After 3 years and 4 months, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage reached the end of its reel at National Museums NI on the cusp of Christmas 2021.
This audio-digitisation project involved such an array of acronyms and technical terms as to seem complex, somewhat intangible or even slightly inscrutable to casual onlookers.
This A-Z glossary of the tasks, trials and feats of UOSH at Cultra might serve as a useful track-listing, with a few ‘greatest hits’ thrown in.
A is for Archive, the Sound Archive at Cultra specifically. That’s where the core collection to be preserved began.
A is also for Adams – Brendan Adams – the Curator of the Dialect Archive at the Folk Museum who was first to tape-record with the museum’s new Studer machine in 1964, and whose recordings featured prominently in the UOSH project.
B is for British Library, which devised and led UOSH as a consortium project within its core programme, ‘Save Our Sounds’.
B is equally for (Linda) Ballard, (Anthony) Buckley, (Jonathan) Bell, (May) Blair and the many bold, pioneering curators, historians and technicians who travelled almost every road in the province during the 1970s-90s, to capture the sounds and voices of the people in all their variety.
C is for Cataloguing, the most onerous of the UOSH tasks – writing detailed summaries and a series of metadata for each recording. 7,200-plus summaries were written and edited by the Cataloguing Officers at National Museums NI, of whom there were three in succession – Aileen, Dan and Sam.
C stands for Cassettes too. Cassette tapes (C60 and C90) especially, and millennial microcassettes, figured prominently among the 10 audio formats digitised by National Museums NI.
D is for Degradation and Digitisation, the problem and cure underpinning the UOSH project. Some old tapes and other analogue recordings have already become unplayable, and expert consensus is that most have at most 12-15 years left. Hence UOSH was initiated to digitise and preserve them.
D is also for Discs (CD-Rs and minidiscs), which are among the most at-risk formats, even if relatively new. The 10 digitised formats at Cultra also include DATs (Digital Audio Tapes) and ‘born-digital’ files.
E is for Engagement, which hubs carried out with community groups and schools in traditional face-to-face sessions where possible, plus social media posts, blogs, videos and commissioned soundscapes.
Education was important too. Hubs engaged with universities to spread the UOSH message, facilitate research and secure assistance from interns. Meanwhile, we presented sessions to schools on the science of sound, and produced new learning resources based on echoes of the past. Searchlight, National Museums NI’s new website relating to World War Two, is replete with clips of veterans’ interviews.
F is for Folk – lore, life and traditions that lie within the digitised collections. The capture of fast-fading customs of ordinary people, some not otherwise documented, was a principal motive of the past curators and technicians who recorded them for repositories like the Ulster Folk Museum.
All human (and fictional) life (and death) is here. For instance, Fairy stories, Faiths, Fraternities, Factories, Female workers, Fishermen, Football, and Funerals all feature large.
G is for GDPR- and sensitivity-checking, a crucial part of the documentation. High-level sensitivities related not so much to personal opinions, however unpopular or explicitly phrased, but rather to the GDPR aspects, whereby a living person’s address or other personal details might be revealed on a tape in the public domain.
H is for Hubs – 10 regional hubs have digitised over 40,000 analogue items through the project. Besides National Museums NI, these are National Library of Scotland, National Library of Wales, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Archives+ in Manchester, University of Leicester, Norfolk Record Office, Bristol Culture, London Metropolitan Archives and The Keep in Brighton.
H is also for the Headphones that UOSH team members could be seen wearing for focused stints of listening and cataloguing.
I is for Incubator, the machine used to ‘bake’ old open reels overnight to guard against the occurrence of ‘Sticky-Shed Syndrome’ – damage to the adhesive binding of the tape – during the process of digitisation on a replay machine.
I also stands for Ingestion, the endpoint of the digital cataloguing process.
J is for Jack Leads, a series of which had to be bought to connect up old playback equipment – Studer and Revox 2-track and 4-trach machines, Tascam cassette decks, record players and more – for digitisation.
J is also for Jonny, the Audio Digitisation Officer who, through skill and relentless hard work, transferred 4,365 items as part of UOSH at National Museums NI.
K is for KPIs. UOSH was a very target-driven project, and very high targets at that. All hubs’ progress were monitored on a Hubs Management tracking-sheet with 32 Key Performance Indicators, including Items Digitised, Recordings Ingested and Audience Numbers.
L is for Languages and the rich Lexicons on the recordings. The Tape-Recorded Survey of Hiberno-English, 1982-81, contains 539 tapes of people in every county of Ireland, from 9 years of age to 90. Their digitisation has led to a new doctoral research project, ‘Eavesdropping On Our Past’, involving Queen’s University Belfast and Newcastle University. Many tapes of Manx are also newly digitised, and some of the last native Irish speakers in parts of Donegal, Louth and east Ulster (Bella McKenna of Rathlin). Such have spawned National Museums NI’s new ‘Languages of Ulster’ programme.
