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Unlocking Our Sound Heritage and archives’ relevance in the age of Wikipedia

Discover Sound - Posted 13-08-2020

I’m a Swedish archivist that has done an internship at the National Library of Wales (NLW) between January-July 2020. The internship was funded by the EU programme Erasmus+, and Gothenburg University was the supporting institution in Sweden. The purpose was to gain hands on experience of working as a sound archivist and at the same time help out a cultural heritage institution. I was therefore stationed at the Screen & Sound Archive and worked with the digitisation project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH).

The aim of the UOSH project is to preserve, digitise and make rare and unique sound recordings available to the public all over the UK. NLW is one of ten national and regional archival institutions involved and it is all being coordinated by the British Library. The consortium will also deliver various programmes of public engagement activities, and a website where a large part of the recordings will be freely available to everyone for research.

So I have digitised, catalogued, researched content and rights to recordings, as well as participated in training activities for volunteers in the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff. The NLW has sound collections and recordings related to various aspects of life in Wales, dating back from the birth of recorded sound in the 1880s to present time. So working with the material has given me a first glimpse into parts of Welsh history and culture. I have also created content to be used in the NLW’s social media channels and written/edited articles for Wikipedia, in order to spread information about the UOSH project and the recordings (and about a previous digitisation project called Unlocking Film Heritage) to a wider public.

While working with Wikipedia I was reminded of its strengths and weaknesses in relations to archive. One of Wikipedia’s strengths is its availability and wide spread use around the globe, but on the other hand there are problems of representation in the articles.

In Sweden, I have previously taken part in a Wikipedia workshop aimed at women with no or little experience of editing and writing articles. It was arranged by Stockholm Museum of Women’s History in order to reduce the gender gap at Wikipedia. Around 90% of the articles are written by men and subsequently about four times as many articles are about men. We were therefore encouraged to edit and write articles about women.

I wrote an article about Stockholms Bulgariska Damkör (Stockholm Bulgarian Women’s Choir), a choir that had been active for over 20 years. But it was hard to get the article approved by Wikipedia because of the notability criteria. The subject of an article needs to be considered to have of a high degree of interest, significance or fame. The choir had been performing at festivals, in churches, embassies, museums, engaged in cultural exchanges, arranged work shops etc. But they had never released an album, hence it was argued that the choir wasn’t noteworthy. There were also few articles about them in music magazines or similar. I managed to find radio recordings of live performances and argued for their importance and uniqueness, so eventually the article was approved.

This got me thinking about representation and how Wikipedia run the risk of reproducing the same old hierarchy that has been prevalent during history. Women as a group have traditionally had less opportunities and consequently received fewer mentions in historic documentation, press etc. One way to counteract this has been for women to pursue different avenues to men. As a result, a modern day women’s choir might invest in live performance and getting to be known about via word-of-mouth, instead of doing recordings and trying to get media attention. Other suppressed groups like financially vulnerable people or different minorities (ethnic, cultural etc.) run the same risk of getting continuously less representation in the digital era.

Of course archives also battle with problems of representation. But one way to counteract this has been to consciously fill the archival gaps by conducting oral history interviews. Oral history can be understood as a method of gathering information about historical periods and events by interviewing people who experienced them. Interviews can also be done with persons whose experiences and memories are representative of certain communities or whose lives have been of special significance. The aim is often to obtain information from different perspectives, especially those that cannot be found in written sources. Oral history has developed hand-in-hand with sound and audio-visual recording techniques but interviews can also be transcribed. Song and music collecting is a similar way of gathering orally transmitted music (like folk music) and thus filling the musical gap.

I have come across a wide range of oral history recordings while working on the UOSH project. For example interviews with Welsh farmers that lived through World War II, descendents of Welsh emigrants in the USA, Welsh musician Andy Fairweather Low, film producer Eric Rowan who made the film about the artist siblings “Augustus and Gwen: The Fire and the Fountain (1975)”, Elinor Rosen who had a lifelong engagement with the Labour Party, photographer John Goddard and many interviews with Welsh painters and artists that were mainly active during the 1900 hundreds, like Eirian and Denys Short.

Some oral history interviews are done with relatives and friends of more famous people, that no longer are with us, like the interview with Tom Evans that explores the collecting activities of his wife Margaret Evans (1922-1996). She amassed costumes, artefacts, documents and ephemera associated with Aberystwyth and beyond, from 1800s to the 1900s. The documents from her collection went to Ceredigion Archives and the artefacts to Ceredigion Museum. Another example is the interview with Stanley Cheetham, related to the pioneer Arthur Cheetham (1864-1937), who was the first film-maker based in Wales. He made over 30 short films between 1898 and1912 and showed them in rural communities as well as opening the first all-year-round cinema in Rhyl in 1906. The Screen & Sound Archive also holds films made by Arthur’s son G.A. Cheetham.

Yet other oral history interviews are centred around a cultural phenomenon like professor Moira Vincentelli`s string of interviews exploring the use and role of the Welsh dresser across generations.

Finally, I would like to mention the Tiger Bay Collection. It belongs to The Heritage & Cultural Exchange Tiger Bay and the World, a community based organisation that strives to chronicle the heritage and cultural diversity of Tiger Bay and Cardiff Docklands. They have archival materials including: photographs, rations books, magazines, seamen’s discharge books, paintings and sketches, a school register as well as audio and videotaped interviews. The sound recordings are being digitised and catalogued during the UOSH project and would seem to be a treasure for people wanting to learn more about one of the original multicultural areas, with migrants from up to 45 nationalities.

And all these examples are recordings in English, there are a lot more for Welsh speakers. Hopefully there will be something relevant for everyone. All the digitised and catalogued recordings from the USOH project are being ingested into the British Library’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue and eventually a newly developed, purpose-built media player and website will be launched. There up to 100,000 recordings will be freely available to everyone for research, enjoyment and inspiration. The national and regional institutions will provide access locally to their own recordings and those that do not have licences and permissions to be published online.

Wikipedia do not accept oral history as a legitimate source for an article so it is worth searching the archives to find something original and different. And with the UOSH project archives are closing in on Wikipedia’s lead, when it comes to access and availability online.

Lastly, I would like to thank the staff at NLW, especially at the Screen & Sound Archive, who have been very welcoming and supportive during my time in Wales.

Diolch yn fawr

Maria, archivist from Sweden

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.

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