Having spent the vast majority of the first COVID-19 lockdown transcribing mountains of old family letters whose contents danced from stories of an all-girls Edinburgh boarding school, flew over Paris in 1815 before the Battle of Waterloo and sailed across the Suez Canal at the turn of the twentieth century, I thought that I was ready for my placement with the National Library of Scotland.
Little did I know that I would be thrown back, headfirst, into a University of Glasgow lecture theatre, listening to the poets of the Scottish Poetry Renaissance, reminding me why I decided to take Scottish Literature and Language as an undergraduate degree. I have dived headfirst into searching for poems charting the emigrant experience of the Scots diaspora in Canada with Malcolm Ferguson. I have walked the streets of Glasgow with William McIlvanney, consider life, love and sexuality with Edwin Morgan and that wide, wild expanse of Hebridean soundscape that encapsulates Sorley Maclean’s Gaelic poems- haunted though they are by the rise of fascism in the 1930s, Guernica and the Spanish Civil War.
Little did I know that I would become intimately acquainted with Discogs and the BBC Radio Genome; particularly when the poetry reading or oral history had been taped over by a CD of Al Stewart songs, snippets of church services, or the end of a radio programme debating Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection! Walking the streets of old St Andrews and Leith, dropping into a meeting held by the Scottish Council of Tenants pulls the political and social struggles that Scotland faced throughout the 20th century into sharp relief as the ship building that held so much of Scotland’s economy together crumbled under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Hours of frantic searching later and I find myself listening to discussions on the power of steam railways, sitting as a fly on the wall on oral history meetings with the men who still remembered with fondness the days of steam railways.
Coming into this placement in the middle of an ILS MSc with the University of Strathclyde gave me some inclination of how the metadata gleaned from the recordings can be used to develop the British Library Sound and Moving Image Archive. What I wasn’t expecting were the head scratching moments when the cohort were introduced to (shock horror!) a different format of cataloguing than the one we are learning in class. Sitting on these discussions and listening to the ever-patient Rob Smith talk about the reasons why the traditional FRBR model is not suitable for archiving audio collections and why, when you get out of library school you have to use all of your knowledge of MARC fields and RDA formatting to essentially wing it the way the British Library wants you to, were fascinating. As an aside, Rob and Jenni both deserve medals for answering all of the e-mails that have been sent over the last few weeks in such a calm, patient, unflappable way. Can that be arranged?
The thing that I want to take away from this placement is the importance of stitching together stories in order to create a soundscape of Scottish history and culture. The oral histories, poems and memories of yesterday’s Scotland that are locked away on compact cassettes and minidiscs, need to be told. They need to be told because they tell a story of another time, of the joys and sorrows of communities remembering a culture and a time that goes beyond the occasional gremlin attack on the National Library of Scotland’s One Drive and the frustration of uncooperative Excel spreadsheets. They tell a story of a place, a time and a people who owe it to us to remember them with dignity and respect.
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.
Every year, Basement Tapes Day offers the public the opportunity to listen to unearthed analogue recording formats found at home, through the use of audio playback devices that would otherwise be difficult to access. This year Adam Low, a Glasgow-based DJ, promoter and producer, took the opportunity, afforded by the National Library of Scotland Moving Image and Sound team, to digitise recordings created by his father, Kevin Low, along with his musical collaborator Fiona Carlin.
The recordings, which comprise mainly of demo tapes from across a number of years, were digitised in-house by Conor Walker, the Audio Preservation Engineer at Kelvin Hall. Some were produced professionally at what was Wilf’s Planet recording studio on Broughton Street, Edinburgh, while others employ the basic technology of a 4-track portastudio, both producing equally rich and blissful results. The demos feature a plethora of unique and interesting compositions, ranging from feedback laden early-post punk, embellished with soaring alto saxophone lines, all the way to stripped back electronic numbers that utilise early drum machine and bass sequencing technologies. They stand as fascinating encapsulations of a time in Scottish music in which innovation and creativity met head on with the emergence of complex digital instruments, resulting in a synthesis of perfect pop music and computer-world experimentation. Interested to hear more about the context of the recordings, I met up virtually with Kevin for a chat about these tapes.
I kick off our discussion by talking about Kevin’s entry into the world of music. While working as a freelance photographer for the music press, Kevin attended numerous gigs in Edinburgh at the beginning of the punk scene. He describes seeing a number of bands such as The Clash, The Ramones and The Cramps perform in Edinburgh during the late-1970s. In particular, he recalls the feeling of rebellion and new-beginnings in the air, “it was incredible. It was the beginning of everything. It was the reset. It was the pull-the-plug-out-and-put-it-back-in-again moment.” We go on to discuss the formation of his band, a post-punk outfit with singer Fiona Carlin on vocals and himself on guitar. “We had never played any instruments, but we were really excited by the post-punk bands performing in Edinburgh at the time, the likes of Josef K and especially the Fire Engines … We went and bought instruments and knew somebody that was in a band, so they let us use their practice room. And then, we learnt how to play. I use the word ‘learnt’, but we really didn’t even know a chord. So I bought Bert Weedon’s ‘Play in a Day’, and learnt a couple of chords.”
Shortly after, the band were offered a slot supporting the Edinburgh outfit Visitors, a group Kevin insists to this day were a lost gem of Scotland’s post-punk scene. Thereafter, the band went on to release two singles, Penniless and Love of My Life, and perform a number of live gigs at venues across the city, refining their style of playing to an unmistakably classy sound representative of the time, awash with saccharine guitars and emotional vocal melodies that float through the simplistically arranged compositions.
After a fond reminiscence of rambunctious gigs at Clouds in Tollcross and the Picturehouse, Kevin explains the group’s evolution and eventual shift away from syncopated guitars towards a more club-inspired sound. He credits the nightclub scene in Edinburgh and the emergence of the 12 inch single as catalysts for his change in musical approach. “We were getting excited by dance music and techno, and a bit jaded by the jangly sound of a lot of independent music… We started off wanting to sound like The Fire Engines, and then ended up wanting to sound like The System. Not the kind of sound you’d expect a boy from Montrose to want to sound like!” On the topic of nightclubs, Kevin goes on to name a number of Edinburgh haunts from days-gone-by; The Hoochie-Coochie club, Coasters, and Tiffany’s in Stockbridge. Concerning clubbing’s bearing on the sensibilities of musical groups at the time, he points out that “it just got into the bloodstream of the bands that were going to the clubs. It was a gradual thing, but it was a natural thing. It made sense when you think about it.”
