The story behind the British Library’s wildlife and environmental sounds archive
Cheryl Tipp, curator of wildlife and environmental sounds at the British Library, on the archive’s history, highlights and superstar haddock.
A version of this article first appeared in the spring 2023 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
What is the British Library’s wildlife and environmental sounds archive?
Famous for its world-class collection of books and manuscripts, the British Library is also renowned for its extensive archive of sound recordings. Within this internationally important resource, the wildlife and environmental sounds archive collects, catalogues and preserves animal sounds from across the world, along with a growing number of environmental soundscapes. From modest beginnings it has grown to become one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of wildlife sounds, most of which are unique to the library. Just as animals are at risk from habitat loss, overexploitation and climate change, audio recordings are vulnerable too, as new technologies make older ones obsolete. As curator of wildlife and environmental sounds, Cheryl Tipp has managed the archive for more than 15 years and is responsible for ensuring that its recordings are protected, preserved and made accessible in perpetuity.
David Trigg: How did the British Library’s wildlife and environmental sounds archive first come into being?
Cheryl Tipp: The main sound archive was formed in 1955 and covers all kinds of sounds including oral history recordings, music, spoken word and radio broadcasts. The wildlife and environmental section was formed in 1969 by ornithologist Patrick Sellar and BBC radio producer Jeffery Boswall. They saw a need for a publicly accessible collection of natural history recordings, mainly for scientists but also the growing number of amateur wildlife recordists who wanted their recordings looked after and made available to others. We’ve got in excess of 300,000 catalogued recordings, with more waiting to be processed. It’s a really diverse collection, covering birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates from across the world, as well as habitat sounds.
DT: How are the sounds kept and preserved?
CT: Originally, everything was archived on quarter-inch tape, but we’re just wrapping up a big digitisation project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. For the past five years we have been digitising our most vulnerable and unique recordings. Lots of that has been wildlife material and we are working hard to make as many recordings as possible accessible on our new website. It’s such an amazing resource, and we want people to enjoy it and use it.
DT: What was it that attracted you to working at the sound archive?
CT: I’ve always loved natural history, though I wasn’t looking to work with sound archiving. When the job came up, it required a zoology degree and library experience, both of which I had. I applied, got the role of assistant and then became curator a year later. The job is so varied, from cataloguing the material and dealing with inquiries, to working on exhibitions and hosting visitors. I’m never bored, and there’s always something new to discover.
DT: Has working with sound changed your appreciation for the animal kingdom?
CT: Completely. I’ve learned so much from working with the collections day in, day out, cataloguing them, listening to them, learning about them. Observing animals is one thing, but there’s something very special about being able to listen to their sounds. Knowing their songs and calls provides an extra insight into their behaviour and helps you understand more about what’s going on.
DT: What types of people make the recordings in the archive?
CT: It’s a mixture of scientists and enthusiasts. Researchers making recordings in the field want somewhere to house them safely, so they can be looked after and accessed by others. Amateur sound recordists do it as a hobby, but the quality of their recordings can be incredible. Sometimes musicians make recordings if they are working on projects involving wildlife, and also sound artists donate work if it’s based in natural history.
DT: Who uses the archive and how do they use the sounds?
CT: It’s so varied. We have researchers looking for recordings for analysis, or they might be going out into the field to look for a particular species and will need recordings of the animal for playback, hopefully to get a response. The archive is also used by educators, museums, artists and video-game makers looking for sounds. Recently, psychologists working in the area of mental health and wellbeing have been using it to look at the benefits of sound recordings on people’s moods.
DT: How do you decide what sounds to include?
CT: I don’t accept everything that I’m offered, but because scientists need large sample sizes, we want to have as many different examples of each species as possible. Having variation across time and location is really important for researchers who are doing studies on taxonomy or behaviour. To be honest, the only time I turn material down is if the recording quality is poor and the subject is already well represented. Everything that comes in gets a unique collection number and catalogue record, which includes the species name, location, recording date, equipment used and recordist’s name.
DT: What is the strangest sound that you have ever discovered?
CT: There is an amazing recording of the mating call of a haddock that was made in Scotland. I didn’t know that fish made sounds and couldn’t believe it when I first heard the recording. It’s a fast, repetitive thumping sound that the male fish makes during spawning season – it sounds just like a motorboat starting up. It’s produced by the vibration of muscles attached to the swim bladder. Underwater sounds like this one can be very strange because we don’t normally encounter them.
Observing animals is one thing, but there’s something very special about listening to them
DT: British wildlife recordings constitute a substantial amount of the archive, don’t they?
CT: Yes, we have recordings from all over Britain, of every animal you can imagine. A lot of the first recordings in the archive were of British wildlife made by members of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society, which was formed in 1968. They’re still very active, recording sounds and archiving them with us. We don’t have recordings of every single species, but we have the majority of British mammals, birds and amphibians.
