British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Herding Elephants – Radio and the British Library

Paul Wilson, curator of radio at the British Library, provides a tour of the national radio archive and explains its ambitions for the radio archive of the future.

About the author: Paul Wilson has worked with the British Library’s music radio collections for many years and since May 2009 has been its Curator of Radio.
E-mail: / Twitter: @RadioCurator
Tel: 020 7412 7446

NB This article was first published in the March 2012 edition of Viewfinder magazine.

“We’re on the cusp of something quite dramatic happening. We’re going to go from a Crisis of Scarcity to a Crisis of Plenty – where there is so much stuff that we just don’t know where to start.” – Dr Hugh Chignell speaking at the Radio Archive Summit at the British Library in December 2011.

You can sense an excitement in the air within the UK’s radio research community. For those who laboured at the coalface in radio archives for decades, hammering at unyielding rock, something has finally given way. And it feels as though a rush may be starting. They used to say this coal was “ephemera” – of transient value. Not even worth saving. But now some are saying that this coal is actually not coal at all. It’s gold. And there’s a lot of it: a cavern of little known cultural riches waiting to be excavated and explored. Can it really have taken the best part of a hundred years to get to this point?

In recent years, academics have been bubbling over with new project ideas. They travel from far and wide to audition ground-breaking radio features. A team led by Birmingham City University are proposing the first detailed study of British jazz radio using the Library’s near-complete collection of off-air recordings, while another at Salford hope to explore the development of Standard English through eighty years of speech radio. Surprisingly, it’s never been done before.

… at the British Library we’re not just digitising collections … we’re also making plans for the radio archive of the future

At December’s Radio Archive Summit we also heard BBC Archivists Simon Rooks and Jacquie Kavanagh enthusing about initiatives designed to get the Corporation’s history – a vast chunk of our broadcast heritage – online: projects with such intriguing titles as Genome, Audiopedia and Journal of Record. And it’s not just the recorded programmes they’re interested in – they’re resurrecting online every transmission schedule back to the 1920s; and a wealth of contextualising content from the BBC Written Archive seems set to follow. Meanwhile, at the British Library we’re not just digitising historical radio collections as never before. We’re also making plans for the radio archive of the future.

A listener within a British Library reading room carrel.

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