Excited by the emergence of drum machines and bass sequencing, he sold his collection of punk 7 inch records in order to afford these new and expensive technologies. As a group, they began navigating the world of digital instruments without any formal knowledge of their workings. “You had to sort of shuffle through and learn. We didn’t know how to play guitars, just as we didn’t know how to programme sequencers – so it actually took months, through trial and error. And, going back to any of the musical notes or chords that are on these tapes – it’s all trial and error.” If it was trial and error, it must have been a lucky bit of trial, as throughout the more electronic recordings in question, notes from bass sequencers and synthesizers seem to bounce off carefully programmed drums with sparkling effect. Piecing together Kevin’s reflections with the audio from the tapes, it is impossible to tell the level of intuition that is channelled through the instruments. It doesn’t sound naive and elementary; rather deliberately paired back, sophisticated and stylish, with lively bass lines bringing form and momentum to sweeping melodies.
When the topic of conversation segways to tapes, he explains their role in facilitating a kind of music sharing that was until then difficult. “There was a lot of passing over and sharing music via that format. Some things would get passed about that you wouldn’t have found otherwise – I remember listening to Gil Scott Heron for the first time via a friends mixtape… Sharing demo’s was also big. You would get a demo of another group and then swap it for one of your own. The funny thing about that is that you don’t know where any of those tapes have ended up. One of our tracks ended up on some compilation cassette in Germany. I dread it because it says in brackets ‘live’ next to one of our tracks. That will sound horrendous!”
We close off the interview by talking about Kevin’s experiences sending music to John Peel, a hero for many music lovers of that time and beyond. He discusses waiting outside the BBC studio in central London, asking Peel to play a recording of their second single Penniless . “He was a really important figure for a lot of people. He also gave money to a lot of bands, telling them to put a record out.”
Throughout the conversation, Kevin is passionate to discuss his time making music and being immersed within Edinburgh’s rich artistic scene. He concludes by insisting that he never wanted to ‘become a musician’, he simply ‘wanted to create things’. To this day, Kevin still holds this passion, creating expressive art, portraiture and otherwise, through the medium of paints. Reflecting on the conversations as a whole, a common theme seems to be a strict dedication to making and ‘trying out’ within the artistic process, without which none of these recordings would be quite as timeless in their appeal. After all, without the digitisation of these tapes, I probably would never have heard them see the light of day. Happily, I have, and it excites me for any future encounter I might have with a mystery collection of tapes such as this.
Kevin Low now works as a visual artist, having shown his work throughout the UK and, most recently, in Australia. To find more about his art, find him on Instagram at @mrkevinlow or via his website https://www.kevinlow.net/ . Adam Low is a Glasgow-based DJ, producer and promoter, running club nights under the banner of Partial and producing music through the alias Pigeon Steve.
I would like to extend a massive thank you to Kevin Low and Adam Low for allowing me to discuss the topic with them and listen to these recordings. Additionally, a special thank you is required for Conor Walker, without whom none of this would have been possible.
The following is part of series for World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2020, where people were given the opportunity by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at National Library of Scotland to listen to recordings that they had not been able to listen to for a long time, asking them to reflect on listening in to the past.
Hidden amongst old vinyl and shellac records are usually some special and very unique audio gems. ‘Instantaneous’ discs offered people a means of making a recording instantly and taking it home with them (https://obsoletemedia.org/acetate/). While they resemble 78rpm shellac records, they are much more fragile and it was not unusual for these discs to only get played a handful of times. In fact, they might not be played for decades as the technology to play them fell out of fashion and then into obsolescence.
Fiona Petrie and her mother, Caroline Campbell, have two of these discs in their possession. One of these discs contains recordings of Caroline’s grandmother, Margaret McGeoch, playing piano at age 92.
Fiona and Caroline joined me for an interview to talk about this disc and what it was like to listen to the recordings found on it. Caroline was “totally impressed” by her grandmother’s piano playing and her ability to play these complex classical pieces from memory. Fiona never had the chance to meet her great-grandmother. She found the anecdotes and “little stories” told by Caroline, which were evoked by listening to the recordings, exciting to hear as it allowed her to connect with her family’s past.
Listen to Margaret at the piano while I talk to Fiona and Caroline about these recordings below. Many thanks to Fiona and Caroline (and Margaret) for taking part!
The following is part of series for World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2020, where people were given the opportunity by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at National Library of Scotland to listen to recordings that they had not been able to listen to for a long time, asking them to reflect on listening in to the past.
In the 21st century it seems almost run of the mill to send a voice clip from your phone, however 70 years ago the opportunity to visit a recording studio and record sound to send to distant relatives was an exciting prospect.
Today I have had the opportunity to speak to Margaret* about her experience of doing just that, and the associated reminiscences the recording prompted.
The year was 1950 and Margaret’s Aunt Agnes was part of a teacher exchange programme and went to live and work in Bermuda for a year, which was later extended to three years. In the run up to Christmas, the family decided to maketheir own record at Larg’s in Dundee. Margaret thinks they may have seen an advert about it in the local newspaper.
Larg’s was primarily a music shop, selling new and second-hand instruments, accessories, sheet music and records. It is fondly remembered by Dundonians as the place to be, whether you were a musician, aspiring to be one or just liked music. In the 1950’s they set up a studio for the recording of instantaneous discs.
An instantaneous disc was intended to be a quick method of recording and replaying sound for radio or as the initial recording that would then be mastered into a vinyl disc. Although the recording equipment was quite bulky, it quickly became popular for the general public and could be seen at the fair or on the pier. This allowed ordinary people to record a kind of audio postcard, a song for your sweetheart or, as in Margaret’s case, Christmas Greetings to be sent to a family member on the other side of the world.
Most of the family arrived in the family car ‘Suzie’, Margaret recalls her mother joking that Suzie’s bigger successor should be named ‘Susan’.
When they arrived at Larg’s they were shown into the recording studio. They stood in a circle around the microphone, which hung from the ceiling and to 5-year-old Margaret it seemed very high up. Margaret thinks that everyone else in the family had written scripts and perhaps read from them on the day, but she hadn’t started school yet, so she had to learn hers off by heart. Because of this Ethel and Winnie sound much more formal than she remembers them sounding, and she thinks that perhaps Granny might have said less than she meant to.
Margaret explains that she felt both excited and a little nervous at the prospect of doing the recording, as they only had one attempt to get it right and everyone had to say their piece within a short time limit. Here she explains the pressure and the relief
I asked about Aunt Ethel and her attendance of the Angus Ball and Margaret recalls that though the women in the family enjoyed Scottish Country Dancing, it wouldn’t have been Aunt Ethel’s usual scene and that it was probablya special memory for her to have mentioned it in the recording.
