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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/258945030″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”150″ iframe=”true” /]

 

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

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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).

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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.

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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.
You Are Hear banner showing cassette tapes
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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