British Library’s Historic Ethnographic Recordings receives UNESCO accolade

Mechanical ethnographic wax cylinder recorder of the type used to make our cylinder recordings

UNESCO has officially recognised The British Library’s Historic Ethnographic Recordings as a collection of global significance and outstanding universal value. UNESCO’s International Advisory Committee has agreed to include The Historic Ethnographic Recordings in their Memory of the World International Register - akin to the list of World Heritage Sites for documents and archives.

The Historic Ethnographic Recordings collection contains many rare field recordings of orally transmitted cultures made throughout the world by linguists and musicologists. Some of these recordings represent the earliest extant sources for research into those cultures and have been captured in the most vivid format available at the time, the linguistic and cultural diversity of today’s ‘global village’. Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator World & Traditional Music at the British Library said: “Not only were these recordings among the first of such to be made but also some may be the last as many of the languages and musical practices that feature in the collection are now endangered or no longer exist.”

The International Register is the public face of UNESCO's Memory of the World programme, which promotes access to the world's archive holdings and library collections, as well as their preservation. The Historic Ethnographic Recordings collection of wax cylinders and early acoustic era sound recordings now ranks alongside the 238 items recognised by the committee including such prestigious historical documents as Bayeux Tapestry, Book of Kells, Mappa Mundi and the Magna Carta (also held at The British Library). Inclusion in the register gives recognition to traditional and oral knowledge recordings as being on a par with the written word as an academic resource.

The recordings are truly global in their scope ranging from Africa, South Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands, China, Eastern Europe and South America, as well as the more familiar sounds of England, Scotland and Wales. These delicate and sometimes beautiful recordings made by botanists, scientists, colonial officers and linguists capture the lost voices, customs and songs of long forgotten communities. They give a unique insight into the heritage of oral knowledge and traditions and provide academics and researchers with an intimate and rich resource.

The collection dates from 1898 to 1951, the earliest being wax cylinder recordings from the groundbreaking Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait, led by Professor A.C. Haddon. This was the first British expedition to use the phonograph for research purposes. The latest recordings are the Bogumil Witalis Andrzejewski acetate (nitrate lacquer) discs which comprise songs, stories and spoken texts recorded as part of Andrzejewski's linguistic research tour in Somaliland and Somalia in 1950-1 under a Colonial Welfare and Development Research Scheme.

To illustrate the diversity of the collection, Dr Topp Fargion has highlighted some of her personal favourites from the Historic Ethnographic Recordings.

• There is an ale house [Died for Love] recorded in England in 1908 on wax cylinder. Part of the English Folk Dance and Song Society collection, on permanent loan at The British Library the recording includes a violin solo played by John Locke. http://sounds.bl.uk/View.aspx?item=025M-C0037X1590XX-0100V0.xml

• Klaus Wachsmann Uganda Collection recorded in 1949. This recording is seen as being vital in reviving the traditions of Ganda musicians who were exiled from the Buganda palace in Uganda by Milton Obote in 1966 along with King Mutesa II. http://sounds.bl.uk/View.aspx?item=025M-C0004X4954XX-0200V0.xml

• "Vocal demonstration of phonograph (or graphophone) - wishing Mr. Ray success on his journey”. Part of the Torres Strait Island collection recorded in Cambridge in 1898 giving a beautiful glimpse into Victorian life! http://sounds.bl.uk/View.aspx?item=025M-C0080X1485XX-0100V0.xml

• Arthur Henry Fox Strangways Collection. "Lullabies" recorded in India in 1910/11 which demonstrates the reality of the recording medium as the equipment is heard to be wound up mid-song. http://sounds.bl.uk/View.aspx?item=025M-C0072X0876XX-0100V0.xml#

Dr Janet Topp Fargion believes securing UNESCO’s endorsement “…shows that orally transmitted knowledge is as important as the written word and thus that recordings are as important as written books and paper archives. It's a real boost for the sound and audiovisual archiving world and for the vast knowledge held within oral traditions. The content of these recordings helps us, and the communities they were made in, learn more about the history, identity and diversity of the world's peoples”


Notes to Editors:

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The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.  

The British Library has one of the largest sound collections in the world. It holds over a million discs, 200,000 tapes, and many other sound and video recordings. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound from music, drama and literature, to oral history and wildlife sounds. Collection material comes in every conceivable format, from wax cylinder and wire recordings to CD and DVD, and from a wide variety of private, commercial and broadcast sources. The British Library also operates a wide-ranging sound recording programme of its own. www.bl.uk/soundarchive 

The Memory of the World Programme was launched by UNESCO in 1992 to ‘guard against collective amnesia by through the preservation of the valuable archive holdings and library collections all over the world and ensuring their wide dissemination.’ The Memory of the World Register covers all types of material and support, including stone, celluloid, parchment, audio recordings and more.  More details about the Register are here.


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