When they took the record home, they were not able to listen to it before sending it away as they didn’t have a gramophone.
When Aunt Agnes received the record, which took many weeks to make the journey from Dundee to Bermuda, she was only able to listen to it once because it made her feel homesick. It was only after Aunt Agnes had passed away that the recording was found again. Margaret believes she understood how her aunt felt as she had some trepidation about hearing the voices of those no longer with us.
Recorded sound can be an emotional medium but hearing everyone start to laugh at the end of the recording made her smile, making it a happy memory.
Margaret is looking forward to playing the recording for her granddaughters who think it is cool to be able to hear their granny’s granny. The experience has made her want to tell her grandchildren the importance of recording people rather than just snapping a photograph. There is something far more tangible and memory-inducing about being able to hear someone’s voice and it brings back many memories.
*Margaret’s family wished to withhold their surname.
by Conor Walker, Audio Preservation Engineer, UOSH
The following is part of series for World Audiovisual Heritage Day 2020, where people were given the opportunity by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team at National Library of Scotland to listen to recordings that they had not been able to listen to for a long time, asking them to reflect on listening in to the past.
As a recent Glasgow blow-in I first saw Keith McIvor (JD Twitch) between sets at the Old Hairdressers during a Zoviet France and O Yuki Conjugate night in 2019. He played a Frank Harris & Maria Marquez avant-pop rendition of the Venezuelan traditional “Canto del Pílon” (1985). Uncannily fitting to the title, although a reference to the conical pílonof sugar, Marquez’ reinterpretation – accompanied by Harris’ synclavier escapades – evokes the pylon of an Egyptian temple leading through time, until a sequence of electricity pylons dot over the horizon. I mention this specific song because Keith has a knack for placing recordings into a space, which no matter how out of place they may seem to whatever else is occurring – in this case moments before the seminal industrialists Zoviet France took the stage – the contrasts break through as arrivals rather than disjunctures.
Keith was at the forefront of two luminary club nights in Scotland. Pure, which for a decade throttled the techno-addled Edinburgh scene out of Thatcherism down a close lined with ecstasy (1990-2000). And Optimo (Espacio) (1997-2010), which has left an imprint on Glasgow’s underground that still informs the city’s multifaceted scenes.
Keith also runs Optimo Music. As JD Twitch he has remixed the likes of Liquid Liquid, Konono No. 1, Charles Hayward of This Heat, Indoor Life, Harald Grosskopf and Steve Poindexter.
For this interview, which we’re reclaiming as Tenement Tapes Day (known otherwise as Basement Tapes Day), Keith and I met in a park, where he handed-over a pair of cassette recordings from Freestyle with Twitch, his Subcity radio show in the 1990s, and an ostensibly random acetate disc pressed by Dubplates & Mastering in Berlin. As Keith no longer has a cassette player and acetate discs degrade effortlessly with each playback; and in lieu of being able to listen back to the material together at the National Library of Scotland’s magnetic tape and fragile disc studios in Kelvin Hall, I took the tapes and disc back to the studio for digitisation so Keith could have a listen back at home.
This discussion is about Keith listening back to these recordings, but more broadly speaking, about listening back in general – how it engages and transforms memory in fashioning how we experience our surroundings, the agency we may or may not have, where archives fit in, and how the act of listening throws a much-needed spanner into the cadence determined by more rigid clocks in exposing deeper avenues of the self and our respect for the wider community as we move within it across time.
Conor (C): Dance culture and the underground music scenes it sips from have been both a stalwart of inclusivity and praxis for developing diverse communities, and yet we also see capital and cultural capital siphoned to ensure power and influence remain in white, male and Global North hands. Many of us, myself included, learned about radical politics and lifestyles from outer jazz, Detroit techno, dub, and post-punk; and from going to raves and experiencing a diversity unavailable elsewhere. As someone who has spent your entire life in underground music, what are your thoughts on how dance culture navigates this struggle and how do we move forward to ensure histories aren’t appropriated, misrepresented and that marginalised communities have a seat at the table they created and have sustained for generations?
Keith (K): I think ‘dance culture’ is too broad a church to be able to navigate this struggle. There are in fact multiple dance cultures that have as much in common with each other as, for example free jazz does to muzak. I feel people often expect them to act as a unified, united whole when in fact, this is an impossibility. The mainstream of dance culture is a machine designed to generate money and fame. It doesn’t and won’t care about anything beyond this, as it is capitalism incarnate and capitalism doesn’t care about diversity nor does it relinquish power unless it is of economic benefit. Mainstream dance culture may make a few vague concessions to diversity but only because it may be expedient to do so.
Despite this, the so-called underground gets upset by this, when I feel they should expect nothing from mainstream dance culture, ignore it and come to the realisation it is a separate world. I also think the sooner the underground stops aspiring to embrace the tropes of mainstream dance culture the better. So-called undergrounds are much, much better at navigating all this when they devote less energy to trying to make the mainstream change and stop seeing the mainstream as some sort of mirror image.
Then perhaps the underground can focus more clearly on the massive amount of work needing to be done.
C: Since 1662 UK book publishers are required under Legal Deposit to entrust their publications to six UK and Irish libraries, but these laws don’t extend to audio-visual content. When we first spoke, you mentioned you’re a ‘shit archivist’. How do you envision the music scenes you’ve participated in being preserved for future generations? Will this occur organically, due in large to collective memory, or do institutions need to step in to protect the legacy?
K: Part of the reason I am a ‘shit archivist’ is I don’t think everything should be preserved. We live in an era of over documentation. Sometimes live music and the club experience are best not preserved, as recordings can only document part of the story. Most of my gigs weren’t recorded – whereas there have been gigs that were recorded, which have been very special, but that I have then declined to make available online because they only made sense in the moment. People listening back to them might notice and focus on technical imperfections that in the moment went unnoticed and didn’t matter, or musical juxtapositions that seem to not make sense, but as it occurred was exactly the right thing for the energy in the space.
Of course, there are untold numbers of great and worthy documented live recordings, but not all will have that special x factor, and sometimes just the knowledge a set is being recorded will impact the outcome. I have long been a champion of the idea of collective memory, but as scenes I participated in stretch back several decades, I have concluded collective memory often forgets, mis-remembers or completely fades away.
Perhaps institutions really do need to step in and protect the legacy. The issue then is what to preserve as there is such a vast amount of material and who is the judge of what is worthy of documentation?
