to sounds recorded across the county from an enclosed, familiar location, browsing the Web at home or in a library, we hope it will spur you on to take greater notice of the sounds of your Essex in your daily routine: whether natural or man-made; everyday or unusual; familiar or unidentified. Do the sounds on the map reflect your own experiences, or does your Essex sound very different?

The free app version of Essex Sounds (available from Google Play or Apple IStore) allows more direct comparisons between the sounds on the map and present moment experiences. Travel to the location of one of our historic recordings from the Archive; play the sound; then take a few moments to listen to the present-day soundscapes. What are the similarities and differences? Is one quieter or louder? What does that tell us about broader changes in Essex?

The Sound+Environment Conference was full of presentations on how to encourage active listening. We learn to filter sounds because our atmospheres are so noisy. We tune into the sounds that we like (a loved one’s voice, the music coming through our headphones) or that give us important information (alarms, tannoy announcements) while ignoring those we do not (traffic, the music coming from other people’s headphones). But sometimes, it is enlightening to open our ears, notice the full range of noises around us, and contemplate what those sounds tell us about our environment.

The Conference was truly interdisciplinarian – there were even one or two other archivists in attendance. Many of the presenters were involved in acoustic ecology: judging the health of ecosystems based on the sounds that they make. For example, Dr Leah Barclay’s River Listening project seeks to collect data from hydrophones placed in rivers across the globe. What can the sounds tell us about the diversity of the ecosystems, and what, in turn, does that tell us about the condition of the water? Many presenters, like Stuart Bowditch who co-presented our paper on Essex Sounds, were sound artists: using varying combinations of field recordings, musical instruments, and technology to capture, mix, and remix soundscapes to make an artistic statement. Others were interested in merging the two disciplines to strengthen the field of ‘ecological sound art’ (as argued by Jono Gilmurray). The power of sound can move us to respond, initiating the culture change that ecologists warn is vital if we are to preserve ecosystems threatened by our current way of life.

For example, how do you feel after listening to the pounding sea in Stuart’s recording made at Bradwell-on-Sea?

Photograph taken on beach at Bradwell-on-Sea

Looking out over the sea from Bradwell-on-Sea

Or after hearing the number of peaceful recordings interrupted by aeroplanes rumbling overhead? Or after attentively listening to the baby owls in Joyce Winmill’s 1974 recording in Henham churchyard, an eavesdropping through time made possible by the simple technology of a microphone and tape recorder?

 

How does this make you feel about your Essex, how it has changed, and how it might change? What do you want your future Essex to sound like, and how do you make that happen?

Perhaps we think it is only far-flung landscapes like the Arctic Tundra or the depths of the oceans that demonstrate the majesty of nature which we must preserve. If you are thinking along those lines, stop what you are doing and open a window. Wait. Listen. What sounds do you hear? Essex Sounds is full of birdsong: some, yes, recorded in secluded environments such as wildlife reserves, but some just captured in towns, in the midst of our everyday lives.

This, too, is nature that might have changed and might change in future.

Neither is it just natural sounds that indicate change over time. Changing human activity is also evident on our sound map. Some industries have only moved. Others have largely disappeared, machinery laid to rest in museums, only resurrected for special events.

 

Perhaps you can identify with this collection of ‘lost sounds of Essex’, collected in 2015 when we asked people which sounds they no longer hear (Word Cloud created at Wordle.net).

Wordcloud of suggestions of lost sounds

What other changes become apparent from playing with Essex Sounds? Is there some vital sound that is missing from the map? Please help us make it more representative by adding your own contributions. Or perhaps you are a sound artist inspired by our collection of historic and modern sounds. We would love to hear ideas about how we can reuse these sounds and present them in new ways.

But above all, please take time to listen to the present-day Essex. Wake up five minutes earlier to allow time to listen before you start your day. Pause in your commute. Think again before popping on headphones. Close your eyes and open your ears.

Would you be interested in a sound walk event around Essex, which would incorporate an introduction into active listening, making sound recordings, and editing the results? We are running a survey to gauge interest in such an event. Please let us know what you think, and you could win a discount on the ticket price.

