British Library Day Fifteen: Sound and Vision, Exhibitions, and Goodbyes


Today was my LAST DAY. I took my backpack for the only time, because I’d bought a huge box of chocolates for the team and it wouldn’t fit in my handbag. I also thought it was a good idea because an acquaintance was trying to get us tickets to the BBC Proms and my shoulders had started screaming at me with the handbag over the last few days. Understandable; I’d been putting a lot in the bag, and walking a fair distance with it.

Lynn stopped me before taking me down to Rod in sound and vision, and gave me a present for my friend, which I’d been debating buying. That was just about the sweetest thing ever. I mean, she doesn’t even know my friend. I chose this moment to hand over the chocolates, also so people could have some for morning tea. When Lynn did take me across, it was with the stipulation that I be back by 12 because we were going to do lunch.

Sound and Vision has a small team of four people, two of whom were on leave when I visited, and Rod gave me an overview of the services before sending me to have a look at the practical work. It used to be the national sound archive, which should give you a small indication of the size of its holdings, which go all the way back to shellac records, and even I think the occasional wax tube recording. Unfortunately, there is no legal deposit system for audio/visual content and it is all voluntary deposit, or library purchased material which does mean gaps in the collection occur.

Most of the content is audio, with only 5-10% being visual content. The collection includes all types of music, play recordings, interviews, radio shows and plays, oral histories, recorded documentaries and much more content. The service also serves as an access point for BBC radio broadcasts, as the library has a partnership with them; however the items need to be requested to be delivered to the library from the BBC which reportedly can take quite a while.

Some transcripts of material are available, and there is a growing store of digital content available via on-site computers. This kind of access is especially important when unique/fragile items are concerned as it is better to migrate them to digital formats and preserve the original item in storage. Certainly limiting the access to on-site computers may be frustrating to some patrons, but it is one way to protect the security of the recordings.

The listening and viewing services themselves are located in the Rare Books and Music reading room, which I remembered from my time there early in my placement. It is an appointment based system, as there are a limited number of carrels set aside for use, and a limited amount of equipment and staff to run it.

Where content hasn’t been uploaded to digital storage, or burnt onto a CD, it is generally played in the control room/office and piped through to the reader’s carrel. There are only email and telephone appointments, as the team really needs time to prepare what the reader would like, and don’t want them booking an appointment online and just turning up. Before anything else, after all, they need to determine whether there are any restrictions on the items.

Rachel, the team member in the control room showed me all the equipment, including a shellac player, several record players, reel to reel players, Betamax, VHS, DVD and cassette players. There was one reader, so I also got to observe how the content is piped through, and that the reader can pick up a little red phone in the carrel which connects straight to the control room if they need something wound back a bit or stopped, or for the next item to be played. It is a pretty efficient set-up. I also got to see the reel to reel being loaded which is kind of cool.

Unfortunately technology doesn’t last forever, though some of the older stuff is holding up really well. Rachel was saying that when the department hears that a technology is being phased out, they buy several of those machines to make sure they have back-ups. I wish we had done that with our VHS player, then we wouldn’t have these family tapes that we’ll probably need to pay a lot of money to get migrated across to DVD or memory card.

After speaking about the sound and vision services, I asked Rachel how she got into the role. She’d been working as part of the welcome team during the restructure of the library, and took the opportunity to apply for advancement when it came along. She was glad she ended up in the sound and vision area, as it’s a job which challenges her – especially because they have to spend some time on the reference desks as well. She’s enthusiastic about possible advancements she could use this job for if she wished, stating it was broad enough that she could work with the BBC or their equivalent of ACMI.

I asked about specialisms, having gotten that question myself a few times, and Rachel had been casually interested in music before her appointment but agreed with what I had come to think about specialisms. You didn’t necessarily need to have one before you started a job, as long as you can be a specialist in finding things. This is good, because so far I’d have to say my specialism is ‘books I love’.

It was a very refreshing conversation, and perhaps I should have asked for more career advice during my placement. It’s hard though since I don’t have any specific need at the moment. I did try and ask everyone who I met how they got into the work they were doing where I could. I found the range of answers interesting, and hopeful. There is no set path to finding a vocation, and the way I find mine will be as unique as the others.

I quickly ran back upstairs in time for lunch, to find the team had chipped in and bought me a present. It was wrapped so nicely I didn’t want to open it, but did have a little peak inside. Everyone is so sweet.

So Lynn took myself and the two Pauls to lunch, and I’d already been told I wasn’t allowed to pay, so just put my hands up in surrender when the bill came. It was good food, and even better conversation.

After lunch I decided to go out on the science reference desk one more time, before going to the library’s Propagranda exhibition. I was there for about two hours, with Lynn and Paul, and then when Lynn left, with Leslie (and Paul). Unfortunately, there were no queries at all while I was there, so we had a big chat.

Eventually I headed off to the Propaganda exhibition, which took about twice as long as I was advised because I just found everything so interesting. As it approached 5 however I ducked into the store briefly to buy some chocolate for my parents and dashed upstairs.

I caught Lynn just as she was about to leave, and we had a bit of chat, which was also when my acquaintance texted me to say she had managed to wrangle music tickets for us. So I said my goodbyes, slowly, and after giving Paul a final handshake went to hand in my swipe-card.

All I can say is that it was good I had plans that night, because otherwise I would have felt very melancholy. Instead I listened to music in a gorgeous hall, and finished my packing before I put in some ear plugs and tried to catch some sleep.

I am so happy I didn’t talk myself out of asking about the placement, and so grateful to everyone who made it happen, and who went out of their way to take time from their work to show me what they do. I had a great time, and I really am more optimistic than ever about my future in the industry.

Well it’s taken about a year, but here is finally my first entry about my placement at the British Library. I really loved my time there, and though a lot has happened since it still feels like I was only there last week. Thanks for your patience.


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