C: Because of its unyielding power and dynamism I have Sonny & Linda Sharrock’s Black Woman (1969) in my head. Falling in love with underground, outsider, experimental and counter-hegemonic recordings circulates an agency that feels inert across other societal paradigms, particularly in uncovering escape routes away from the status quo. Receiving that agency – and I suppose I’m even getting spiritual here – is the only mechanism I’ve found to cut through the alienation of how we’ve ordered our surroundings. During the pandemic our listening experience has become unhealthily private – we have the recorded past to dip into, it’s a restorative period for new music and we can experience live music through streams, but without gathering publicly, without the release of dancing and listening together, we are tormented and dismembered. I know we must wait for a time when it’s safe to reconvene, but what are your thoughts on this purgatorial period, especially in how it’s forcing the collective expression of music into dormancy?
K: I have found it extremely challenging. It feels as if part of my soul has been ripped out. I first started going to gigs at twelve and am pretty sure from fifteen onwards I haven’t gone more than a couple of weeks without immersing into live music. I’ve played approximately 3000 DJ gigs over the years and two weeks is probably the longest I have gone without performing in three decades. Recently I was privileged to get a little taste of what I and many others have been missing when we did a very controlled, socially distanced event in Glasgow. Even though the audience had to remain seated and there was no dancing, no mingling and low volume, the atmosphere was palpable and we all got a vivid reminder of that communal, shared cultural experience when human beings gather, which we are so desperately missing. ‘Tormented’ is a good way to describe what life is like without the release of dancing and listening together. I am really struggling without it. I feel drained of energy; drained of life force. My passion in this life is sharing music and of course this can be done online, but it is nowhere near the same. And so yes, listening to music at home in these times can absolutely feel unhealthily private.
C: You dropped off an unaccounted-for acetate disc. As you mentioned, you didn’t want to play it at home to find out what’s on it because the disc deteriorates each time the stylus graces its surface. The recordings may have gathered dust for a reason, in this case plasticiser (a white discharge that looks like mould), but it could also be something impeccable and crucial. Now that you’ve listened back to it, was it lost in the heap for a reason or is it an example of the necessity to preserve recordings?
K:It remains a mystery. I already have all four tracks on vinyl; it makes no sense to then have them pressed on an acetate. Usually I would have at least a vague memory of something like this, but in this case the memory banks are blank. It was in the sleeve of another record, so it is not as if I knowingly kept it either.
C: The disc features four seemingly unrelated cuts; Miroslav Vitous’ “New York City”, 20th Century Steel Band’s “Heaven & Hell Is On Earth”, Cameo’s “Money (Reese mix)” and Medium Medium’s Adrian Sherwood produced “Hungry So Angry”. Even though the final cut is about tensions in a relationship (maybe between Yoko and John?), it’s also a bright red brick into the window of Thatcher’s Britain. When I first heard it as a teenager, its beautifully punchy angst really struck a chord that still vibrates today. While listening back to the disc as it was transferred, I was again filled with this angst, but rather than feeling like it was a misplaced echo from youth, it felt utterly at home in this broken time of quicksand we are stuck in. Even though the disc turned out to be four seemingly random and published tracks, I’ve always appreciated how music follows us, catches backup and allows us to continue threads that keep haunting as we age. What are your feelings after relistening to these four cuts or maybe one of them stands out?
K: Three of the four mean something significant to me. The Cameo track was played at Optimo, but was a really big anthem at Pure, and is definitely a track the regular attendees would feel as synonymous with me. Medium Medium was a teenage favourite of mine. I discovered them through being a Sherwood acolyte and I revived it at Optimo, while 20th Century Steel Band was one of the defining songs of the early Optimo era. Miroslav Vitous was to an extent a track played at Optimo and indeed was included on our first mix CD, but it’s a bit of an outlier here and just deepens the whole mystery behind this disc’s existence.
C: What memories surfaced while listening back to the cassettes from your Keep Your Dreams Burning radio show, which broadcasted on Subcity in the ‘90s?
K: They have brought back vivid memories of the two locations on Park Circus where I did the show from. Most of the shows were out of a mews building behind what was then the original Glasgow University Maclay Halls of Residence. My show was at night, I think maybe 10:00 pm until whenever I wanted to stop. A friend of mine made some jingles and there was a machine to play these, but otherwise the set up was very basic. I never knew if anyone was listening but learned from friends at local record shops that quite a few people would come in to ask for records I played on the show. Since those years I have heard from a lot of people who said they listened. It is worth noting that Subcity had a temporary license to broadcast, and the transmitter could be picked up quite far outside Glasgow.
The other location, a year later, in 1997/8 was a top floor flat on Park Circus, which Glasgow Uni must have owned. I think I only did one show from that location as I accidentally got locked in and despite making appeals on-air nobody came to let me out until late the next morning. I think that put me off continuing, but it was also around the time Optimo started and all my attention was redirected into it.
I do remember a great sense of freedom to do whatever I wanted, and it was doing this that helped formulate the notion that a club night could feature all sorts of music – way beyond the sphere of what was generally perceived ‘club music’. Part of the inspiration for the genesis of the Optimo club night definitely came out of these radio shows.
C: A lot of the content in these tapes, alongside more obscure material, are now canonised underground classics; New Order, Suicide, Television, The Stooges, Spiritualized, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, Can, etc. With the incredible access to our recorded past unleashed by the internet, we now have a tendency to rewrite music history, determining something as a classic, for example, even though at the time of its release it may have sunk into obscurity. The list of artists are all seminal in their own right, many of whom were also massive successes in their day, but now we can very easily delve into the most forgotten and neglected material. I am guilty of this, as are many DJs. After listening back to these cassettes, what are your thoughts around this abrupt acceleration in access and experiencing recorded music?
K: It was quite unusual to hear this music at the time. I think my show was a bit different to anything else on Subcity. Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space (1997 Dedicated) was just released – but Suicide, Television, The Stooges, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra – they were mostly forgotten and felt quite out of fashion at that point. Most of my club audience would probably not have been familiar with any of them. At that time Can records were next to impossible to find in Glasgow. It’s around when I think I found my first Neu! album in Glasgow. I was looking for one for over a decade. Neu! were this mythical band that I had no way of hearing; I used to imagine what they might actually be like. It was such a different time from today. It is hard to get over just how difficult it was to hear and access lots of music; a lot of patience was required – It took fifteen years from when I first read about Fela Kuti until I finally heard a Fela Kuti album. I was going to say it might as well have been in the previous millennium, but of course it really was!
