Alongside the welcome reopening of the National Library of Wales, the post-Easter period has witnessed a return to in-person teaching at Aberystwyth University. Our group of MA students studying Archives and Records Management (Department of Information Studies) who have been cataloguing sound recordings from ‘Tiger Bay- Heritage and Cultural Exchange’ collection as part of the nationwide Unlocking Our Sound Heritage initiative have therefore made a happy transition from virtual to face-to-face meetings.
We have recently been cataloguing a series of sound recordings consisting of interviews with residents from Butetown, Cardiff about their lives during the Second World War. The interviews were conducted during the early 2000s and include accounts of family life, schooling and work in Butetown and beyond, including memories of wartime service. Some of the themes addressed are familiar touchstones in the national collective memory of wartime Britain such as air raids, rationing, and Victory in Europe (‘VE’) Day celebrations. Yet the memories described are also individually rooted in the local community. Thus, among stories about rationing are memories of the food brought home by local sailors and shared among neighbours. Accounts of the relationships forged between residents in the unique and diverse local community are intermixed with those of the discrimination which they faced even during wartime.
The collection highlights the value of not only oral histories, but community-based oral histories in particular. You can hear about the same events told by neighbours and members of the same family which reveal how shared experiences are variously remembered. In other instances, such as interviews with siblings about their experiences of bombing raids, the detailed descriptions given are remarkable in their similarity and suggest that they are perhaps memories that have been retold many times in years since. As mentioned in our previous posts, these recordings form part of a wider collection which was founded by residents who interviewed each other about their shared local heritage. The recordings, and the reflections on wartime which they contain, therefore represent a dialogue as much as individual perspectives.
In addition to the fascinating content of the recordings, our team have been occupied with decisions about how they should be catalogued. When library cataloguers classify books, they will describe key bibliographic information about its features, such as the author, title, publication date and shelfmark. We call this information ‘metadata’ because it is data which describes other data (i.e. data about the book, which is itself data!). This information will be included in a catalogue record which will help library staff and users find and access the materials. For sound recordings, the catalogue record may include different metadata elements, such as the identity of the ‘performers’, the language(s) spoken, and notes on sound quality. A further example of the metadata fields we populate is the subject matter of the recordings. This is an important field as it indicates to users what the sound recording is about. Crucially, subject matter classifications will also influence the ability for users to search for and discover the items in an online catalogue, as they are one of the elements used to populate search results.
Classification of subject matter is not open-ended though. Cataloguers are generally restricted to the use of a particular set of pre-determined labels or words (“controlled vocabularies”) included in a particular cataloguing standard. A cataloguing standard provides guidance on the metadata to be included in a catalogue record and how that metadata should be described and formatted. Yet the available options can still be quite extensive and require careful thought. For example, if you were to classify a recording of an oral history about an individual’s childhood experiences of air raids in Butetown, what labels might you apply? Would you think of it as an account about air raids during the Second World War specifically? You might perhaps draw topical associations to ‘civil defence’ and the ‘Blitz’, or more regionally to the ‘Tiger Bay’ area. More broadly still, you might categorise the account as one of ‘childhood’, ‘community’, or ‘family life’. These are approximations of just a handful of the available subject classifications for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue of which the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage recordings form a part. Our work has therefore required us to think carefully about which labels best represent the content of the recordings, and to look beyond our subjective interpretations to imagine their utility and interest for a broad range of listeners and researchers.
As part of our wider coursework, our team have begun to create an archive catalogue of the sound recordings to demonstrate how they could be incorporated into an archival finding aid. Somewhat similarly to a library catalogue, a finding aid helps people locate a specific item, group of items or collection within an archive. Yet, because archivists use different cataloguing standards from those used by librarians, different controlled vocabularies may apply. Our team are using the ‘Dublin Core’ standard which outlines fifteen elements of metadata to be included in any descriptions used to create a finding aid. The Dublin Core standard advocates use of the ‘Library of Congress Subject Headings’ to classify subject-matter, which is an authoritative thesaurus of subject headings maintained by the Library of Congress. As the headings available may be different from those used in the SAMI catalogue, cataloguing may therefore involve reconceptualising the content of the recordings where the available options do not neatly overlap. With this experience comes an appreciation of the everyday quandaries faced by both librarians and archivists and the ‘two hats’ worn by those working across multiple metadata standards.
Throughout our project our team has benefitted from the guidance of staff members of the National Library of Wales who have shared their expertise about cataloguing in accordance with the MARC encoding standard, which ensures our entries will be machine-readable and capable of reproduction both in the Library’s own catalogues and those of other libraries. They have taught us about the rights and sensitivities issues which may impact on users being allowed access to the material. We have also recently learned about the process of digitisation for sound recordings and preservation issues relating to audio recordings held in both physical and digital formats. The knowledge which we have gained through our collaboration with the National Library of Wales will therefore support us not only in the completion of our project but throughout our hopeful future archival careers.
Richard Stone. Muslim Community- Everyday Life in Butetown, Cardiff, Wales, UK, 1943.
Accessed: 5 May 2021. Available at:
Licence: Public domain.
Gemma Evans, MA Archives and Records Management Student, Aberystwyth University