Sounds of Essex captured for future generations

For our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we commissioned Sound Recordist Stuart Bowditch to capture what Essex sounds like in the present-day. Some of his recordings were made in response to historic recordings of events and places from our Archive, some in response to public suggestions about which sounds represent Essex, and some on a whim and a fancy. The recordings have been posted on our online audio map of Essex Sounds, where you can compare past and present recordings made across the county. They have also been deposited with the Essex Sound and Video Archive, so future generations can experience the sounds we hear today. What will Essex sound like in fifty years?

You can read about Stuart’s week-long trip to the north of the county in an earlier blog entry. Here, he reflects on the project as a whole. All images used with Stuart’s kind permission.

So, the recording phase of the You Are Hear project comes to a close, and I will miss it. It has been a year full of exploration and discovery, meeting a multitude of characters and learning about local skills and traditions, none of which was further than 42 miles (as the crow flies) away from where I live. I have travelled from the more familiar industrial and suburban south to the rural wilds of the north, and from the summery seaside riviera of the east to the west that seems somehow slightly detached and belonging to neighbouring counties.

We knew from the outset that the project would only be fruitful if we listened to local people, their suggestions and invaluable local knowledge. But we also knew that the ‘picture’ of Essex that could be formed from its diverse sounds would be more vivid and much wider than the stereotypical image that is often perceived. We carried out public surveys in several towns and reached out using mailing lists and social media, asking: What does Essex sound like? What sounds are connected to the place where you live? What is a sound of today or yesteryear? What sounds are new or have been lost? Questions certainly got people thinking, and we were bombarded with suggestions, clues, hints and leads to where, when and how we could find them. It was my job to take this valuable information and to try and capture the sounds for preservation in the archive; to paint that ‘picture’ of Essex as best as I could.

I drove (a 15 year-old Corsa), jumped on trains (including a Class 156 and Class 31), climbed, hiked and walked to all kinds of destinations, at all times of day and night, in all kinds of weather and every season throughout the year. I discovered new places and villages that I’d never heard of, as well as revisiting places I’m familiar with to hear them in a new ‘light’. Wherever I went, I went with an open mind, not jumping to any conclusions before arriving in order for me to capture as authentic a recording as possible. Apart from setting out with a small nugget of information, who was I to know what a place would actually sound like on any given day? There are so many variables that it’s really not helpful to try and imagine them on the way there. Upon arriving, discretion, sensitivity and impartiality were often paramount to capturing the right moment, negotiating permission or gaining access to property.

 

Photograph of cranes loading container ship

Maersk Lins being loaded at DP world, London Gateway. Listen to the sounds on the Essex Sounds page.

Working for the Essex Record Office helped to reassure people that my intentions were honourable,and that recording the sound of their activity, place of work or garden was of value, even though at first they may have thought the idea strange. It also afforded me some leverage in gaining access I wouldn’t usually be able to negotiate by myself, such as on the quayside of the DP World super port and the factory and farms of Wilkin and Sons Ltd.

 

I’ve also had to do things I never had before in order to gain access to places, such as sign disclaimers and send a scan of my passport through a week in advance to gain access to a restricted area. In fact I’ve gone to quite some lengths in the pursuit of capturing sounds: I even put my recording kit through an X-ray machine to record, amongst other things, the men who are responsible for luggage ending up in Barbados when it should have been in Lanzarote.

As well as contributing to a more detailed and colourful image of Essex and its inhabitants, I have also learned a lot during this project. People are generous with their time, knowledge, good will, and sometimes even gifts. Some people’s skills and knowledge are very niche, which is interesting, informative and essential, both in their given field and in their ability to find somewhere within society where they excel. Others were reluctantly compliant when asked by their boss to start up a particular machine so that I could record it, but reassured after a chat about the reason for my interrupting their work routine. There is a reasonably high level of trust between folk, which worked in both directions: someone letting a stranger into their house to record the aeroplanes, and me meeting a man outside the chip shop in Jaywick at 10pm with my sound recording equipment. Both situations were problem free, naturally, and led to good recordings and unique experiences for all parties.