M is for Music, the second most frequent content of UOSH hubs’ recordings. These include numerous concerts, some by well-known artistes, and even a few studio sessions. Many of the gems, however, are the unique and long-lost songs and tunes recorded in pubs and houses, containing so much local and regional heritage. The collection at Cultra features myriad traditional Irish singers, Belfast harpists and flautists, Lambeg drummers, uilleann pipers, and some mean fiddlers.
N is for National Lottery Heritage Fund and the £9.5 million funding that it provided to enable UOSH to proceed.
N is also for Noises, incidental and unintended, and Nature sounds, which are peppered through recordings. Clocks ticking, fires crackling, doors creaking, teacups clinking, birds chirping, dogs barking, cars passing by and children playing all bring us back to a particular place and moment in time, and make the listener feel almost present.
O is for Oral History, which constitutes the majority of content digitised for the project at Cultra.
It also stands for Orphan Works – recordings for which rights-holders are unidentified or uncontactable, after a diligent search.
P is for Project Partners’ collections that were preserved by each hub. National Museums NI digitised collections from 5 partners – the Glens of Antrim Historical Society, Larne Museum, the Somme Museum, Dr Anna Bryson and Manx National Heritage.
P is also for Parent & Child Recordings that we identified and timestamped in cataloguing. A ‘parent’ is a distinct recording event, and ‘children’ are any individual constituent parts within. For example, where a taped concert comprises a single ‘parent’, the songs performed could number a dozen or more ‘children’.
Q is for ¼-Inch reel-to-reel audiotape, the principal format digitised at Cultra. This was been the most frequently used for the museum’s recordings in the 1970s-90s period.
It also stands for QC, a much-cited term for the multiple layers of quality control for digitisation and cataloguing on the project.
R is for Recording Rights. Several layers of rights pertain to old recordings – those of recordists, performers and copyright-holders, among others. Tracing these rights-holders and securing clearance are crucial to creating public access to audio files; hence the hubs had dedicated Rights Officers, including Barry at National Museums NI.
R is also for R: Drive, on which was stored the huge mass of audio files generated by our hub, and through which the staff and Researchers can access them in future.
S is for SIPs, but nothing to do with drinking. Submission Information Packages are amalgamations of the audio files to be stored with the necessary related metadata about the object and its content, to enable research access. SIP-building is the penultimate step of preservation, before pressing Submit for Ingestion.
S is also sami.bl.uk, the Sound & Moving Image online catalogue that contains summaries of all UOSH-digitised audio.
T is for Training Sessions in audio-preservation skills, which each hub – as regional centres of excellence – delivered to amateur enthusiasts and heritage professionals in live events during 2021.
U is for Unlocking, which defines neatly what this project has done. It has taken hundreds of thousands of recordings out of lengthy storage, from the vault at the Ulster Folk Museum to drawers and shoeboxes all over the United Kingdom, and brought them back to life and into earshot.
V is for Volunteers, 91 of whom contributed 796 days of work to National Museums NI’s efforts, mostly in cataloguing. Their input not only helped with tackling our workload, but the experience also helped numerous volunteers to secure a job shortly afterwards.
V is also for various other UOSH vocabulary, including the Vinyl recordings from 33 to 78 RPM digitised; the Vacuum cleaner filters used to remove mould from old tapes; and Victoria, our first Project Manager at Cultra.
W is for .WAV (Waveform Audio) files, which are produced by digitisation on playback machines, while WaveLab audio-mastering software is used to monitor the process on computer. The high resolution of .WAVs makes them suitable for retaining first-generation archived files of high quality, but too large to send by email.
W leads you to Wikipedia, where a neat summary of UOSH and its work can be found.
X is for Anonymity. A handful of interviewees in a project partner’s collection were given pseudonyms for the purpose of cataloguing, due to the sensitive content of their recordings. Recordists and interview subjects have become much more cautious about the release of personal testimonies in recent years, especially since the Boston College tapes controversy.
Y is for Youth, Yore and Yesteryear, and yearnings stirred among many listeners to our audio files. Hearing old voices and sounds prompts deep reflection on more innocent times, the passage of life, and deceased family and friends. When our hub played 1960s schoolchildren’s stories back to their 60-something selves at Derrytrasna, County Armagh, in 2021, laughs and tears could both be seen.
Z is for Zoom, which became the chief medium for hubs’ networking with each other and online engagement sessions through the second half of the project.
And finally Zzzzzz is what exhausted hub staff get to catch up on at the end!
Donal McAnallen, Project Manager