Now almost the entirety of recorded music is at our fingertips, if you know where to look. I would never suggest that people don’t appreciate music as much today, but it is easy not to cherish it as much and to constantly be seeking out the next obscure record that would just never have been on anyone’s radar back then. Despite playing some artists that are now regarded as canonical on my show, in general I have always had quite an anti-canonical stance, but today there are many music freaks who don’t even know what the canon is, which is perhaps as it should be. A canon only exists because it is decreed to be so, often by self-appointed gatekeepers. I know experts on, let’s say, Latvian samizdat 80s synth pop or Indonesian Rock In Opposition (RIO) cassettes, who have never heard Pink Floyd. I’m not making a judgement, just noting this acceleration in access throws up previously unimaginable ways of approaching, discovering, judging and appreciating music from literally every corner of the planet.
C: I appreciate when people know when to end something they love – whether it’s a band, a label or a club night. Regarding mortality, there is something genuine and biologically relatable to the acute awareness of lifecycles. Why did Optimo (Espacio) come to an end?
K: It was time. We were travelling almost every weekend to play all over the world, but almost without exception we would find a way to get back to play every Sunday in Glasgow. Once we even played in Tokyo on a Saturday night, until 7:00 am, went straight to the airport and due to the time difference made it back to play Optimo at the Sub Club. But it started to get too much and one of the things about the weekly club was that we put so much love and energy into it and the ability to devote that on the level required was starting to diminish with all the touring. I also wanted to do other things, such as run a label, and it was important for the club to end on a high, rather than dwindling away. It was incredible it lasted over twelve years, and that each week, it was still the best club I had ever been to. It felt like it was only a matter of time before the odds had to stack up against it.
When the willowbank tree withers away, the fishing trade shall also decay
Newhaven saying, painted on the facade of the Harbour Inn Public House, Fishmarket Square, Newhaven
Recently preserved and digitised sound archive material from the National Library of Scotland sound and moving image archive offers us a fresh angle to study the lives of the Newhaven fishing community in its latter years. A proud maritime community on the shores of the Firth of Forth, Newhaven was granted royal charter by King James IV in 1511 as Novus Portus de Leith, with his ship the ‘Great Michael’ being built and launched from the port that year. Thereafter, it developed as a steadfastly self-dependent fishing community, fully equipped with its own form of labour organisation, customs and identity. Nowadays, the village sits subsumed within it’s larger neighbours, Edinburgh and Leith, both in physicality but also, in the last half century culturally. As one of the interviewees in the collection notes; ‘It’s all away now, Newhaven; it’s not Newhaven now’. The bricks and mortar of the port, the red-painted wooden facade of the fish market and the traditional forestaired buildings, typical of many east coast fishing towns, is all that survives of the village’s original and unmistakable maritime character. Even at this, the south side of Main Street tells a very different story to the north, with the architecture evoking themes of post-war rethinking and utilitarianism, not preservation of cultural forms and ways of life. The same goes for the fishmarket, now transformed into a space for up-market restaurants and bars. Without the functionality of the old buildings being fulfilled or the community which inhabited them existing within their walls, they stand more as kitsch relics of a pastoral life than a reminder of the real and existing community that once called Main Street, and wider Newhaven, home.
In particular, the stories of the famed Newhaven fishwives, who played an essential role within the local economy and culture, are at the forefront of the recently digitised collection donated by Edinburgh Museums and Libraries. Within the collection sits a handful of interviews and recordings from the mid-1990’s with living ex-fishwives and fishermen, as well as other recollections from family members and participants within the Newhaven fishwife choirs. What marks this collection as unique is that it allows us to add greater depth to our existing knowledge of Newhaven and its fishwives, which has until now been mostly drawn from lore and the images produced by those artists keenly interested in the culture of the community.
The interviewers, upon showing participants pictures of gala-day, the choir or working life in the community, tease out additional details that are otherwise left in the dark; the subtle differences in clothing, local shopkeepers and their role within Newhaven life, as well as first-hand accounts of the nature of fishwife work. In particular, the source provides us with key information on the period 1950-1990, in which the decline of the fishing industry was cemented and the rise of the ‘Newhaven as a northern suburb of Edinburgh’ mindset normalised. By complementing often romanticised illustrations of Newhaven Fishwives with personal accounts of everyday life, I believe we can reach a far more nuanced and relatable idea of how the community attempted to retain its traditions as well as functioned as a working neighbourhood with its own special form of labour relations. Indeed, it is vital for residents of Newhaven that the history of the village remains remembered in real terms. Above all, this means avoiding relegating the stories of Newhaven lives to romanticised stories of yesteryear. What we need, in order to give the history the place it deserves, is anecdotes which paint them as dynamic and hardworking people, not postcard models or the subjects of idealised impressions of the past.
On top of the oral history material within the collection, recordings of traditional songs are of great importance. From a heritage perspective, these songs could vastly increase the interactivity and level of engagement with any future exhibit exploring the topic of Newhaven. There is a utility in exploring these further as they also relate to the history of Newhaven choirs, from the early Fishergirls choir of the late 19th century, ran by Dr Cook at Victoria Primary School, to the modern day Newhaven Community Choir, who still perform traditional songs from Newhaven such as Caller Ou’. What remains important is that this archive material can help us reconnect with lost communities of Scotland whose traditions have been eroded by the powers of modernisation, globalisation and drastic shifts in the world economy. By preserving cultural artefacts, such as songs, we open the gate to a flexible and creative approach to preserving community history, and one that invites involvement by avoiding alienating historical language, instead promoting the use of song and music.
While community heritage could benefit greatly from this recent collection, there is also a claim to be made that it could massively contribute to new conversations concerning labour relations, particularly gendered labour dynamics in this period. As with many fishing villages on the East coast of Britain, Newhaven’s fishing industry was one which incorporated all elements of the community, both men and women, young and old. Central to this community-economy dynamic was the co-reliance of women and men for income – the men caught the fish and the women sold it and mended lines, marking the women as heavily responsible for the final household income. Indeed, one ex-fishwife, Nelly Walls, discusses her daily routine; waking at 6:45 to collect the fish from market, before setting off from Newhaven Station to Waverley and then subsequently to Falkirk, where she would sell the fish before returning to Newhaven for 1:30 that afternoon. Despite being 6 stone and carrying 8 stone of fish in her creel, she insists it was a good life, an honest living and a type of economy where all knew their place. The co-reliance of the community members is particularly highlighted in these interviews. If one member of the community failed to provide their function, all would fall apart slowly. No repaired lines meant poor fishing the next day; no fish caught meant less work for the fishwives; less work for them meant insufficient income for the household and therefore a lack of capital to pay the overheads of the fishing expeditions. This was an economy where all jobs relied on each other. This was an economy in which wholesale and retail were avoided, profits kept close to the origin of their extraction and people were given a sense of direct control over their income. As our modern economy drifts further away from this past reality, it grows ever more vital for us to record and discuss the history of communities that functioned in this way, especially when they are so close to us geographically and, arguably, in time. Perhaps in the future these sources could be utilised to write a more comprehensive study of the fishing economy of Newhaven, shedding a light on forgotten economies that have been overshadowed by an academic obsession with industrial labour above smaller local economic configurations.