I discovered that a big, fluffy microphone windshield apparently resembles a cute, fluffy animal, and some members of the public seemed surprised when they discovered that its owner wasn’t so. I mean, you wouldn’t put your finger onto a photographer’s lens and expect them to be happy about it, would you? But being so visible also worked the other way, as I was able stand in the middle of two hundred people drinking champagne and eating canapes for 40 minutes whilst appearing to be invisible.

Photograph of microphone in front of Royal mail vans

The microphone recording soundscapes on Halstead High Street. Did you see the microphone on our Twitter feed? It gained its own followers as it travelled round the county in search of the best sounds.

My work didn’t finish with recording. Most of the recordings were edited and uploaded to the Essex Sounds website, where you can explore the map and listen to sounds relating to that place. As part of the project, we’ve also been digitising a lot of the archived recordings, and you can hear recordings we’ve made as a comparison to archival recordings. One such location is Chelmsford Cattle Market, where you can hear what the market sounded like in the 1950s or what the site sounded like in 2016 (now the indoor High Chelmer shopping centre). You can also hear Colchester United winning a 1971 match at their Layer Road stadium, but losing in 2016 at Weston Homes Community Stadium (oh dear).

We also reached out to the general public to contribute, and many people have uploaded their own recordings to further widen the view of where we live. If you have something that you would like to contribute, please head over to the website and get clicking. Or if you’d prefer just to hear what we have all been collecting, the map is where it’s at. I hope you enjoy it.

Is there a sound of Essex that we have missed from our map? We continue to welcome public contributions of sound recordings to our Essex Sounds map. Read more about how to contribute, then get recording!

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Sound and video recordings now available on Essex Archives Online

Did you know that the Essex Sound and Video Archive at the Essex Record Office holds over 30,000 recordings of oral history interviews, music, local radio and television broadcasts, and much more? The best way to discover all the treasures in the Archive is to search Essex Archives Online – and now you can also play a sample of the recordings directly from the website.

Screenshot of video player on Essex Archives Online

With the latest update to our online catalogue, we can now embed audio and video recordings from hosting websites such as Soundcloud and YouTube. This means you can listen or watch our recordings without having to go to a different site – recordings like this ‘Haunted Essex’ clip from an EastWard Hospital Television programme.

You can also search specifically for items that have audio or video recordings attached to the catalogue entry. From the main search page, choose ‘Audio Visual’ from the ‘Refine your search’ drop-down box.

Screenshot showing option to find a-v material on Essex Archives Online

Why not try it now? For example, try searching for ‘school’ – and remember to first select ‘Audio Visual’ in the ‘Refine your search’ box.

This is also an option on the Advanced Search page. Please note that this will only return results where we have uploaded digital copies of the recordings. There are many more amazing treasures in the Archive yet to be digitised, so do get in touch if you cannot find what you are looking for.

Maybe you are not specifically looking for audio or video material, but, as you search the A-v iconwhole catalogue, you might come across some relevant recordings. You can quickly spot which results have audio-visual content, because you will see this icon on the results page.

You will need to create an account on Essex Archives Online and log in before you can view or listen to the content. However, you do not need to purchase a subscription: the material is absolutely free to play, and can be played as often as you like. So you can scrutinise, frame by frame, this 1980s video of St Cedd’s School Choir performing at the Chelmsford Cathedral Festival to see if you recognise anyone.

Or perfect your Anglo-Saxon.

This means you no longer have to travel to the Essex Record Office to use Essex Sound and Video Archive material (but of course we would be happy to help you with your research in the Searchroom if you do want to visit). Instead, you can play recordings from the comfort of your own home – or in the library, or an Internet café, or your garden if your Wi-Fi is strong enough (but please be considerate of others when listening).

This material is being made available for free thanks to our Heritage Lottery Funded project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place. The material available online will continue to grow as we digitise more of our recordings over the next two years of the project. Follow us on Soundcloud or YouTube to be alerted to new uploads.

For more information about You Are Hear, you can go to the project blog site or the Essex Sounds website, or you can sign up to receive news updates.

We would love to hear what you think about the content we have added so far. Please also let us know if you experience any problems using the site.

All these recordings are being made available under a Creative Commons (Attribution Non-Commercial) licence. If you wish to use any material for commercial purposes, please get in touch. You can also contact us about recordings that have not yet been uploaded.

