Why save our wildlife sounds?


(C) The British Library Board

It is easy to think of sound archives as mainly a human and cultural resource documenting changing patterns of music and speech. Natural sounds don’t change much do they? Why bother to keep them?  Yet talking to Cheryl Tipp Wildlife Sound Archivist at the British Library brought home to me just how wrong this assumption was and just how important it is to document and keep wildlife sound recordings.

The British Library currently has a ‘Save our Sounds Campaign’ to preserve as much as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings. They currently hold more than 6.5 million recordings in their sound archive and have an extensive and growing body of wildlife sound recordings, some date from the earliest years of sound recording and were made on old fashioned wax cylinders others are digitally recorded using the very latest equipment. The BL has to manage and make available all this material recorded on a wide range of obsolete and high tech formats.

Yet the importance of these recordings is much more than a ‘stamp collecting’ exercise. As I explored the role of sound archives in natural and environmental history with Cheryl, she gave me three reasons why this archive is such a valuable resource.

Firstly, we discussed how the archive is a valuable means of recording lost species. Where a natural history museum would collect specimens and objects, the BL sound archive collects and captures the voices of these species.  As Cheryl told me:

“… so many species becoming extinct or becoming endangered, we have examples in the archives where we have the songs of species that are extinct. You’re never going to hear them again in the wild, so that’s lost for most people, but at least we still have the voice of that species archived, so it will never totally be forgotten. It’s very evocative,..”

Secondly, sound recordings can play a role in the work scientists do studying and protecting species by allowing them to identify and classify species and sub-species of bird and animal. Often such work requires many recordings for comparison and here the unique resources of the sound archive are invaluable. As Cheryl says:

“We have so many enquiries from scientists who are looking at a particular genus or a particular family and if you think about classification, […]. With scientists, they need such a large sample group, so we’ll have 300 recordings of one species, and then if a scientist’s looking at that, they can take all of them, they can analyse them, they can do the sonograms, they can compare their statistics of sound and then they can make their assessments and they can reclassify if necessary.”

Lastly and more broadly sounds can document the pace and extent of environmental change. As Cheryl explained:

“Sound is a great indicator of the health of an ecosystem and what’s happening and what species are existing there and how it’s changing as well, so if you do monitor through sound, you monitor a particular environment, you can see the changes.”

As an evocative record, as valuable scientific data for identifying species and charting the pace of environmental change, sound archives can help both enhance and transform our environmental understandings.

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