However, academic considerations aside, this collection does also allow us to find a less serious and more warming side to the working-culture of the fishwives. As is often associated with street sellers, their methods of securing buyers came with some light entertainment to entice customers. In the fishwives case this came in the form of songs, or ‘cries’ as they were known within the community, to sell their fish. Among these are tunes such as Caller Herrin’, Caller Ou, and Curds and Whey, all directly speaking to the customer to endeavour them to buy the product being sold. While some are directly linked to work, others, such as ‘A Wee Lassie from Newhaven’, which is sung by Nelly Walls, are more reflective and reveal in greater detail the self-identity of the Newhaven community. The song describes the subjects’ experience of being brought up in Newhaven, ‘a wee fishing toon’ , to being sent out with ‘ a creel aroond my back’ to hawk fish to the residents of Edinburgh and Leith. Upon listening to the songs, one is struck with a deep sense of nostalgia and longing for a way of life that is now sadly forgotten. Other songs such as Caller Herrin’ remind us of the close relation that these fishing communities had with their location and natural surroundings, with the fish being caught ‘fresh fae the forth’. Indeed, it’s hard to detach such a trade from its surroundings, as well as the trade from the culture. The cyclical relation of culture to economy to trade and community continues and seems inescapable in the case of Newhaven. These songs and interviews highlight this perfectly, in an informative yet emotionally engaging way.
While these recordings, in themselves, provide us with no major breakthroughs in the field, what they do achieve is giving us a parallel to the depictions of the fishing communities recorded by artists and photographers such as Hill and Adamson or Alexander Roche, whose images of fishwives lean to the side of romanticisation, not necessarily reality. Indeed, while one should not minimise the importance of Hill and Adamson’s Newhaven Fishwives or The Fishermen and Women of the Firth of Forth as a ground-breaking exercises in photo-ethnography and sociology, it is important to remember that these were staged early-photographs (calotypes), not action shots depicting the hustle and bustle of 19th century work. Indeed, the fact that the Newhaven fisherwomen were wearing ‘gala-dress’ in these pictures reveals it was not an accurate portrayal of them going about their daily work, but instead a picture of a romanticised and imagined community based on some form of semi-truth. Interviews with Nelly Walls and Mary Kay reveal to us further details regarding the uniform of the Newhaven fishwives. Indeed, the usual garb of the fisherwomen was a navy blue thick flannel petticoat, not the red, yellow and white as is often depicted in artistic accounts of the community, a navy blue and white ‘brat’ and a dark shower gown, to be worn in more harsh conditions. Walls also explains that, unlike the gala-dress, the working uniform was not kilted. She also notes that the material for the outfits was bought from a shop named Jefferies in Leith, as well as explaining where the creels were purchased and for what price, namely the Blind Asylum in Leith for 6 and 6. While to many these might seem menial and mundane facts, I posit that these are important, and the kind of information that if one was to comprehensively understand the community as a working collection of people, we must bear in mind. Understanding these small details greatly assists us in, once again, grounding their experiences in reality, avoiding polishing their stories to an image that dissuades further thinking and investigation.
On top of the above discussions, one might also claim that the previous depictions and knowledge of the community don’t do justice to the importance of community ties between fishwives in the operating of the community. Indeed, in one interview Cathie Ligherneis, an ex-fishwife, describes the importance of ‘kyling’, or chipping together to buy fish to sell. What is apparent here is that these were not women in competition to sell the most fish, but instead a community unit whose aims were to better the wealth of all through hard work and mutual assistance. Furthermore, few of the artistic depictions can bring the same intense emotional sense of community than the chorus of singers from the Newhaven Fishwives Choir do, even if those singing in the recording had unlikely met or been a fishwife themselves. The replicating of a lost trade in this sense keeps the memories alive and the culture living, even where over-dredging has left Oysters unfishable and the modern economy left a hawking trade unattainable.
Common to all interviews with the former fishwives is a shared bemoaning of the changing nature of Newhaven. One of the interviewees laments that there is ‘nothing in Newhaven now’, another claims that she doesn’t know what the next generation will talk about, ‘maybe tv?’, she laughs. However, as long as these excerpts of a lost community’s history remain protected and preserved for longevity, we can still discuss them and talk about a shared culture lasting through the ages. The old fish-stores of Newhaven harbour may now be the home to Prezzo, a fancy Italian Pizza restaurant, or Loch Fyne, serving up Oysters (or, we should call them Ou) at extortionate prices, albeit as long as we have the tools to imagine a community past, it does still survive in a strange way. With the recent collection at the National Library of Scotland, perhaps we can start a new chapter in the history of the Newhaven fishwives by encouraging further research that breaks from seeing them as a last-stand of cottage industries and instead a dynamic and richly cultured form of flexible labour relations.
THE NATIONAL LIBRARY’S UNLOCKING OUR SOUND HERITAGE TEAM DISCUSS THE SCOTTISH ORNITHOLOGISTS’ CLUB WILDLIFE AND ORAL HISTORY COLLECTION
Preservation Engineering Reflections by Conor Walker
Digitising each magnetic tape collection poses a set of challenges. Usually they’re related to preservation, the most common include: sticky shed syndrome (SSS), loss of lubricant (LoL), vinegar syndrome (only with acetate binders), rehousing cassette shells and repairing degraded edits. Other times the puzzle lies in trying to understand the recordist’s mindset — why are there speed-changes at these specific junctures?— or simply deciphering the scribbles on a tape-box, which I translate into technical metadata. In most instances the materials inform the process, guiding how to adjust the workflow to achieve a successful and, if possible, impartial transfer. It very much follows Marshall McLuhan’s iconic philosophy “the medium is the message.” Being led by the medium/material means the message (i.e. the recording itself) requires greater attention further down the line, which comes in the cataloguing stage. Surprising to many, this often entails a deep listening and haptic understanding of the material over the recording itself, both before the transfer (while the material is in stasis) and during the transfer (while it’s in motion) — material listening in the foreground, while listening to the recording in the background. Even when a tape isn’t playing/recording it isn’t in a static state. Materials in an environment, whether stable or unstable, are decaying and thus never inert.
