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Art & Culture

Manchester Archivists Are Working To Save Historical Recordings

By Laura O'Neill October 7, 2019

A new project being run by Manchester archivists will save more than 5,000 vulnerable sound recordings over the next five years, by digitising them for future generations.

Interviews with a sword-swallower, a suffragette, the organiser of the Kinder Scout mass trespass and the grand-daughter of a woman who witnessed the aftermath of the Peterloo massacre – plus a gig by Paul Simon – are just a few of the recordings transferred so far from tapes held at Manchester Central Library’s Archives+ Centre.

Photo: lauracatsro

Manchester is acting as the North West’s regional hub for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage – an ambitious national partnership project led by the British Library and supported by funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Sounds held on physical formats like cassette and open reel are at risk of being lost, as the carriers degrade over time and the equipment to play them is no longer produced.

Archives+, at Manchester Central Library, is the hub partner for the North West region, covering Cumbria, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and Merseyside.  The new sustainable centre for digital audio preservation will digitise 5,000 cassette and open reels held all over the North West, ranging from BBC Radio Cumbria tapes held in Carlisle to the Chester Archeological Society’s oral history archive.

Recordings held at Central Library will be accessible in a permanent resource at the library, alongside samples from Manchester Metropolitan University’s “Manchester Voices” accents and dialects project, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Photo: fazshahmusic

Volunteers around the North West will be recruited to help with cataloguing the files and the project has considerable potential to open up new ways of engaging residents with their heritage.

One of the first collections to be brought to Manchester for transfer is the pioneering Manchester Studies oral history archive, which was created by academics at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University) in the 1970s and 1980s and which was held by Tameside Local Studies and Archives.

The Manchester Studies collection includes hundreds of interviews with people from all over Greater Manchester who were born in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

They discuss their life histories, including connections with trades unions, domestic service, pioneering women in politics, the cotton industry, pawnbroking, Trafford Park, music halls, maternity services and housing. The collection provides a snapshot of working-class life in the first half of the twentieth century and will be a goldmine for family and social historians.

A selection of recordings which have already been transferred can be heard in the Archives+ exhibition on the ground floor of Manchester Central Library and at the project’s blog.

Photo: Manchester City Council

A new British Library website launching in 2020 will provide access to recordings which can be cleared for online publication, while local contributors across the region will provide access to their own recordings.

Executive Member for Skills, Culture and Leisure, Councillor Luthfur Rahman, said:

“This project will digitally preserve and share some of the most vulnerable sound recordings in the North West, while breaking new ground in sharing our fascinating local history.  It will also open up new opportunities for residents to get involved personally, through volunteering.

“Thanks to the team’s expertise in engaging people with archive materials and inspiring communities to celebrate their own history, Archives+ at Central Library is the perfect base for this important project for the whole region.

“It’s vital that we work to digitise these precious audio recordings now, before they are lost forever.”

It is five years since Manchester Central Library re-opened, following a major refurbishment and transformation.  The library now receives over 2 million visits per year, making it the most visited public library in the country.


Also published on Medium.