From Wax Cylinders To Records, Saving The Sounds Of History Many of the items in The British Library's vast collection of recorded sound are in danger of disappearing. Some just physically won't last much longer; others are stored in long-dead formats.

From Wax Cylinders To Records, Saving The Sounds Of History

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Meanwhile, in London, some history is actually fading away. Many of the items in the British Library's vast collection of recorded sound are in danger of disappearing. Some just physically won't last much longer. Others are on long-dead formats. Here's one they have saved. It's one of the very few recordings of Florence Nightingale.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE: I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.

RATH: OK. It's hard to understand but pretty good for 1890. That's taken from an Edison wax cylinder. The British Library is currently asking for donations to help raise the $60 million it'll take to digitally preserve their collection. Will Prentice is one of the people tasked with saving these recordings.

WILL PRENTICE: We only have a finite window of opportunity in which to preserve them. That's actually about 15 years, which seems like a long time, but we have over six million sound recordings in the British Library. We know that to work at our current rate, it'll take us 48 years to digitize everything.

RATH: And there's a ton of what people have called dead media - you know, abandoned formats like, more recently, the eight-track or the laser disk. Can you talk about the range of dead media you're dealing with?

PRENTICE: Yeah, we have over 40 different audio formats alone. So everything from tin foils and wax cylinders in the early days and postwar dictation formats like the Dictabelts and those kinds of strange, obscure things.

RATH: I want to hear an example of the kind of thing that is in the archives. This is the voice of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. This is a recording of him reading "The Charge Of The Light Brigade." It's pretty scratchy, so I'll remind listeners - the beginning of the poem is half a league, half a league, half a league onward. All in the valley of death rode the 600.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALFRED TENNYSON: Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. All in the valley of death rode the 600.

RATH: Amazing to hear his voice - although honestly, I felt a little bit let down by his reading.

(LAUGHTER)

PRENTICE: Well, it's a fascinating story. Your listeners may know about the Crimean war in the 1850s - the battles of Balaclava and so on, which "The Charge Of The Light Brigade" poem was written about. In about 1890 in London, there was a scandal that the veteran soldiers of that battle had been left destitute and were, in many cases, living homeless on the street. This is before anyone knew of posttraumatic stress disorder, I guess.

A campaign was launched to raise money for these guys. And Colonel Gouraud, who was Edison's ambassador, if you like, in the UK, spotted this is as an opportunity to publicize the phonogram. So what he did was he went to find eminent celebrities of the day who could somehow support this campaign. And he chose Florence Nightingale - the Lady with the Lamp - and he chose Lord Tennyson, who'd written this poem. He visited Tennyson's home on the Isle of Wight, and persuaded him to record this poem.

RATH: There's so much fantastic stuff. We heard Florence Nightingale, Tennyson. You can hear James Joyce reading from Ulysses. But my favorite is actually - this is the great George Bernard Shaw speaking directly to us to make sure we get the speed of the turntable right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: If what you hear is very disappointing, and you feel, instinctively, that must be a horrid man, you may be quite sure the speed is wrong. Slow it down until you feel that you are listening to an amiable old gentleman of '71 with a rather pleasant Irish voice, saying, that is me.

(LAUGHTER)

PRENTICE: That's lovely.

RATH: Isn't that great? What's it like to discover something like that?

PRENTICE: It can be really exciting. It's very much like pulling up treasure from the ocean bed or something. You can often stick on a disk with nothing written on the label or very little information and digitize it and find that there's something absolutely incredible on the other end of it.

RATH: So what've been your favorites? What would've been your most thrilling moments going through these recordings?

PRENTICE: Well it's - I've been here 15 years, and I've been finding new things at every turn, really. So in the last few weeks alone, I can tell you we've found some plays of Noel Coward. We found a recording of the opening night of one of his plays - Peace in our Time - where he, at the audience's behest, goes up onto stage and gives a little speech to the actors. And that's a lovely little flavor of what a night at the theater was like in London after the Second World War.

RATH: Wow. So let's go out with that Noel Coward recording. But before we do, Will Prentice, audio conversation specialist for the British Library, thanks so much. This was great.

PRENTICE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NOEL COWARD: It is a convention of the theater that the author always thanks the cast. But my feelings at the moment about this cast are far from conventional. I would like to say that, in my opinion, that this company have given a performance in the highest tradition of English acting.

(APPLAUSE)

RATH: You can go to our website to sample a few of the other amazing recordings. That's at npr.org.

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