Preserving Nature Sounds: Interview with Cheryl Tipp of the British Library

2016/02/10

Nature Oasis

Early last month we met a fascinating sound recordist. Peter Handford was was a pioneer of the craft of field recording. The post focused on one of his most notable accomplishments: documenting the vanishing sounds of steam trains. He is deeply respected for the breadth of sound he gathered of a subject few of us will ever hear in person again.

Every day new technologies make older ones extinct. What other sounds are at risk? Only last month the Western Black Rhino was considered extinct. The World Wildlife Fund lists dozens of endangered animals. Without care, these animals, as well as the sounds they make, will be at risk.

One organization has dedicated itself to preserving sounds like these: the British Library. Its Wildlife and Environmental Sound Archive gathers, catalogs, and shares bird, animal, and atmospheric nature sounds from across the globe. Wildlife sounds curator Cheryl Tipp has the important task of managing these field recordings.

I’ve been curious about the British Library’s Sound Archive for quite some time. I reached out to Cheryl Tipp to see if she would like to speak about her work and the archive itself. She kindly agreed.

So, today we have a very special Q&A. Cheryl Tipp provides a fascinating look at documenting, preserving, and sharing sound recordings from the archive. She shares special clips from the archive, insight on bird and wildlife recordings from the collection, as well as bonus advice: tips to help you record wildlife sounds and organize a sound library collection of your own.

British Library Curator: Cheryl Tipp

Creative Field Recording: Can you share how you began working with the British Library’s wildlife and environmental sounds archive?

Cheryl Tipp

Cheryl Tipp

Cheryl Tipp: Luck, mostly! A friend of mine was good enough to send me a job advertisement, many years ago now, from the wildlife section of the British Library Sound Archive. They were looking for a support person to assist the wildlife curator and he thought that I might be interested. I think I had about 24 hours to get in my application but, as I was looking for a new job anyway, I thought “what the heck” and went for it. I had the necessary degree in Zoology and experience of working in a library, but sound was something I had only really dabbled with at university. I could recognize the songs of a few common British birds, but had nowhere near the necessary experience I believed would be required. Thankfully for me, that level of expertise was only really required by the curator. I really didn’t think I’d get the job so, when the call came, I was both excited and terrified! Starting work in the wildlife section was an absolute revelation. I was able to rediscover the natural world through the medium of sound and gradually started building up my knowledge. Becoming curator a year later really helped develop my skills further, as I had to take on full responsibility for the entire collection and everything that goes with being a curator. It’s been 10 years now and I’m still learning – there’s always something new to discover.

CFR: Can you describe your typical day at work? How do you balance working with the archive and researching and writing your publications?

CT: There is no such thing as a typical day in the office! I’m juggling a lot of things so I could be doing anything from cataloguing a collection of African bird songs to creating an Arctic soundscape for an upcoming exhibition. I try to find time for my own research too but it’s not always easy – a lot of scribbling on trains takes place when I’m in the mood for writing! At the end of the day, the user comes first.

CFR: What do you enjoy most about your work?

CT: Having a job that is so varied and rewarding is something that I think all curators in the Sound Archive share and cherish. I really enjoy working with researchers to help them select the best recordings for their particular projects, whether that be a scientific paper or something more creative. One of the greatest things though is when you receive an entire collection and are charged with making sense of it. This is often quite a challenge, particularly if the recordist is deceased, but it’s a great privilege to be able to work so closely with material and you often discover so much about the recordist during the process that you can then share with others.

About the Archive

CFR: Can you tell readers a bit about the archive and why it is special? Why did the British Library decide to create it?

CT: The British Library’s wildlife and environmental sounds archive was formed back in 1969 by the ornithologist and wildlife sound recordist Patrick Sellar and the BBC radio producer Jeffery Boswall The pair felt the need for there to be a national collection of natural history sounds where scientists and amateur naturalists could both archive their own recordings and access the sounds of others. What started out as a relatively modest collection of mainly British wildlife sounds, has grown in scale over the past forty years so that today we have one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in the world, featuring recordings from all biogeographical regions. The majority of the archive is species focused, but we have seen a steady increase in the number of environmental sounds being submitted, especially in recent years.

It’s an incredibly special archive, partly because of its content, which is mainly unpublished and unique to the library, but also because of the personal relationships we have with recordists who choose to archive their recordings with us. We are very aware of the time, effort and skill that goes into making wildlife sound recordings and make sure we treat their collections with respect and care.