For more information about the Essex Sound and Video Archive and the digitisation and consultancy services we provide, please visit our website.

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Historic sounds of Essex – coming to a town near you

Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, You Are Hear Project Officer

If a bench could talk, what would it say? The listening benches being installed across the county by the Essex Record Office do talk, and they tell you stories and play you recordings of local history past and present – recordings like these memories of growing up on Marks Hall Estate by Pearl Scopes and Bill and Daphne Carter (SA 51/2/5/1, full interview available on the Discovering Coggeshall YouTube channel).

 

Thanks to National Lottery players, eight sound benches are being installed across the county this summer, with two others touring country parks, towns, and villages as part of You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place. At the same time, two interactive audio-video kiosks will tour public places, with a third installed at the Essex Record Office (ERO).

You Are Hear is a three-year, £276,800 project to digitise, catalogue, and make available many of the historically significant sound and video recordings in the ERO’s Essex Sound and Video Archive (ESVA). The project is mainly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), with additional support from the Essex Heritage Trust and the Friends of Historic Essex.

The sound benches will be loaded with recordings that tell the story of the location in which they are placed. You will be able to choose which recording you’d like to hear, and it will be played to you through the in-built speakers.

Permanent benches will be located in Basildon, Castle Hedingham, Colchester, Great Dunmow, Great Waltham, Harwich, Kelvedon, and Saffron Walden.

Cartoon map of Essex showing location of benches

Location of the first eight benches being installed this summer

The first bench was launched in Castle Park, Colchester, on Saturday 4 June.

Picture of Cllr Young cutting ribbon on bench

Cllr Julie Young, Mayor of Colchester, opening the listening bench in Castle Park

You can find the bench near the entrance to the Castle. It features clips from oral history interviews recorded by the Colchester Recalled Oral History Group, who also selected the clips and put them together for the bench. Councillor Annie Feltham, Colchester Borough Council Portfolio Holder for Business, Leisure and Opportunities, said:

“This bench is a great new way for the people of Colchester and visitors to learn about local history through a shared social experience. Hearing real audio clips of voices and sounds, of people who have lived and worked in Colchester over the years, will really bring their stories to life.”

Two more sound benches will be touring the county from June, starting at Stansted Airport and Belhus Woods Country Park. See if you can visit them all! Send us a picture of you with each bench, and tell us which clip was your favourite.

Image of the touring kiosk

The touring kiosks that will visit libraries and museums across the county (image courtesy of blackbox-av)

Two audio-video touchscreen kiosks filled with a selection of recordings from the Essex Sound and Video Archive will also be touring from 4 July. The kiosks will first visit Chelmsford Museum and Loughton Library, before embarking on a tour that will take them the length and breadth of Essex.

A third kiosk will be permanently installed at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford.

The project is working with community groups in villages and towns throughout Essex, helping them to reflect upon where they live by engaging with the recordings. Each group created a montage of clips about their community from recordings in the Archive, which will be played on the sound benches.

Councillor John Spence, Essex County Council Cabinet Member for Finance, with responsibility for Heritage, Culture and the Arts, said:

“So often we rely on the eye to bring archives to life; creating this aural dimension not only lets blind people like me have the experience, it actually immerses you in the sounds of the period, or place.”

Robyn Llewellyn, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund East of England, said:

“this is a fantastic way for local people and visitors to get a sense of the history of these places, and what life was like for local communities over the years. We are delighted that, thanks to National Lottery players, we have been able to fund this project to bring local history, and local benches, to life!”

The two listening benches will visit the following locations this year:

  • June – August 2016: Stansted Airport and Belhus Woods Country Park
  • September – November 2016: Hatfield Forest and Cudmore Grove Country Park
  • December 2016 – February 2017: intu Lakeside Shopping Centre and Thorndon Country Park
  • March – May 2017: Battlesbridge Antiques Centre and Cressing Temple

The two audio-video kiosks will visit these venues this year:

  • July – September 2016: Chelmsford Museum and Loughton Library
  • October – December 2016: Zinc Arts, Ongar and Fingringhoe Wick Visitor Centre
  • January – March 2017: Canvey Island Library and Brentwood Library
  • April – June 2017: Jaywick Martello Tower and Caxton Books and Gallery, Frinton-on-Sea / The Naze Education and Visitor Centre

For the latest news on tour dates and community installations, keep an eye on our Essex Sounds website.

