The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Recordings: World & Classical Music, Interviews, Nature Sounds & More

Online archives, gal­leries, and libraries offer Vegas-sized buf­fets for the sens­es (well two of them, any­way). All the art and pho­tog­ra­phy your eyes can take in, all the music and spo­ken word record­ings your ears can han­dle. But per­haps you’re still miss­ing some­thing? “Geordies bang­ing spoons” maybe? Or “Tawang lamas blow­ing conch shell trum­pets… Ton­gan tribes­men play­ing nose flutes…,” the sound of “the Assamese wood­worm feast­ing on a win­dow frame in the dead of night”?

No wor­ries, the British Library’s got you cov­ered and then some. In 2009, it “made its vast archive of world and tra­di­tion­al music avail­able to every­one, free of charge, on the inter­net,” amount­ing to rough­ly 28,000 record­ings and, The Guardian esti­mates “about 2,000 hours of singing, speak­ing, yelling, chant­i­ng, blow­ing, bang­ing, tin­kling and many oth­er verbs asso­ci­at­ed with what is a unique­ly rich sound archive.”

But that’s not all, oh no! The com­plete archive, titled sim­ply and author­i­ta­tive­ly “Sounds,” also hous­es record­ings of accents and dialects, envi­ron­ment and nature, pop music, “sound maps,” oral his­to­ry, clas­si­cal music, sound record­ing his­to­ry, and arts, lit­er­a­ture, and per­for­mance (such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s short dis­course on “Wire­less,” ani­mat­ed in the video below).

The 80,000 record­ings avail­able to stream online rep­re­sent just a selec­tion of the British Library’s “exten­sive col­lec­tions of unique sound record­ings,” but what a selec­tion it is. In the short video at the top of the post, The Wire Mag­a­zine takes us on a mini-tour of the phys­i­cal archive’s metic­u­lous dig­i­ti­za­tion meth­ods. As with all such wide-rang­ing col­lec­tions, it’s dif­fi­cult to know where to begin.

One might browse the range of unusu­al folk sounds on aur­al dis­play in the World & Tra­di­tion­al music sec­tion, cov­er­ing every con­ti­nent and a daunt­ing meta­cat­e­go­ry called “World­wide.” For a more spe­cif­ic entry point, Elec­tron­ic Beats rec­om­mends a col­lec­tion of “around 8,000 Afropop tracks” from Guinea, record­ed on “the state-sup­port­ed Syli­phone label” and “released between 1958 and 1984.”

Edison Disc Phonograph

Oth­er high­lights include “Between Two Worlds: Poet­ry & Trans­la­tion,” an ongo­ing project begun in 2008 that fea­tures read­ings and inter­views with “poets who are bilin­gual or have Eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage, or who oth­er­wise reflect the project’s theme of dual cul­tures.” Or you may enjoy the exten­sive col­lec­tion of clas­si­cal music record­ings, includ­ing “Hugh Davies exper­i­men­tal music,” or the “Oral His­to­ry of Jazz in Britain.”

The cat­e­go­ry called “Sound Maps” orga­nizes a diver­si­ty of recordings—including region­al accents, inter­views with Holo­caust sur­vivors, wildlife sounds, and Ugan­dan folk music—by ref­er­ence to their loca­tions on Google maps.

Not all of the mate­r­i­al in “Sounds” is sound-based. Record­ing and audio geeks and his­to­ri­ans will appre­ci­ate the large col­lec­tion of “Play­back & Record­ing Equip­ment” pho­tographs (such as the 1912 Edi­son Disc Phono­graph, above ), span­ning the years 1877 to 1992. Also, many of the recordings—such as the won­der­ful first ver­sion of “Dirty Old Town” by Alan Lomax and the Ram­blers, with Ewan Mac­Coll and Peg­gy Seeger (below)—feature album cov­ers, front and back, as well as disc labels.

The record­ings in the Archive are unfor­tu­nate­ly not down­load­able (unless you are a licensed mem­ber of a UK HE/FE insti­tu­tion), but you can stream them all online and share any of them on your favorite social media plat­form. Per­haps the British Library will extend down­load priv­i­leges to all users in the future. For now, brows­ing through the sheer vol­ume and vari­ety of sounds in the archive should be enough to keep you busy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Alan Lomax Sound Archive Now Online: Fea­tures 17,000 Blues & Folk Record­ings

Cor­nell Launch­es Archive of 150,000 Bird Calls and Ani­mal Sounds, with Record­ings Going Back to 1929

1,000 Record­ings to Hear Before You Die: Stream a Huge Playlist of Songs Based on the Best­selling Book

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (7)
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  • Mickael Coenca says:

    Has some­body hacked a bet­ter inter­face for their stuff ? Is it pos­si­ble to do so ?

    It looks amaz­ing, but this is the worst sound con­tent explo­ration I have ever seen. Or I have not under­stood how to explore it. Just a ran­dom play­er so I can hit play and skip would be amaz­ing. I mean come on they need to add a play all but­ton to all their pages.

    I’m will­ing to fig­ure out some­thing if any­body is inter­est­ed to help.

  • will thornton says:

    This is a fan­tas­tic resource how­ev­er with­out an effec­tive cat­a­logue its not very user friend­ly and may not be uti­lized to its full gleam­ing poten­tial­i­ty

  • Ambarwati says:

    I want an audio about amer­i­can cul­ture which has 5 min­utes dura­tion. thanks

  • Christoph Chianese-Lopez says:

    “Sor­ry, this item is acces­si­ble for UK High­er Edu­ca­tion and Fur­ther Edu­ca­tion insti­tu­tions only”

    I can­not access any of the sam­ples due to this. There should be an eas­i­er way to expe­ri­ence these record­ings. How does one who is not cur­rent­ly an aca­d­e­m­ic or indeed even in the Unit­ed King­dom get to hear any of this mate­r­i­al? I work for a pub­lic library in the Unit­ed States and I feel this mate­r­i­al would be enrich­ing for vir­tu­al­ly any­one to hear.

  • David peat says:

    Info on Fred Hoyle.

  • Rob Godridge says:

    I real­ly want to lis­ten to the aur­al his­to­ry of jazz in britain, as a 78 col­lec­tor myself, but this high­er edu­ca­tion stuff stops me. Please would some­one tell me how to get round this?

  • Ramesh 3 way tops required says:

    Sir I want British accos­tic linary tops look­ing for 3 way tops 15″ low

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