Despite discussing some of the preservation and material challenges of transferring magnetic tape, unconventionally the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) tapes were a cinch to digitise: a singular and engaging collection to work through, while preparing the materials for digitisation and providing the luxury of deep listening during playback. Often when coworkers walked by to the arias of ring ouzels, sandpipers and peesweeps out of a 1961 East Lothian, they would comment on the serenity, as if I was undergoing a type of new age therapy. The recordings from the 1960s and 1970s reveal very little road or air traffic noise compared to the dense noise pollution we are accustomed to today. As a field recordist — and I am not alone in drawing this distinction — the diminished noise pollution during the coronavirus lockdown offers an environmental ambience of the Scottish countryside before globalisation fully latched on. The broader range of frequencies we are receiving from our surroundings elicits warnings from the Anthropocene. Bird songs, like cetacean and insect music are integral voices in this pertinent and cautioning polyphonic chorus.
The week after transferring Scotland’s ornithological songbook I went on a sailing residency around the Small Isles to capture field recordings from a twenty-six-foot vessel alongside a crew of artists. With a mostly landlocked upbringing, the voyage taught me to fear the sea as an unpredictable rhombus lashing without mercy. I listened to pistol shrimp and plankton using hydrophones and came to admire arctic terns, who were with us across the full stretch of coordinates. We weren’t able to identify any terns in the SOC tapes, but the paired experiences of tilting around archipelagos of the Inner Hebrides and digitising the collection have cemented this time as particularly meaningful.
Jennie Speirs Grant, one of the artists on the boat, conducted drawing experiments by allowing the movement of the sea to let her pen run amok. She moved the pen horizontally (x-axis), depicting the passage of time, while the sea’s omnidirectional sway traced peaks and troughs (y-axis). This too reminded me of transferring the SOC material, specifically and unlike prior and subsequent collections, in that it afforded me to experiment with spectrogram imagery of bird articulations. Spectrograms or sonographs are visual representations of sound, which display a spectrum of frequencies (in colour or B&W) across time. For ornithologists, spectrograms of bird vocalisations represent a visual translation or score to species sonic expressions.
Before passing it over to Rob, our Cataloguing Co-ordinator, I’ll point out one final collection distinction that caught our attention (something Rob will cover in greater detail). Often ornithological recordings are short in duration, a recordist journeys into the field to catch the song of a specific bird species. Once they capture it, they stop the recorder and move onto other birds before pressing record again. When archiving such recordings, we end up with multiple recordings across a tape, sometimes dozens. Uniquely, most of the SOC tapes feature elongated single recordings, capturing bird songs but also the environment and the passage of time. As a listener and through a doorway into a previous time, it may not be as efficient as conveying a variety of species across the length of a tape, but it gleans a more holistic approach.
Cataloguing Reflections by Rob Smith
Being the first in our series of collection reflections, this section will be a little longer than usual as I explain the basics of the audio cataloguing process being used for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project.
The audio collection received from the SOC provided us all with a new and exciting challenge. The UOSH project is digitally preserving a wide range of audio material but there are very few wildlife focused audio collections being preserved outside of the collections held by the British Library. Up to this point in the project, the team based at the National Library of Scotland (Kelvin Hall) had predominantly worked upon oral history material, so this collection was a pleasant change in content. The recordings contained on these open reel and compact cassette tapes also held many surprises and raised many questions about how to catalogue such a collection.
The cataloguing process has 2 steps; the first stage of cataloguing describes the physical items that are contained within a collection. The second stage describes the recordings found on those physical items. While undertaking Stage 1 cataloguing, we are always looking for clues about what the contents of an audio item might be. Deciphering handwriting can be quite the challenge! The old adage about not judging a book by its cover is as apt for audio formats as it is for print material; tapes can end up in a mismatched box, and tape labels can also be unreliable – a tape labelled ‘Thrushes’ for example may actually contain much more than what you expect.
Spending time cataloguing a physical collection of items allows you to better understand what is contained within a collection and how certain sound recordists like to annotate (and perhaps record material). It can also help you to understand the passion and interest behind a collection as well. The cover art for ‘The Great Bird Binocular: A Sound Tour of the Scottish Bird Island Study Cruise’ perfectly illustrates this point.
The ‘Great Bird Binocular’ also illustrates another point that is one of the central challenges when it comes to cataloguing audio, a lack of information. As beautiful as this artwork is, it does not tell us a lot about the audio content. What kind of tour is this? Who or what appears on the recording? It is only through listening that we can hope to provide additional context to the audio.
Stage 2 cataloguing involves listening to the digitally preserved audio and making sense of the recordings. Much like typically published albums, EPs, or singles, each of the tapes we work on may contain multiple recordings or ‘cuts’. It is the job of the cataloguer to try and make sense of these cuts and attempt to understand the recorded events the sound recordist was capturing. This is not always easy to do and it is even easier to fall down the many philosophical rabbit holes about what constitutes a ‘recorded event’ without ever really knowing the intentions of the sound recordist.
The SOC collection contained material recorded by two prominent sound recordists – William Brotherston and C.K. Mylne. Brotherston’s work was the first to be completed and catalogued. Having some previous experience of field recordings, we had made certain assumptions about what these wildlife recordings might sound like, but Brotherston quickly made us realise that his work would be something a little different. Bird recordings tend to be fairly short clips that capture a unique call or song, while Brotherston’s recordings are long, beautifully broad field recordings that are focused on birds but also capture the ambience of the recording location. He was particularly interested in the activity of Pink-footed Geese and their large migrations and would spend hours in specific locations waiting for these flocks to arrive.
As the project cataloguer, this collection presented me with a number of challenges; how do you adequately describe wildlife recordings? What information is necessary here that you would not expect in other types of catalogue records? What birds am I listening to? How should I describe the other animals (including humans) that might appear during the recordings? Thankfully our colleagues at the British Library (BL) were very supportive and were able to provide lots of useful discussion and guidance. William Brotherston also became my guide., in fact he became my mentor in being able to identify bird species based on their calls and also taught me the Scottish names for certain birds too – I can now confidently identify blackies, waups, and cooshie-doos!