British Countryside

CFR: What is the scope of archive?

CT: We have around 220,000 catalogued wildlife and environmental sounds, with many more waiting to be processed. Much of the catalogued collection is still analogue and stored on quarter-inch tape in our basement areas. Some sounds are archived on CDR while the rest exist as wav files copied across four servers. When digitizing analogue collections, we prefer to stick to the archival recommendation of 24bit 96kHz, however we still accept recordings with a lower quality – there would be no point in standardizing everything to 24bit 96kHz as no additional quality would be gained.

Wildlife reels stored in British Library basements

Wildlife reels stored in British Library basements

The ultimate dream is to have a completely digital archive but, with over 6.5 million recordings overall, the sound archive has a massive job to do. At the moment the sound archive is planning for a major digitisation programme, due to begin in 2017, which will see the most unique and at risk content digitised over the next 5 years. Save our Sounds is an ambitious but essential project that is necessary for us to ensure the survival of our world class archive. Teamed with the everyday digitization happening in our studios right now, we should be well on our way to making our digital dream a reality.

CFR: Can you walk us through the arc of a sound’s life in the archive? How is a sound added? Is clean up or labelling involved?

We never clean up or alter a recording as we want to preserve it in its original form. We may perhaps do a tiny bit of tidying up at the start or end, if necessary, but we wouldn’t try to remove handling noise or other unwanted sounds as this could interfere with the natural rhythms occurring within the recording. Each new recording, either born digital or digitised by us, receives a unique reference number and is given a filename that, although looks rather cryptic, contains information that allows us to recognize which collection it belongs to and that fits with our system. We listen through the recording and make notes on the overall sound quality. A catalogue entry is created and the file is then ready to be ingested into our digital library system.

Master files are not cleaned up, however our engineers will try to improve the overall quality of a recording for playback purposes, for example if they are being used in an exhibition, a publication or on the web. This is not part of our everyday work though.

CFR: Do you have any favourite sounds from the archive? Any notable or surprising discoveries?

I have so many favourites! A recording of a drumming Haddock is definitely in my top 10 as this was one of the first sounds I encountered after joining the wildlife section. Until that point, I had no idea that fish were even able to produce sounds. The drumming is produced by the vibration of the swim bladder which results in something that sounds like a motorboat slowly starting up.

Listen to the Haddock drumming here.

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Another favourite would be the song of the Musician Wren, recorded in Colombia’s Amacayacu National Park in 1988. This particular individual has such a beautiful song and sounds so lovely when set against the gentle background of stridulating insects.

Listen to the Musical Wren.

I always enjoy listening to our environmental sounds and this recording of a geyser erupting in Iceland is wonderful because it immediately transports me back in time to when I stood in that exact spot and witnessed this for myself. Sound is so powerful in that way.

Listen to a geyser erupting in Iceland.

CFR: How can the public experience the sounds in the archive?

CT: Everything that is catalogued can be listened to onsite in our Reading Rooms, so if you happen to be in London and have a Reader’s Pass, feel free to drop in for a browsing session! If you’re after something in particular, let us know beforehand and we can easily set up a listening appointment for you.

A growing number of our wildlife and environmental sounds can be listened to online through the British Library Sounds portal. This includes some lovely collections of weather and water, as well as an historic collection of early wildlife recordings and a mixture of more niche collections which focus on areas such as British wildlife, Kenyan birds and amphibians. Though small in the grand scheme of things, this selection does have enough great content to whet the appetite of anyone with an interest in natural history sounds.

Wildlife Publications

CFR: You’ve released a large number of publications about wildlife and environmental sounds. Can you share how publications are involved with your work in the archive?

CT: Curators are encouraged to carry out their own research whenever possible. We know the collections better than anyone and so are really well placed to share our knowledge with the wider world. By researching within our areas of curatorial responsibility, we can better understand both the collections themselves and the people behind them. Being familiar with the history of wildlife sound recording, for example, has been an incredibly important avenue of research for me. I wanted to know the hows and whens and whys so that I could weave the collections I curate together rather than view them just as individual, standalone packages of sound.

CFR: I notice you’ve published often about two subjects in particular: birdsong, and coastal sounds. What draws you to these subjects? Can you share any insights you’ve learned about writing about these subjects?