We are still taking bookings for the second year of the tours, and looking for volunteers to help with the second round of community bench installations. Please get in touch by e-mail or on 033301 32467 if you have any suggestions.

To find out more about the project and subscribe to receive updates, visit http://www.essexrecordofficeblog.co.uk/you-are-hear/

You can also listen to our recordings as they are being digitised through our Soundcloud channel.

A day in the life of Chelmsford Library: 5 April 2016

Sarah-Joy Maddeaux, You Are Hear Project Officer

What does a library sound like in 2016? A zoo, apparently.

 

Stereotypically, libraries are quiet places, where everyone must speak in hushed tones. They are places for reading and studying, solitary activities that create minimal noise and require a calm, peaceful environment. But is that still what is required of a twenty-first-century public library in the middle of a busy city?

Unfortunately the Essex Sound and Video Archive does not have many recordings of what libraries sounded like in the past. To rectify this for future generations, I spent a day in Chelmsford Library, capturing the different soundscapes over the course of the nine and a half hours when it was open to the public. All the recordings were made on Tuesday, 5 April 2016: a beautiful sunny day during the school Easter holidays. I was using only a handheld Zoom H1 digital recorder (recorded as wav files and later converted to mp3s).

I arrived at the Library shortly before it opened at 9:00 am. I expected to be the first one at the door. I expected to have plenty of time to establish myself in the best location before the general public started to trickle in and create noise. But there were already people waiting at the door to get in, mostly students intent on studying for looming exams. From the start of the day to the very end, I was never the sole member of the public inside.

By the time I had set up my equipment and started to record about half an hour later, the Library was already a busy hive of activity. Among other things, a member of staff agrees to put up a community notice: the Library serves as an information point about local activities.

 

At first, I sat on a chair placed halfway between the front doors and the issue desk, opposite the self-issue machines. Periodically you can hear people using the machines, returning books into the bins provided. But you can also hear the ding of staff issuing books at the desk, followed by the more traditional stamp as they put the due date in the book: here they are not insistent on people using the self-issue machines.

 

In the early afternoon, I worked upstairs. It being exam season, these study desks were almost all occupied. Though some of the noise travelled up, and a siren infiltrated the windows from outside, this area provided something of the peace and quiet traditionally associated with libraries, allowing people to focus on their work.

 

Later in the day, I worked by the public access computers. This area was even quieter: perhaps because it was later in the day and there were fewer people in the library, or perhaps because it was shielded from the general activity in the open area. Surprisingly, there were few technological noises, such as dings and beeps of error messages. There was only an occasional burst of typing: perhaps less than there would have been thirty years ago, when operating systems relied more on keyboards than mice? There is also the unmistakeable, clean sound of someone opening a fizzy drink: the library has an amenable policy of allowing people to drink inside, even by the computers: something my mother never allowed her IT students to do (nor her children at home).

 

Different activities took place over the course of the day. A read-aloud book group meets once a month to enjoy reading together, as well as discussing the text. They are currently working their way through Simon Armitage’s Walking Away, and, after reading for a time, they broke into a discussion of Armitage’s prose versus his poetry.

 

The Library’s sensory wall was also open in the morning, in the children’s section. This is actually a corner: two walls full of gadgets that produce different sounds and lights, touchy-feely parts with different textures, mirrors, and play-things. It was fun watching the children interact with each other and the wall.

 

Elsewhere in the children’s section, the Library proved that it is still about reading. Listen out for the sound of a woman reading a book aloud to a captive audience.

 

The Library provided so much enjoyment that for one boy it was a devastating blow when he was told that the back end of the children’s section had to be closed off for a private booking.

 

The different soundscapes of all these different activities come together into one great crescendo of noise when you stand on the stairs. Children, adults, machines working and playing – mixed with the conversations you can hear from County Hall offices that adjoin the Library – create a busy atmosphere. There are no librarians demanding quiet here.

