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.