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Walls of Sound

Duration:
1 hour
First broadcast:
Saturday 26 March 2011

When Nelson Mandela was tried 1964 he famously said, "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve, but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Without the British Library's sound conservation work we would never have heard this. The trial was recorded using a Dictabelt system. The recordings soon became unplayable. The Dictabelts were brought to the British Library where digital transfers were made, allowing us to hear what Mandela said, and how.

In 1924, in Paris, James Joyce was recorded reading from 'Ulysses' and the British Library's disc is as highly prized as its Blake, Hardy and Lawrence manuscripts. Alas, we'll never hear how they read their work.

These are just two of recordings of immense importance that without the work of the Sound Conservation Centre would be lost. And what a loss that would be. The British Library has invested millions in the Centre and appointed its first ever Curator of Radio. Audio is being accorded the conservation effort usually devoted manuscripts and old masters. All this, the radio historian Sean Street argues in this programme, reflects a fundamental change in attitude to sound itself.

In a massive undertaking our sound archives are being saved, restored, digitised, catalogued and opened to all. Street observes all this and talks to curators, technicians and users. Throughout we hear amazing recordings from the libraries walls of sound that, until this change in thinking about sound, few knew about, and fewer could listen to. We listen as these recordings find their rightful place in the documentary heritage of the nation.

Producer : Julian May.

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