 

The 1850 Public Libraries Act was the first piece of legislation granting town councils the right to use money raised through rates on the establishment and running of a public library facility. There were restrictions: it only applied to boroughs with a population of over 10,000, and they could only spend a set proportion of the rates on libraries (the legislation was extended to smaller towns and even parishes by the 1855 Public Libraries Act). Significantly, any such library would have to operate on the basis of free admission.

The use of library spaces has undeniably changed in the last 150 years, with a resulting impact on the sounds you hear inside. There is less whispering and rustling of pages. Libraries now offer more than books and study spaces: from public computers (increasingly important to combat digital exclusion) to social groups; meeting spaces to play rooms. We can speculate about how libraries will change in future, and how this will affect the soundscapes. Nevertheless, the service they provide remains true to the original purpose of the act: providing facilities ‘for the Instruction and Recreation of the People’.

The soundscape at Chelmsford Library did get gradually quieter over the course of the day. By the time I returned to the stairs at around 6:15 pm, the children had gone home, the students had packed up for the day, and the few people remaining were quickly checking out books and printing off documents before the Library shut. Staff went through the closing-up routine on computers and machines. It was noticeably quieter. That stereotypical hush had finally descended on the Library, but creating an aura of settling down to sleep and preparing for another busy day the next day.

 

Perhaps this one last clip is sufficient to demonstrate the valuable role that public libraries continue to play.

 

I echo this customer’s thanks: I am very grateful to the staff at the library for facilitating my recording visit.

Does your local library sound different? What about your college or university library, or an institutional or workplace library? We want to add the soundscapes you experience to our audio map of Essex Sounds, created as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded You Are Hear project. You can find instructions on our ‘contribute’ page, or get in touch to ask for more information.

You can listen to all of these clips, finishing with a more extended version of the recordings, on our Soundcloud channel here.

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Essex Sound and Video Archive releases first recordings online

The Essex Sound and Video Archive is delighted to announce that we have started to post a selection of our recordings online for anyone to listen for free – recordings such as this clip from a Harold Wood Hospital Radio programme about the old manual telephone exchange in Brentwood (SA 19/1050/1).

 

Image of Essex Youth Orchestra 45rpm lacquer disc from 1960

Example of an original recording in our collection that has been digitised for preservation and access

Thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund for our project, You Are Hear: sound and a sense of place, we aim to digitise and catalogue 1900 of the 30,000 fascinating, diverse sound and video recordings in the Archive.

Once the material is in digital form, we can upload it to the sound sharing website, Soundcloud. Researchers no longer have to travel to the Playback Room at the Essex Record Office to listen to the material – though you would still be welcome if you want the experience of listening to an actual cassette or cd. Instead, you can listen on your computer at home, or download the Soundcloud app and listen on the go with your mobile or tablet.

We will be adding material gradually over the next three years – material such as this oral history interview with Ann Chapman (SA 13/7/2/1). It was recorded in 2010 at Fryerns Library, as part of their fiftieth anniversary celebrations. In Part 2 of the interview, Ann describes her childhood delight at jumping in muddy puddles when her family first moved to Basildon after living in crowded, built-up London. She then describes the many shopkeepers that offered door-to-door deliveries – though she also enjoyed trips to the shops with her mother.

 

From summer 2016, we will be showcasing a selection of our recordings on interactive touchscreen kiosks and listening benches that will tour public locations across the county. Our Essex Sounds website will provide an opportunity to compare the sounds of Essex, past and present: historic sounds of places in Essex from the Archive will be pinned together with new recordings made by our Sound Recordist, Stuart Bowditch. People will also be able to pin their own sound recordings to the map, to help create a representative range across the county.

All these recordings are being made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial licence. If you wish to use any material for commercial purposes, please get in touch. You can also get in touch if you are interested in listening to recordings that have not yet been uploaded to Soundcloud.
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To receive updates about the You Are Hear project, sign up to our mailing list.

For more information about the Essex Sound and Video Archive and the digitisation and consultancy services we provide, please visit our website.