Sounds of our Shores Sound Map

Sounds of our Shores Sound Map

CT: I’ve always loved coastal sounds, probably because I spent most of my childhood holidays by the coast – I remember falling asleep to the sound of waves and listening to the calls of gulls chatting to each other at their nighttime roost site. I’ve always maintained my love for the coast and so was delighted when The National Trust asked the British Library to partner with them on the Sounds of our Shores soundmapping project. For three months during the summer of 2015, we invited the public to record their favourite UK coastal sounds and upload them to a map. We received over 700 submissions that covered everything from nature to industry. The main thing we learnt from this process is that people appreciate more than just the sound of the sea when at the coast – their favourite sound could be anything from the penny machines on Brighton Pier to ship horns coming in to port. Hopefully we were able to encourage more people to pay attention to the multitude of sounds that contribute to the coastal soundscapes of the UK.

Box Cover for "Songs of Wild Birds"

Box Cover for “Songs of Wild Birds”

Birdsong is always a joy to write about, and I’m particularly attracted to how birdsong has been represented and appreciated over time. My writing on this vast subject has enriched my knowledge of attitudes both before and after the advent of recorded sound. It’s interesting to see how writers used words to convey the beauty of birdsong before recorded sound was possible. Among my collected descriptions is a lovely passage from Henry Gardiner Adams’ 1851 book ‘Favourite Song birds; a description of the feathered songsters of Britain’ which describes the song of the Skylark:

In the whole range of nature’s various melodies, we know of nothing so thrilling, so estatic, so full of gushing, uncontrollable joy and gladness, as the song of the Lark, heard on a clear spring morning, as high up in the azure dome it soars and sings, as if, indeed, as the old English divine Jeremy Taylor says – “it had learned music and motion of an angel”.

"Animal Language" LP by Huxley & Koch, 1938

“Animal Language” LP by Huxley & Koch, 1938

I’m very much interested in the history of wildlife sound recording and have written quite a lot about pioneer recordists such as Ludwig Koch. To me, it’s incredibly important that these figures aren’t forgotten and I try to bring their work to the forefront as much as possible.

Tips for Field Recordists and Library Curators

CFR: You have listened to thousands of wildlife sounds. Can you share your thoughts on what contributes a good wildlife sound for the archive? Any advice you can give to people who want to record these type of sounds?

CT: A good wildlife sound for the archive would be a mixture of many things. Sound quality is obviously important – nobody really wants to hear handling noise or wind on the mic – but the sound itself isn’t everything. Accompanying metadata is an absolute must. Without having the additional information needed to contextualise the sound, it can become little more than a pleasant sound effect. Without knowing at least the species name, recording date and location, very little can actually be done with the recording. To give just one example, one of our main user groups contain scientists working in the field of bioacoustics. Whether they are trying to understand the language of dolphins or are busy reclassifying species into their correct taxonomic groups, all need to have these basic facts in order to carry out their research. We do have unidentified recordings in the collection, but as long as these come with supporting data such as location, habitat, behaviour and date, somebody will eventually be able to identify these for us. It becomes a lot harder when none of this information is available. Our job is one of custodianship and facilitating reuse, so we need to know what we are archiving in order to help others make use of the content.

The best advice I can give to those wanting to record wildlife sounds is to listen. Before even picking up a recorder. Listen. Listen to the sounds around you. Listen to recordings made by people you admire. You can learn so much just by listening. Then practice. Take a field recording course. Experiment. Remember the importance of note taking so that you can create your own archive later on.

Starling

CFR: Field recordists with growing libraries often have trouble organizing their collections. You’ve curated a massive collection. As a professional sound library curator, can you share any tips for aspiring sound librarians?

My advice would be to split your recordings into categories, for example wildlife sounds and environmental sounds. Wildlife will inevitably occur in some of your environmental sounds, for example if you’re recording on marshland or at the coast, but if no one species dominates the recording it’s probably easier to categorise this as an environmental sound, such as a woodland atmosphere or a rainforest at dawn. In the end it’s best to use your own judgment – listen to your recording and ask yourself “am I listening to a species or an environment?” What you instinctively feel will help you decide in which category to place your sound.

Try to keep it as simple as possible. An overly complicated spreadsheet that cross-references everything will end up becoming too much of a chore and you’ll give up. Document the most important things such as species / environmental subject, recording date, location, time, animal behaviour, habitat type, recording equipment and anything else that could be useful. That’s more than enough to create an effective archive.

Many thanks to Cheryl Tipp for sharing her experiences with us.

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