DT: Do you have any particularly rare British recordings in the archive?
CT: We’ve got a very early recording from Norfolk of the distinctive booming call of a bittern, which was recorded in the 1960s, when you were much more likely to encounter these birds in the wild. Numbers are now rising but the species is still considered threatened in the UK. There are also recordings of turtle-doves and nightingales, which are similarly difficult to hear today because their habitats have shrunk. We’ve also got a red-backed shrike, which is virtually extinct in the UK, but the library has recordings of the species made in Britain when its population numbers were much higher. I like those kinds of recordings because they show us what it was once like in this country.
DT: What was the starting point for the exhibition ‘Animals: Art, Science and Sound’?
CT: My co-curators, Malini Roy and Cam Sharp Jones, from the British Library’s visual arts collections are very enthusiastic about natural history, and they have a lovely section devoted to the subject. We realised that the library hasn’t ever really celebrated the breadth of its natural history collections and the connections between them before, so we wanted to do something to showcase just how wonderful, beautiful and inspirational the material is.
DT: Why was it important that sound play a prominent role in the exhibition?
CT: The importance of sound in developing our understanding of animals is often overlooked, and many people are unaware that the wildlife and environmental sounds archive exists. There are so many ways in which animals use sound to communicate; it’s such an important part of their lives. We wanted the exhibition to show how amazing the natural world sounds as well as how it looks and to let people know that the recordings are here and available.
DT: What kinds of material are included in the exhibition?
CT: There are many different ways in which the natural world has been documented over the centuries, from manuscripts and paintings to printed publications, stamps and sound recordings. Alongside items such as Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), one of the earliest works on the microscopic world, and John James Audubon’s seminal book The Birds of America (1827-38), we will be including field tapes, commercial LPs, photographs and books made by sound recordists. We’re also including physical equipment, to show how recordings were made.
DT: Are there any particularly important pieces of equipment in the exhibition?
CT: We’re including one of the earliest portable bat detectors from the 1960s, which was used to create the first comprehensive collection of British bat recordings. It was donated by John Hooper, an amateur bat expert. He was involved in developing detectors that could record a bat’s echolocation, and he discovered that each species has its own particular form of echolocation, which meant they could finally be identified by sound alone. This was groundbreaking for studies in bat biology and pretty handy when trying to monitor animals that fly in the dark.
DT: With such a diverse range of material, how is the exhibition structured?
CT: Inspired by the different habitats where animals spend most of their time, we have divided the exhibition into four zones: Land, Air, Water and Darkness. In the Land zone I’m including a section about the different ways in which land animals produce sound. In Air, I’m showcasing bird vocalisations and the history of recording birdsong. In the Water zone are underwater sounds, and in Darkness there’s a focus on bats and echolocation.
The ability to identify species by sound alone revolutionised the study of bats
DT: How will the sounds be presented?
CT: Alongside the many physical objects, we will have listening points with headphones where you might hear a humpback whale, a greater horseshoe bat, or animal sounds that have been lost from Earth. But we also want the exhibition to be as immersive as possible, so we’re creating different atmospheres and soundscapes in each zone. For instance, the Darkness zone recreates the atmosphere of a dark cave at night with dripping water and other nocturnal sounds, and the Water zone is designed to evoke the experience of being underwater.
DT: What sound-related highlights can visitors to the exhibition expect?
CT: One of the most important items is an LP released in 1970 called Songs of the Humpback Whale, which was one of the first commercially available recordings of whale songs and, selling more than 125,000 copies, the most popular nature recording in history. It brought the message to the public that whale populations were being decimated by commercial whaling and helped to raise awareness of the Save the Whales movement. The whales’ singing is so evocative and emotive, it really captured people’s hearts and was part of the driving force that brought about the commercial whaling ban in the 1980s.
DT: Will the exhibition include any recordings of extinct animals?
CT: Yes, we’re including one of the most important and powerful recordings in the archive: a bird from the Hawaiian archipelago known as the Kauai O’o. It is the very last bird of that species, and he is heard calling out for his mate, who had died the previous year, so would never answer him. The recording was made in 1983, and he was heard a few times afterwards but then disappeared and the species became extinct. Humans caused that extinction, through habitat destruction and the introduction of non-native species.
DT: What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?
CT: My hope is that it will encourage visitors to learn more about the sound archive, to make use of it, and that it might even inspire some to make their own recordings. Whether researchers or amateurs, if people want to archive sounds I want them to know that the British Library is an incredible home for their material.
‘Animals: Art, Science and Sound’, British Library, London, 21 April to 28 August 2023. 50% off exhibitions with National Art Pass.
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