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The British Library and the Listening Project

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Jonathan Robinson Jonathan Robinson 16:24, Saturday, 31 March 2012

(Editor's note: This week sees the launch of a new partnership between the BBC and the British Library. The Listening Project asks people up and down the country to share an intimate conversation with a close friend or relative. Here, British Library curator Jonathan Robinson talks about the Library's involvement in the project.)

At the British Library we are thrilled to be working with the BBC on The Listening Project. Conversations will be broadcast on the BBC, curated by our team of experts and then archived in our vast sound collections. We will receive the first set of recordings from the project in early April, and are excited – and intrigued – to hear the conversations that unfold.

Oral history forms a large and fascinating portion of our extensive sound collections. On our Sounds website you can listen to a huge variety of voices from the recent and distant past. These range from filmmaker Derek Jarman talking about his unconventional parents to the rather charming Mrs Susan Mullenger discussing her childhood in the early 1900s and the local cure for whooping cough: eating a fried mouse.

The Listening Project approach differs from conventional oral history in that the recordings are of unmediated, intimate conversations, undirected by the prompts of an interviewer. This is an exciting prospect; they will document a living relationship, and may well show us as much about the art of listening as that of storytelling. The Library exists to preserve the nation’s knowledge, and to enable researchers to make use of that knowledge, so we are always thinking about how our collections can contribute to learning and research. In The Listening Project, what is said is sure to be fascinating, but equally interesting to researchers will be how it is said and why. What are the conversations that we want to record for posterity? What motivates us to share, to confess, to reminisce?

This isn’t the first time we have teamed up with the BBC to record the nation’s memories. In 1999 local and regional BBC radio stations across the UK joined forces with the Library to create a powerful record of the last century by collecting over 5,000 interviews with people from all walks of life. The result was a programme called The Century Speaks, in which local people reflected on the previous 20, 50 or 100 years, showing how - in that part of the UK - different aspects of life had changed, and contrasting views of the world by different generations.

You can listen to the uncut recordings in the Millennium Memory Bank on our Sounds website. It remains the most frequently used oral history collection at the Library and is sought after by users from a wide range of research backgrounds and perspectives, from academics to school students and social historians to linguists. We believe The Listening Project will be equally rich in research potential. Contributions will be compiled on a monthly basis by the BBC and preserved in our Digital Library. As the recordings arrive they will be made available in the Library’s Reading Rooms at St Pancras in London, ensuring access is provided for researchers now and in the future.

We can’t wait to start listening.

Jonathan Robinson

  • Jonathan Robinson is the lead curator for Education and Sociolinguistics at the British Library
  • You can hear conversations from the Listening Project on the website at bbc.co.uk/listeningproject, where you can also share your conversations with the BBC and the British Library
  • Tweet us about the Listening Project on @bbcradio4 using #listeningproject


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