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From Wax Cylinders To Records, Saving The Sounds Of History

Actor, playwright and composer Noel Coward rehearses for a show in 1951. A rare recording of Coward introducing his play<em> Peace in Our Time</em> is just one of the millions of sounds and recordings the British Library is looking to preserve.
Actor, playwright and composer Noel Coward rehearses for a show in 1951. A rare recording of Coward introducing his play<em> Peace in Our Time</em> is just one of the millions of sounds and recordings the British Library is looking to preserve.

History is literally fading away in London right now.

Many of the items in The British Library's vast collection of recorded sound are in danger of disappearing. Some just physically won't last much longer. Others are stored in long-dead formats.

But those sounds can be salvaged — for instance, the library has managed to save one of the few recordings of Florence Nightingale, which is preserved from an 1890 wax cylinder.

The British Library is currently asking for donations to help raise the $60 million it'll take to digitally preserve their entire collection.

Will Prentice is one of the people tasked with saving these recordings. He tells NPR's Arun Rath that there is only a finite window of opportunity to preserve many of the sounds.

"That's actually about 15 years," Prentice says, "which seems like a long time, but we have over 6 million sound recordings in the British Library."

At their current rate, he says, it would take them 48 years to digitize all of their recordings. The recordings are spread out among more than 40 different audio formats, some long dead.

Prentice says going through and digitizing these recordings feels like pulling up treasure from the ocean at times.

"It can be really exciting," he says. "You can often stick on a disc, with nothing written on the label or very little information, and digitize it and find that there is something absolutely incredible on the other end."

Below are some samples of audio pieces being preserved by the British Library. To hear more about the pieces and about the preservation effort, click on the audio link at the top of this page.


James Joyce reading from "Ulysses"
George Bernard Shaw helping calibrate the listener's phonograph
Noel Coward introducing "Peace in Our Time"

All audio clips are courtesy of the British Library.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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