The other prominent sound recordist, C.K. Mylne, provided yet another dimension to this rich and varied collection. Mylne not only worked with audio but created numerous films too – the National Library of Scotland Moving Image catalogue contains some of his work, such as ‘St. Kilda: The Lonely Islands’ (https://movingimage.nls.uk/film/0911). Mylne’s audio recordings were not simply wildlife recordings but included a range of audio delights – soundscapes, sound effects, humorous out-takes, test recordings, and field recordings. The approach to cataloguing these cuts (all of which might be contained on a single reel of tape!) would have to alter and adapt to work with each of these different types of audio content, what is necessary for a recording of a bird call is not the same as that of a test recording. The example below illustrates this point with multiple different recordings contained on one side of a reel.
While we made quick cataloguing progress through the collection it has taken many, many months of fine tuning this work to ensure that each unique ‘cut’ has been adequately described and identified. These catalogue records can now be found through the BL Sound and Moving Image catalogue (http://sami.bl.uk/) and searching for ‘UNLS009’.
Rights Officer Reflections by Mel Reeve
My job is to make it possible for the recordings that have been so carefully digitised and catalogued to be made available. It can feel like a big responsibility after so much time and energy has gone into the digitisation and cataloguing – it’s down to me and my work whether we’ll be able to make it available online, onsite, or perhaps not at all. Almost all the recordings I work on are protected by copyright, which means to be able to put them online for as many people as possible to use and enjoy I need to try and identify and contact the person who owns the copyright. Every collection I work on is different, but it often begins with spending a few days digging through the associated documentation looking for snippets of relevant information that might help to identify those elusive rights holders. Often these are the people speaking on the recordings, so I might be looking up old addresses from interview documentation, or I might only have someone’s name, date of birth and occupation, while some collections don’t include any documentation at all and my starting point relies on the name only. The goal is to get in touch with that copyright holder and get a license from them, which allows us to make the recording available, and if that’s not possible to ensure I’ve done a demonstrably thorough search for them. I then review the recordings for any data protection concerns, so it can be a fairly lengthy process from starting to a recording being cleared.
When I started looking through the documentation for this collection I found the absolute best case scenario, and what is probably my favourite piece of paper I’ve worked with so far on the project – a form assigning the copyright in over 100 of the recordings to the SOC. The majority of these recordings don’t feature any human voices and because birds don’t hold copyright in their songs and those songs don’t contain any personal data (and we have an existing agreement with the SOC because we are digitising the collection as part of UOSH) it was the most straight forward clearing I’ve done so far. Rather than leaving it there and moving on to another collection, I decided to pick out some other interesting recordings and work on them as well to get the most varied content cleared for use. This was particularly important as this collection was to be used by an Artists In Residence as part of the project, and I wanted them to have lots of rich material to choose from.
To clear more recordings, I spent a lot of time digging through records of people’s lives: newspaper articles on the British Newspaper Archive, birth, marriage and death records on FindMyPast, obituaries, and so on. I’m always trying to find something that will give me a way to contact that person or their descendant, which often involves piecing together different bits of information, sending emails to people who are not expecting them at all – and all the time getting a window into different moments of people’s lives and careers. It’s never the full picture, just events that happen to be preserved and available online and it can be very tempting to want to focus on finding out what happened, what else there is that I could find out about that person, but if it’s not going to help me contact them I have to rein in my curiosity.
This collection is a wonderful mix of field recordings of wildlife, recordings of SOC events and members, radio shows about birds, snippets of conversation or commentary from a birdwatcher, and more. It was a joy to work on, to see the passion of the birdwatching community in the recordings and in the help and support of the SOC when I hit a dead end and came to them with questions. The people I managed to get in contact with were always excited to hear about the project, proud of the work of their family member and that it was being valued and preserved, and excited that others might get to enjoy it too. I try not to let on that I’ve been looking really hard for someone when I finally get to call/email/write to them because I think that might be a bit of a shock – this job has taught me a lot about how much information there can be about someone online! – but there’s nothing quite like that moment of success when someone picks up the phone or answers that letter and I know that we can make that recording available online because of my work and because of their trust in the project.
Yet when I had to choose a library for the industry placement part of my Masters of Information Management at RMIT University in Melbourne, my heart leapt at the possibility of doing it at the National Library of Scotland.
Blame Iain Banks, Trainspotting, and Chvrches. I have a massive soft spot for Scotland.
My background is in IT, and I’m interested in how technology can help libraries make their collections more discoverable. After a lot of emails, staff at the National Library of Scotland found the perfect placement for me: the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.
It’s a huge project, led by the British Library, to digitise, preserve, and put online half a million of the UK’s rare and unique sound recordings. The National Library is the project hub for Scotland, running out of their Kelvin Hall branch in Glasgow. The sheer amount of material that needs to be catalogued means that volunteers play an important part in the project, and my placement would be similar to the work the volunteers do.
I expected to learn about digitising audio tapes, cataloguing them, and clearing the copyright.
I didn’t expect to learn the difference between a Flying Scot (a type of bicycle made by David Rattray and Co.) and the Flying Scotsman (Graeme Obree, a record-setting cyclist famous for his homemade cycle Old Faithful).
I didn’t expect to learn about the hierarchy of roles a young glassmaker at Edinburgh Crystal worked through in their career, from taker-in to gatherer to ball-blower.
But you can’t describe recordings without listening to them. Some of this knowledge I picked up from the interviews themselves. Some of it I learnt by frantically Googling to try and understand what the interviewers were talking about – there’s a lot of detective work in cataloguing.
And as I’ve worked my way through these collections, I’ve developed an odd, protective love for them. Scottish fiddle music may not be my favourite type of music, but I can see the similarities between a self-released cassette of Strathspeys and reels with a hand-drawn cover and the DIY punk music that’s more my tastes.
My placement has covered the technical aspects of digitising collections that I expected. I spent an afternoon with the audio engineer, learning how much manual work goes into handling open reel tapes. I learnt the workflow that will turn Excel spreadsheets into metadata accessible via the British Library website. And I’ve sat in on head-scratching discussions on how to convert files and metadata formatted for one computer database into files and metadata that can be used by a different computer database.
It’s been fascinating and educational. It’s knowledge that will help me in my career as a systems librarian. And I’ve met some wonderful and dedicated people.
The thing I come back to, though, is the realisation I had working my way through the boxes of oral histories and traditional music. These collections aren’t just tapes and boxes and Excel spreadsheets. These are people sharing the culture that they love.
It’s been a privilege to play a part in helping them.