Volunteer Reflections

by Richard James, UOSH Volunteer

Before starting my university work placement cataloguing sound recordings for the National Library of Scotland as part of their ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ initiative, I wasn’t sure what to expect to hear on my first week’s recordings. As I approach the end of the placement, I’m still just as unsure what I’ll hear on my final weeks’ recordings – and therein lies both the fun and the challenge of what I’ve been doing for the last two months.

A given week’s recordings may feature readings given at the Scottish Poetry Library by poets both well-known and amateur alike, or they may chronicle the shop stewards’ meetings of Clydeside ship builders as they discuss the events leading to their famous industrial action, or they may simply recount the warm and humorous tales of former steam-engine drivers reminiscing about their days working on the railways in Fife. (Or, now and then, they may play random snippets of pop music with no explanation.) The exciting thing about this placement is, you never know until you hit play.

During the two months of the placement, I’ve learned a lot of useful and practical information regarding how to catalogue audio recordings: I’ve learned what sub-fields are and how to use them, I’ve learned how to find and choose subject headings, I’ve gained experience chasing elusive snippets of information down rabbit holes and various tips and tricks to ensure you don’t return from these warrens empty-handed.

More than anything else, however, I’ve learned how rich and interesting our sound heritage can be. I’ve heard stories of mobs of impoverished miners descending on the more affluent town of Thornton to raid the local shops, I’ve become invested in the surprisingly cloak-and-dagger politics surrounding the building of a leisure centre in St Andrews and I’ve found myself, to my own surprise as much as anyone’s, becoming entranced by Finnish poetry being read in the centre of Edinburgh.

I still have two weeks’ worth of recordings to get through before finishing and, although we know this last batch features oral histories gathered from residents of Leith in Edinburgh, who knows what stories will be revealed when I actually get the headphones on and listen to them. I know one thing, though: I can’t wait to hit play and find out.