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Threatened Collections

Project logoYou Are Hear: sound and a sense of place is the Essex Sound and Video Archive project which aims to digitise, catalogue, and share our collections, helping people connect with the county’s rich heritage through listening to the sounds of the past.

Cataloguing our recordings raises awareness of the wonderful stories and variety of musical traditions we have waiting to be discovered. Sharing our collections is in itself a worthwhile aim. However, the digitisation process is an equally significant part of the project. Without this step, our unique, irreplaceable audio collections could be lost forever.

Written records on paper or parchment are subject to threats like acidic inks eating away at paper, rusty staples wearing holes in documents, or mould forming where items have been stored in damp conditions. But if we assess the condition, rectify any problems, and keep the records stored in a stable environment, we can at least slow any further deterioration, if not stop it.

Sound and video recordings are another matter. The extreme flammability of nitrate film (used from 1895 to 1951) is well-known. Acetate film is also unstable, though less dangerous. Even with more stable polyester-based film and magnetic tape, there is a risk of deterioration as the chemicals used in the manufacturing process break down. Another danger with magnetic tape is that the base layer can become separated from the binder layer. Every playback of a tape recording puts it at risk. As for CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs, no one really knows about the long-term preservation of these, because they have not been around for long enough for us to find out (though we fear the worst).

A deteriorating reel of tape showing signs of 'spoking' (the tape shrinking and becoming tighter, pulling it taut around the centre of the reel, causing lines of tension to radiate out from the centre) and 'cupping' (the tape on the outer edges rolling in on itself)

A deteriorating reel of tape showing signs of ‘spoking’ (the tape shrinking and becoming tighter, pulling it taut around the centre of the reel, causing lines of tension to radiate out from the centre) and ‘cupping’ (the tape on the outer edges rolling in on itself)

As well as the risk of deterioration, obsolescence is another problem. Even if you have never before seen a book, you could work out how to access the information relatively quickly. But how do you access the information on a CD without a CD player? Do you have stacks of cassette tapes or cine-film reels hiding in your loft, with no way of playing them? We are carefully nursing our playback facilities so we can keep accessing these different formats, but the risk of equipment failure is high. Parts will inevitably wear out, but replacements are no longer being manufactured, and machines are no longer being supported by the suppliers. At the same time, the technical expertise to maintain the equipment is dying out as the commercial audio-visual industry moves on to digital formats.

The answer is digitisation. Unlike with written records, where the original record is easier to maintain in the long-term than electronic bits and bytes of scanned copies, with sound and video records, those electronic bits and bytes are our best hope. We can at least capture the information from obsolete formats before losing it, and then work on managing the digital versions to ensure continued access.

You Are Hear is not alone in addressing the need to digitise sound and video collections. Recently Rebekah Polding from Film London delivered a talk to the Essex History Group on the London’s Screen Archives project. This project brings together partners from local archive services, specialist institutions, private owners, and businesses that are based in London, to pool resources and ensure the city’s films are identified, saved through digitisation, and shared. They are even making some of them freely available on-line. You can find out more here.

The project is calling for anyone with films of London (including Greater London), or taken by Londoners, to donate it to the project. Get in touch with them (and us!) if you have something sitting in storage that is crying out to be saved, perhaps like this film of the annual Brandon Estate (Southwark) outing to Canvey Island in 1970:

As if trying to capture all the film about the capital city was not ambitious enough, the British Library has recently announced its new project, Save our Sounds, to try to preserve the sound heritage of the whole nation. A national audit will give a clearer picture of the extent and condition of sound archives across the country. The British Library will then be able to offer advice and discuss potential ways forward with partner institutions. You can find out more about the project here.

Edison ‘Concert’ wax cylinders in the collections of the British Library – find out more at here. Image courtesy of the British Library.

If you would like to sample just a few of the BL recordings and get a sense of their vast range, have a listen to these clips on their SoundCloud:

We are just about to submit our second-round application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to proceed with the You Are Hear project. You can subscribe to receive updates about the project here.

In the meantime, please do let us know if you have any sound or video recordings relating to Essex – we are always on the look-out for material to add to our collections. We also offer a commercial digitisation service if you have recordings at risk which you want preserved. We would be happy to discuss the options with you.

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