It moves and talks!

Sound and motion at the MRC

You may be surprised to see a cartoon rat adorning a post from so august an institution as the MRC, but there’s more to our holdings than you might think.  Rather than being a star of children’s TV, the shifty-looking fellow above is one of the villains in an animated film about seafarers’ rights (whose hero is an albatross) in the archive of the International Transport Workers’ Federation.  The film is just one of many audio-visual recordings which have come to us along with the paper records which form the bulk of our holdings.   This post summarises what we have done to address the particular preservation and access challenges that such material can pose.

What sort of stuff?

Many of the items are sound recordings of interviews of trade unionists, employers and others conducted as part of academic research projects in the 1970s and 1980s. There are also recordings of meetings and discussions, films and videos made for campaigning, propaganda and historical purposes, and the odd (sometimes very odd) piece of music and drama.

Reminiscences, confessions, Acker Bilk and a boogie

The following items illustrate the diversity of the material:

Formats galore

The first stage in deciding what to do with all these treasures came in 2011 when we conducted a detailed survey to find out exactly what we had. This revealed that we then held 1403 sound recordings, 679 videos and 47 cine films (those numbers have since increased).  These were in 16 different formats, only four of which (audio cassette, compact disc, VHS and DVD video) were playable in house. As most of the material was also in the form of inherently unstable signals on magnetic tape, it was clear that digitisation was essential to enhance both preservation and access.

The digitisation process

Since the survey we have been sending annual batches of recordings to external audio-visual digitisation specialists. For each recording they have produced a preservation copy, in which all of the original information has been preserved, and an access copy in a compressed format.  Wherever possible we have of course obtained the copyright holders’ consent to this process and to the subsequent wider dissemination of the recordings.

What to digitise?

Because we can only make relatively slow progress with digitising such a large volume of material we have had to decide which items to prioritise. The criteria for this have naturally included the items’ potential research value and general interest, their uniqueness, the absence of transcripts (although these can themselves be digitised as a useful adjunct to the recordings) and whether the original is still easily usable.  Unfortunately in a few cases the original signals have been found to be beyond rescue even by technical wizardry, and there have been quite a few less serious examples of poor recording quality.  These seem to be mainly down to rudimentary and inexpertly-used recording equipment, but the passage of time may already have caused deterioration and in many cases it certainly will in the long run.  This underlines the importance of preserving the best of what we have as quickly as we can.

Getting it out there

One of the advantages of converting information into digital files is that access to it is no longer dependent on the use of its original carrier. We have exploited this by making all the digitised recordings available via their descriptions in our on-line catalogues and presenting selected films and videos and sound extracts, with supporting information, on our website.  Some of these have been added to the on-line resources we have produced for students studying particular undergraduate modules.

“Particularly poignant”

Most of these recordings can broadly be described as being of academic or general interest, but in 2014 we were reminded that some could also have personal value when the son of a trade unionist in the motor industry contacted us after hearing the digitised recording of his father. It was, he wrote, “particularly poignant for me, not just because my father died fourteen years ago, but because he had a tracheotomy in 1983 and was afterwards only able to speak with great difficulty. My children never heard his natural voice. Now we can all hear him.”

Martin Sanders, senior assistant archivist.
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